Interview: Giles Fraser on Occupy, Canary Wharf and Bloom’s restaurant

The Church of England has been widely criticised in recent weeks after its General Synod voted not to allow women to become bishops.

Among those who have expressed their anger is one of the leading progressive voices of the Church, Dr Giles Fraser. In the past 18 months he has repeatedly backed gay marriage – recently winning Stonewall’s hero of the year award – and spectacularly stepped down as Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral over the Occupy protest.

Now, though, he has turned his attention to Tower Hamlets. Specifically, he wants to tackle the “fundamental unfairness” inherent in what is simultaneously one of the wealthiest and most deprived parts of the UK.

That is why he accepted the position of chair of the borough’s newly established “fairness commission”.

“These things sound like a lot of do-goodery tosh”, he admits, in typically forthright style.

In what he describes as his “listening mode”, he’s been familiarising himself with the problems facing residents, and understands the scale of the challenge at hand.

“It’s a real job of work to find out how in this time of austerity you try and manage a community as diverse as Tower Hamlets - and the answer is you probably can’t. It’s got to be one of the most unfair places on the planet”, he said.

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“The fact that poorer people are feeling priced out of the borough and parts of east London because of the extraordinary house prices. People who’ve lived there for generations, feeling that they’ve been priced out of it - that seems to be a fairly basic question of fairness.”

With 58 per cent of children in the borough living in poverty, but the second highest average salary in the whole of the UK, it’s easy to understand why the task of coming up with solutions is a daunting one.

The borough is uniquely placed geographically. Areas such as Poplar are a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf, where bonus packages awarded to bankers frequently extend into the �millions. Dr Fraser is conscious of what the divide symbolises.

“It does seem an egregious sort of example of the way in which Canary Wharf - and the wealth of Canary Wharf - doesn’t seem to benefit a lot of the people who live near it. I think that is one of the things that the fairness commission has to address.”

That commission, though, was set up by cash-strapped Tower Hamlets council - which recently hit the headlines for its �3.2 million annual budget for publicity. At the same time, it is attempting to make �100m worth of savings over four years.

Dr Fraser is adamant that the commission must remain free from council intervention.

“One of the advantages of having politicians on the commission would be that they have their fingers in the pies and then they go away and do it”, he said. The 13-strong commission established in Tower Hamlets does not.

“That gives us in some ways more scope to say what we like, but then the problem becomes implementation. It may well be that not all of the things that we suggest are things that the council has within its power to implement.”

Mayor Lutfur Rahman has outlined his own “high expectations” for the commission, but its report could make for uncomfortable reading. When it comes to challenging authority, Dr Fraser has form. In October 2011 he famously stepped down as Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, insisting that he “couldn’t countenance” the prospect of Occupy protestors being forcibly removed from its steps.

He believes that Occupy has had a lasting impact on the questions of inequality he is looking to address in his new role.

“People are suddenly going ‘we really need to talk about this now’, and that is now much, much more part of the public conversation. And that’s a really good thing.”

One way in which he believes the borough’s problems can start to be addressed is through corporate social responsibility, or getting the banks and law firms of Canary Wharf to chip in to help those living nearby.

“Do the people at Canary Wharf really want to have these sort of great glass towers in the middle of - as austerity gets worse and worse - a really desperately poor area?

“They need to persuade a great many people how they contribute to the common good. On this commission one of the things I want to do through it is to challenge the people who work in the borough to think about how they contribute to the common good of their locality.”

It’s a locality which he has a clear affection for, despite the fact that he now lives in Elephant and Castle where he is a priest.

His father was Jewish, and he recalls meals in Brick Lane’s former iconic kosher restaurant Bloom’s as a child. It is well established that the Jewish population has been largely replaced by other ethnicities, most notably Bangladeshis – something which he thinks contributes to the area’s character. “It has a vibrancy and an excitement that ever since I was a kid I’ve found utterly compelling.

“I love the fact that waves of immigration have renewed it, and I think that’s one of the great things about London. It’s been refreshed with a whole load of different cultural stuff.”

On Tuesday evening, he was back in the heart of the East End for the first of several public meetings of the commission before it reports early next summer. For now, his aim is to gain as full an understanding of the challenges facing people as possible.

As he puts it: “We need to do a lot of listening, we need to work out what we need to do.”

Whether the commission’s work leads to practical solutions will be fascinating to see.