Bid to set up Spitalfields town council gets thumbs down from Labour Tower Hamlets claiming it’s ‘elitist’
- Credit: Mike Brooke
The battle for Spitalfields going back to real parish politics with its own town council after 100 years has fired off with accusations of “elitism” and a row over who’ll pay for it.
Labour brought out the big guns to try on scupper the momentum building up for the area to have more say on day-to-day issues, accusing the petitioners of “elitism” and trying to skim off an affluent historic neighbourhood from the rest of London’s deprived East End.
The split came to a head at a public meeting called by Labour supporters with a Labour councillor chairing it in a bid to kill off the idea.
Cllr John Pierce insisted the petition for a town council, presented to Tower Hamlets cabinet back in September, had taken him by surprise—despite attracting hundreds of signatures since it went online in the spring.
“There’s a shift towards communities becoming insular,” he told a public meeting at the Hanbury Hall. “It would be putting up barriers and people would become insular.”
Chicksand Tenants Association’s chair Jane Hartley was annoyed at her estate being left outside the proposed boundary and feared being excluded “because we aren’t good enough”.
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She added: “To me it’s a very selective boundary which smacks picking off the wealthier area with a little parish council without worrying about riff-raff.”
But the man spearheading the campaign, veteran Bishopsgate goodsyard activist David Donoghue who set off the town council petition and heads the neighbourhood planning forum, insisted opponents got things “factually wrong” or misinterpreted the detail.
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“A town council deals with day-to-day matters like bin collections, street lighting and broken paving stones,” he pointed out. “It isn’t going to change social welfare or education—that’s the borough council’s responsibility.”
The ‘yes’ campaign refutes claims of “vested interests” syphoning money from Tower Hamlets’ tight budget and taking away funds from public services.
The revenue would come from a £1 weekly precept for Spitalfields households and 15 per cent of all planning levies from developers in the area to guarantee being spent in the immediate neighbourhoods affected, it was stressed.
Spitalfields neighbourhood planning forum’s James Frankcom pointed out: “This is a town centre on the City Fringe of central London with a night economy and 1.8million visitors a year.
“It has overflowing bins, anti-social behaviour with people using the streets as a toilet and children who can’t play outside because of drug syringes.
“Opponents don’t understand that the precept doesn’t come from the council, but from those living within the town boundary paying slightly extra on their annual tax. They talk about the boundary as a ‘Berlin Wall’. But this misrepresentation dismays me that the local Labour party doesn’t understand where a parish council gets its money from.”
He added. “I’m ashamed walking in my street past rubbish and mess which Tower Hamlets has had years to fix—but they don’t.”
He was backed by Tory Cllr Andrew Wood, secretary of the Isle of Dogs planning forum which is looking at the idea of a similar town council set up.
A parish council only has limited powers because of its limited role looking after street cleansing, allotments, writing byelaws for parks, bus shelters, crime prevention, litter and broken pavements, he pointed out, while Labour-controlled Tower Hamlets Council would still run public services like education, social welfare, licensing and town planning.
The ‘no’ campaigners brought in the Dean of Tower Hamlets, Andy Ruder, Rector of Spitalfields, who challenged the proposed boundary that he felt would cut Spitalfields in half, taking away the commercial area with its Georgian buildings “which to me seems nuts”.
He added: “A town council is a bunch of independents elected by a small number of people who won’t have the same clout as the local authority.”
The GLA’s Unmesh Desai, who represents east London at City Hall for Labour, also rejected the idea of a town council as “something prehistoric”, but conceded that the present local government wasn’t perfect.
Spitalfields was once a self-governing civil parish set up in 1729 until it was absorbed into the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney in 1911, which itself was merged into the new, bigger London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1965.
But its heritage goes back centuries before 1729. The name Spitalfields comes from St Mary Spital, Middle English for ‘hospital’, or ‘spittle’. It is first recorded in 1197 as fields belonging to St Mary Spital priory and later appears on the 1561 map of London as ‘Spyttlefeildes’.