Spitalfields residents are bitterly divided over revised proposals to create a town council which would devolve some local government powers to the area.
Councillors, business leaders and residents claim they have not been properly consulted on the plans, which affect the wards of Spitalfields & Banglatown and Weavers and that they are ‘devisive’ and threaten democracy.
Supporters of the town council plan which would be the first in the area in over 100 years, include the Spitalfields Neighbourhood Planning Forum (SNPF) who submitted the original proposals in a petition to Tower Hamlets Council in July.
The SNPF say the plan would revitalise local democracy and allow money raised in the area to be spent more directly on improving issues of local priority, like littering and anti-social behaviour. The Spitalfields Society and community groups also back the idea.
However, an increasing number of critics think the plans will entrench divisions between newer affluent ‘hipsters’ living in high value historic properties around Spitalfields market and older residents of run-down council houses, many of whom are of Bangladeshi heritage.
Following an open community meeting earlier this month, where local businesspeople, tenants, community leaders and local councillors condemned the plans as ‘divisive’ and ‘not welcome’, the boundaries of the proposed town council, including its name, were amended in a bid to reflect the identity of the wider community.
Sue Rossiter, of the Bethnal Green and Bow Constituency Labour Party, said the plan was of ‘considerable concern’ for the Labour Party who say that the new name ‘Spitalfields & Banglatown Council’ and the revised eastern boundary, which now includes Chicksand estate, do not solve any of the issues raised at the meeting.
Councillor Tarik Ahmed Khan, who represents St Peter’s Ward, agreed. He said the town council would “give power to a group of people who are manipulating democracy for their own wishes” and risked creating “an us-and-them situation.”
Both councillors also raised issues with how the scheme would be funded. A town council would be eligible to receive a proportion of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which is money charged to developers for local constructions. This amount would range from 15% to 25% and could be spent on improving local services, campaigners say.
Rossiter said this would be detrimental to the rest of the borough. Tower Hamlets Council has a policy of spreading funds from the CIL across the borough to ensure that those most in need actually benefit. Ring fencing up to 25% of that money for Spitalfields would therefore have an impact on poorer areas.
She added: “Tower Hamlets is an area of contrasts with very wealthy people living alongside families in extreme poverty. Reducing the amount of money available to the community as a whole and extending the boundary will not result in a fair distribution of development money.”
Khan added: “It would not give people greater autonomy on financial spending. The only way this would happen is through a huge increase in people’s council tax. So local people will have to pay more to have the autonomy.”
David Donoghue, who started the town council petition and heads the SNPF, insisted opponents have got things “factually wrong.”
Donoghue’s forum said the precept charged on top of council tax would typically be £1 a week for every household. Katie Riding, who has lived on Princelet Street in a housing association property for the past 11 years, said that even if this figure was correct, “£1 a week is a lot for people around here.”
Riding, who sought more information about the plans after receiving the leaflet, said that many of her neighbours were not even aware of the proposals. She said: “None of the locals have been consulted. We’ve had leaflets through the door saying vote YES, but we haven’t had anything else…. [and] the leaflet was really vague about where all the money for this would come from.”
She also said the leaflets, printed by the SNPF, were not translated into Bengali. Many of those living in council housing within the town council’s proposed boundary perimeters do not speak or read English fluently.
Almost 50 percent of Spitalfields & Banglatown residents are foreign-born, with 48 percent describing themselves as ethnically Asian. Some local shopkeepers said they had not heard of or been consulted about the proposals.
Krissie Nicolson, a member of the East End Traders Guild, said she was in favour of a town council only if it was “inclusive of as many communities as possible” but if the plans were left to “the privileged white property-owning residents then it will not help the area and in all likelihood will compound inequality.”
She added: “I think the Spitalfields & Banglatown Town Council has the potential to distribute the wealth of the area more evenly and support initiatives that can positively affect its richly diverse population, but this can only happen if the whole community is meaningfully involved.”
The first phase of consultation closes at the end of December, with the second phase planned for spring 2019. A final decision will be made by Tower Hamlets Council next year.