Council Tax frozen in Tower Hamlets following intense debate

The full Council Chamber at Whitechapel Civic Centre Pic: Mekdes Kabeto

By Jamie Richards and Mekdes Kabeto; pictures by Mekdes Kabeto

The first full council and budget meeting at Tower Hamlets’ new town hall saw the council vote for a zero increase in council tax.

The new Council Chamber at Whitechapel Civic Centre was at full capacity as audience tickets ran out 15 minutes before the meeting began. This was unexpected for some, and confused crowds gathered at the reception area and foyer.

Crowds waiting to enter the meeting Pic: Mekdes Kabeto

The budget proposed by the controlling Aspire Party was passed despite criticism from Labour councillors and some rowdy comments from the public gallery. At several points during proceedings, Speaker of the Council Shafi Ahmed had to interrupt proceedings to quieten the spectators and arguing councillors.

The budget proposed by the controlling Aspire Party was passed despite criticism from Labour councillors. Although there is no increase to council tax opposition members were quick to point out that costs would still be increasing for Tower Hamlets residents. Mayor Luftar Rahman first announced the decision on February 14, confirming in last night’s meeting that the cabinet had approved the decision on February 25.

The budget also provides free school meals for every primary and secondary school student in the borough.

In his opening statement, Rahman called the budget “fiscally responsible”. He said: “This budget represents hope in difficult times”, highlighting investment in services.

Amidst the investments the Mayor listed were £5.7m for free school meals, £1.1m a year on opportunities and bursaries for young people, £5m on safety, and £8m a year for environmental initiatives.

Cabinet Member for Resources and Cost of Living Saied Ahmed seconded the budget. He said: “This is a budget that see and promote investment in frontline services, youth services, and care”. He also said that, despite significant investment from council reserves, the reserves would stand at £115m by next March.

In a later response, Ahmed spoke directly to the Labour opposition. He said: “If you don’t want to use the reserves, it’s not balancing”.

Labour group leader Councillor Mark Francis called the budget “an extravagant and self-indulgent waste of money”. He was joined by his colleagues in questioning the provision of £100,000 a year for diary management staff.

Luftar Rahman clashes with Labour’s Marc Francis at Tower Hamlets Budget Meeting on March 1 Vid: Mekdes Kabeto and Jamie Richards

Also under opposition scrutiny was the provision of £1.5m for the running of the Mayor’s personal office.

Labour Councillor Shubo Hussain highlighted a 2% social care allowance, collected alongside council tax, and suggested “residents would be shocked” to find out about the charge.

Hussain also highlighted that council rents would increase substantially, with old builds increasing by 7% and new builds by 13%.

Councillor Musfeedah Bustin, Labour, said: “Are we really to believe the Aspire party holds the key to experimental economics?”. She accused the administration of neglecting the Isle of Dogs. Regarding scrapped plans to upgrade a secondary school in her ward, she said that free school meals were of no use to kids with no space to eat them.

Aspire Councillor Bodrul Choudhury argued that the cost of living crisis is the perfect time to use council reserves: “”If we don’t use the reserve at this time, when are we going to use the reserves?… Mr Speaker, saving for a rainy day? It’s not a rainy day, it’s monsoon season”.

Aspire councillors routinely described the previous Labour administration as a council focused on cuts and austerity, praising the Mayor’s vision and affirming the party’s commitment to community investment. Councillor Kabir Ahmed called Labour’s press release regarding the budget meeting “a pathetic piece of work”.

Labour in turn focused on the precedents set by Labour, including Sadiq Khan’s more limited free school meals programme, and highlighted Aspire’s cuts to schools and rising costs for residents.

The chamber standing for the Speaker of the Council Shafi Ahmed Pic: Mekdes Kabeto

The opposition repeatedly demanded openness from Aspire. Councillor Maisha Begum said: “accountability, transparency, honesty has to be developed at each level of the process”. Councillor Amina Ali said the budget was lacking in detail.

Rahman used his chance to respond to the opposition’s criticisms to defend himself against allegations of wrongdoing related to misuse of public money in 2015.  

Amendments to the budget were proposed by the Aspire, Labour, Green and Conservative parties. Ultimately, the budget was approved with only the Aspire amendment in tow.

Following the votes, the public and press were ejected from the chamber due to the need for privacy in following debates.

Natalie Bienfait is Tower Hamlets only Green Party councillor. In the weeks before the budget meeting, she told ELL that the borough’s finances are in a difficult position. She said “I generally support the Aspire administration on it on principle, but in terms of long term fiscal responsibility it’s better to increase incrementally”.

At the meeting Bienfait said she was “deeply concerned” about the borough’s medium term financial planning, and also condemned the increase in council rents.

Lone Conservative councillor Peter Golds raised concerns about housing and transport in his amendment. Golds and Bienfait formally seconded each other’s amendments.

Many council members also raised concerns about the safety and growth of young people and the fight against violence faced by women and girls. Councillor Rebaka Sultana said: “If they care about young people and education, why are they removing £50m from those people? Providing our children with a good education is a moral mission, not just an economic mission”.

Given the effects of COVID, the Labour group is recommending that £500,000 be set aside for students in KS3. Maisha Begum said: “Schools are also trying to absorb soaring energy prices and rising inflationary pressures… In a cost-of-living crisis, the mayor chooses to spend £5m on expanding his own office – it’s simply not on”.

The labour groups hope to reduce the proposed General Fun expenditure by 3 million.  They hope to apply for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan’s new funding for free school meals for primary-age children in 2023/24.

In rare moments of cross-party agreement, councillors from Aspire and Labour thanked each other for their efforts in acquiring and fitting the new town hall in Whitechapel.

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