Pensioner Belle Harris takes Tower Hamlets mayor to task over nursery cuts
PUBLISHED: 19:13 10 February 2017 | UPDATED: 19:49 10 February 2017
An elderly lady sat with young mums at a council cabinet meeting aiming to stop its nurseries being privatised, wagging her finger at the mayor not to use the word "savings" when they were really "cuts".
This was no ordinary woman who turned up at the Town Hall for a budget meeting in London’s deprived East End.
Bell Harris, in her 80s, was once a rebellious Tower Hamlets councillor herself who knows the ropes and all the jargon, now recruited by today’s ‘Expand Nurseries’ campaign.
She hasn’t been on the council for 19 years, but also hasn’t retired from the East End’s hot politics.
Belle still campaigns in the Labour Party for Business Rates to be returned to local authorities—like Surrey County Council’s controversial ‘sweetheart’ deal with Whitehall which was raised in the Commons this week.
“Can we use the word ‘cuts’ when talking of the loss of jobs and centres?” she asked Mayor John Biggs face-to-face.
“They are cuts—not savings. Of course you might need rationalisation if there are some sites not being used, but we are asking for a year’s postponement.”
Belle was one of eight rebel councillors who voted against social services cuts back in 1998 and ended up barred from standing for Labour in the next council elections—so she was up for a good scrap.
“Tower Hamlets is rather unique,” she told the Mayor. “We have an elastic contribution of planning revenue from enormous numbers of new accommodation being built.
“We have £70 million in reserves—that’s much too high. It’s prudent to reduce reserves by £5m and postpone these nursery cuts and save jobs and children’s centres.”
The young mums she was supporting are running a campaign to stop three council nurseries including the flagship Overland pre-school in Bow being privatised off, in fear of fees rising and possible closures. The nurseries were saved from the last round of cuts two years ago—but a fourth that was also saved was suddenly closed last year without warning.
The campaigners launched a joint strategy last week at a public meeting in Shadwell to protect all child services as well as the nurseries.
Mayor Biggs agreed to meet a delegation at Wednesday night’s cabinet meeting.
Proposals for children’s services were not in the coming financial year, he explained, but were only ideas for the long-term three-year budget programme which would be examined in talks with parents, staff, and unions.
“We can have many fun-filled meetings over the coming year,” he told Belle and the young mums.
“The capacity of children’s services will be reduced with a growing population. There is a cut in service, of course, and I would be disingenuous to argue otherwise.
“I find myself hesitating in saying that, because we live in a world where politicians are meant to say they’ve achieved a miracle, saving without any cut in the service at all—but clearly there is a reduction in capacity.”
Changes were being made to reach disadvantaged families in poverty who are more likely to have children who don’t get into the school system until after five-years-old, he added. He wants to prioritise for the under-fives, but had to balance the budget.
One of the young mums, Louise O’Hare, asked the mayor to reverse the cuts, even under Government pressure to make them.
She told him: “We’ve seen your plans to cut staff by a third and don’t understand why children’s centres should bear the brunt, cutting 70 full-time skilled and qualified Early Years jobs.
“We don’t understand you saying you’ve consulted the public when we parents are still so much in the dark. We want answers—not platitudes!” She was applauded.
The campaigners, who learned that 10 sites could close, demanded to know the rationale behind it, wondering if the council “no longer believes universal services work”.
Another mum, Naruja Rhaman, told the cabinet: “We had five nurseries three years ago, now we’re down to three. No consultation has taken place with parents while the council is commissioning new management to run these nurseries, which is being done behind closed doors.”
The council’s plans were to group services into two centres, focussed on early intervention when things can go wrong, education director Christine McInnes explained.
There was “evidence that vulnerable families were “not getting access to Early Years services adequately”.
Restructuring the council’s Early Years service was aimed at help supporting vulnerable families in poverty to avoid “ghettos”.