Plans to return full democratic accountability to Tower Hamlets

All powers could be returned to Tower Hamlets council following a 2-year intervention by central government.

All powers could be returned to Tower Hamlets council following a 2-year intervention by central government, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has announced.

Mr Javid said the council had made “steady progress” – but warned that he would continue to keep a close eye on the borough over the next 18 months. This would be to ensure taxpayers’ money is put to best use and improvements continue.

Since 2014, government-appointed commissioners have been overseeing key functions at Tower Hamlets. This follows an independent inspection by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which warned of a breakdown in democratic accountability and a significant misuse of public funds.

Mr Javid confirmed that he is minded to return functions to the council, ending the role of the commissioners. New directions would require the council to report progress to him every quarter for the next 18 months.

Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said:

"Two years ago, Tower Hamlets council had completely lost the trust of its residents. It was mired in corruption and financial mismanagement that only direct intervention could resolve.

"Now, thanks to Sir Ken Knight and his team of commissioners working closely with the new mayor, I am confident that Tower Hamlets council is on the right track to provide the services their residents deserve and rightly expect.

"I will want to hear from Tower Hamlets every 3 months on the progress they’re making. This will help ensure that taxpayers’ money is put to the best use, in an open and transparent way."

Sir Ken Knight, Chief Commissioner said:

"The commissioners have seen Tower Hamlets council make steady progress in all of the Directions put in place by the Secretary of State. While there is still work to be undertaken to complete the outstanding issues we are satisfied that the council recognise what still needs to be done to complete them and are committed to continuous improvement throughout the council."

Mayor John Biggs said:

"Over the past 21 months the council has undergone a complete transformation. Under the previous mayor this was a council drowning in crisis, corruption and controversy. Since then we have bought in new leadership, opened up the decision making process and challenged historic wrongdoing and bad practice.

"Tower Hamlets is an amazing place to live, our residents deserve a top performing council and services to match – that is my ambition. There are still massive challenges from the past we are working to repair. With the commissioners gone we will not let up on our progress and are setting up an improvement board to ensure we keep up the momentum and deliver the best possible services for local people.

"I want to thank the commissioners for their support but it is now right that full democratic control is handed back.

"With some councillors still refusing to acknowledge that anything was wrong under the previous mayor, next year’s elections will mark an important moment in our borough’s future. What nobody wants is a return to the chaos and controversy of the past."

Move follows significant improvement

In 2014, an independent inspection of Tower Hamlets by PriceWaterhouseCoopers warned of a breakdown in democratic accountability and a significant risk of misuse of public funds.

In response, the then-Secretary of State appointed a team of commissioners, led by former Chief Fire Officer Sir Ken Knight. The team’s role was to oversee the running of certain aspects of the local authority and introduce significant reforms to ensure these failings couldn’t happen again.

This latest move follows continued improvement by the council, particularly over the past year. It also builds on the decision by the Communities Secretary in January this year to return grant awarding and procurement powers.

Since the commissioners were appointed, a new mayor has been elected, a top officer team has been put in place, and an improvement plan is being implemented.

With that in mind, Mr Javid has proposed that commissioners would leave the council from the end of March 2017. However, directions would remain in place so that the mayor and the council report progress directly to him every 3 months. A Best Value Improvement Board, including councillors and independent representatives, would oversee this work.