THE Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, missed his much publicised budget roadshow tonight leaving two unelected council officers – who are restricted in what they can say – to deal with residents’ questions.
The Mayor was busy with an emergency closed-door cabinet meeting at the town hall for undisclosed reasons, according to the council’s head of communications Takki Sulaiman.
The purpose of the public meeting was to explain the financial challenges the council is facing in the coming year and to listen to local concerns over the impact of further cuts to public services.
Standing in was head of finance, Alan Fitch, who gave a presentation detailing the £88million cuts the council must find over the current term (2010 to 2015), and Mr Sulaiman who chaired the meeting.
After laying the blame for the council’s financial predicament at the government’s door, Mr Fitch explained how the council was planning to make up this years £24million shortfall.
He said the council’s office block, Anchorage House, in East India Dock, would be decanted and rented out, more staff would work from home, the use of agency staff and temps would be cut, staff who retire or quit would not be replaced, private sector contracts would be renegotiated and corporate costs would be cut.
However he admitted it would become more difficult to find the necessary savings over the coming years with a further £26million to be found next year, although the Mayor’s position that frontline services would not be cut was reiterated.
Questions from the audience reflected concerns over cuts to benefits and services and in particular a lack of housing, increasing rents and the benefit cap due to kick in in April that is expected to see low income and unemployed residents forced into homelessness or out of the borough.
Legendary campaigner and Cable Street veteran Max Levitas spoke up for pensioners and the difficulties they are already experiencing including losing important home-help visits, although the officers could not address his concerns and said they would pass his message onto the Mayor.
And this writer asked how it was cheaper to sub-contract work out to the private sector given they must make a profit prompting a distancing from the practice and its benefits by the officers.
However, Mr Finch admitted IT services were being contracted out as the department was not big enough to keep up with changing technology and practices, but as part of the contract the company was obliged to provide new jobs and apprenticeships for borough residents, Mr Sulaiman said.
While Mr Finch and Mr Sulaiman were unable to elaborate on any budget decisions yet to be taken they assured the Mayor would personally respond to those with unanswered questions.
However the biggest question of the night was surely what was the emergency closed-door cabinet meeting about that justified the Mayor’s absence.
Only time will tell if the mayor will get back to residents on that.