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Callers told by Tower Hamlets Council to go online instead

PUBLISHED: 07:00 18 June 2019 | UPDATED: 13:07 04 July 2019

Tower Hamlets Council switching public services to computers. Picture: Chris Young

Tower Hamlets Council switching public services to computers. Picture: Chris Young

PA Archive/PA Images

Some public services are going online at Tower Hamlets Council despite 400,000 calls made every year in 78 per cent of all inquiries it gets.

Mayor John Biggs... Mayor John Biggs... "People now manage their lives increasingly online, so services should be no different." Picture: Rehan Jamil

But there are fears that the move may hit the vulnerable, the elderly or the disabled and those who don't speak English as a first language who might feel they're being cut off from access to services.

The move is aimed at saving cash with the authority facing £44million in cuts, although no specific public consultation on the changes has been held.

"People now manage their lives increasingly online," mayor John Biggs insists.

"Council services should be no different.

"But we'll still provide face-to-face support to those who need it. It's the best way we can provide services while making savings that are being forced on us by government cuts."

The £44m axe is on top of the 64pc that has already been cut from government funding since 2010, the council argues.

Cllr Rabina Khan... Cllr Rabina Khan... "Nobody develops a relationship with a computer screen!" Picture: Mike Brooke

The plans were unveiled at an internal town hall briefing earlier this month.

The changes comes amid concerns for the future of the council's 'One Stop' shops where the public currently get over-the-counter services such as benefits, housing, paying council tax, parking permits and buying parking scratch cards.

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Booking bulk waste and pest control is over the phone, while registration for births, deaths and marriages is in person to the registrar's office at Bromley Public Hall in Bow Road.

Opposition Lib Dem councillor Rabina Khan told the East London Advertiser: "The council seems to think everyone manages their lives online—but this isn't true. There are people without internet access.

"The best way to provide more personal support for the most vulnerable is to keep the 'one stop' shops open. "The vulnerable in our community need help from advisors, not being directed online. They develop a relationship with the staff who help them - nobody develops a relationship with a computer screen!"

Mayor John Biggs... Mayor John Biggs... "People now manage their lives increasingly online, so services should be no different." Picture: Rehan Jamil

The switch to online is costing £2m for digital 'hubs' installed in the five Idea Stores for those who don't have mobile devices or those who need help using computers.

Putting the council's 'most used' services online means access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the council points out.

Cabinet member Sabina Akhtar said: "Most people turning up to a council building often take more than one visit to get things done. Digital technology means carrying out council transactions at any place, any time."

The only public consultation about the future of 'one stop' shops merging with Ideas Stores was February 2017. But last year's annual residents' survey did go into "digital inclusion".

A town hall spokesman explained: "There was dissatisfaction with using our telephone service and many people wanted to transact online to avoid waiting times."

Nine-out-of-10 taking part in the survey said they had access to the internet—but it was an online questionnaire which would not have included those without access.

Three of the council's four 'One Stop' shops are being merged in November with their nearest Idea Stores, which are at Whitechapel Road, Chrisp Street Market, Roman Road Market, Canary Wharf and Watney Street Market.

Only the Bethnal Green 'one stop' shop behind Tesco's in Bethnal Green Road is remaining open.

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