An Evening with the Spitalfields Community Group

Posted on | Friday, 2 March 2012 | No Comments

I was given the heads-up to attend the 1 March 2012 meeting of the Spitalfields Community Group as Rushanara Ali, MP for Tower Hamlets, was to attend.  It presented an opportunity to raise the issue of Brick Lane (sic) and other heritage concerns including the demolition threat to the Fruit and Wool Exchange.

The Community Group has a sincere enough aim - 'to promote and protect the rights and amenities of those who live or work in Spitalfields and/or own property in Spitalfields'. And it certainly can't be challenged in its ability to attract major political players. When Rushanara Ali finally arrived, she was greeted by fellow Labour Party faithfuls, John Biggs the London Assembly Member (City and East Constituency),  and Joshua Peck, Labour Group Leader at Tower Hamlets’ Council.  All in all, one would think, a suitably well qualified panel to hear our concerns and answer our questions. The panel was chaired by John Nicholson on behalf of the Community Group (although he introduced John Biggs as the Chair, Mr Nicholson – to the bafflement of John Biggs – actually chaired the meeting himself).

A suitably well qualified panel? I’m not so sure as while the assembly was kept waiting for the local MP to arrive I began to question the need for such an event in the first place. The fact that any community considers it necessary to form such a group must challenge the effectiveness of our current system of local government, which presupposes local Councillors will fulfil the functions such groups are set up to deal with. This thought further alarmed me when I realised there were no local Councillors on the panel.

The first couple of questions from the floor concerned licencing laws, substance abuse and law and order.  Clearly major concerns to the community and more pressing than my question about tarmac being laid in Brick Lane. 

Undaunted by my lesser issue, I took the floor next and asked the panel how we could best represent our concerns to Council when the panelists themselves are in opposition - at Local, Assembly and National level? How could they effectively represent us when the majority (Labour) party is considered the opposition and the Executive is one man, Lutfur Rahman, wielding autocratic power?  

I asked why there wasn't a local Councillor present, even if the remaining two local Councillors aren't obviously part of the Executive's sycophantic inner circle. After a puzzled look from the panelists someone pointed to a sheepish fellow in the back row who turned out to be Anwar Khan, Labour Councillor for Bow West. So, no show from either Councillor Helal Uddin Abbas, who holds the Chair at the Council's Development/Strategic Development Committee, or from the mysterious local Councillor Fozol Miah. 

Let me just spend a moment to highlight the significance of this. Of Spitalfields three absentee local Councillors, one is in jail for benefit fraud, one (Fozol Miah) has a 70% absentee record at Council with a 100% no show as a member on the all important Overview and Scrutiny Committee, and the third, Councillor Helal Uddin Abbas - the one sitting on probably the most relevant Committee, didn't see fit to attend. So the Group's representation channel through local Councillors would seem tenuous at best. But the problem runs deeper than this. The invited MP, Rushanara Ali, as a career politician has little time for representing local concerns. She is currently part of the shadow team for the Department for International Development and much of her time is spent shouldering this responsibility - although she did in fact find time to vote against her own party's anti-terrorism laws. Of the 4 Early Day Motions she participated in during 2011, one was related to Kenya, one Sudan and one Egypt.

It was very gracious of John Biggs to attend, but he also had little to contribute. The MP for her part, in one of the few exchanges with a resident, refuted she had ever seen correspondence sent to her from him - the Chairman of the Spitalfields Market group and continued to droll on in an acquired parliamentary style of humdrum platitudes offering no encouragement to the assembled audience. Only Joshua Peck provided any hope by stating the points he would follow-up.

By the time the session closed at 9pm, only Joshua Peck went away with a mission of sorts. Although John Nicholson attempted to create an awareness of the heritage issues in the Ward, it basically fell on deaf ears. I left feeling that little had been achieved on any front and that our dependence on the present system of democratic representation was no longer fit for purpose. If the Spitalfields Community Group is to achieve its admirable aims, I would humbly suggest it focuses on using e-Petitioning in the interim, rather than lobby career politicians with their concerns – at least until a more effective and reliable system of local government can be delivered.

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