Look east

    On the face of it, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham councils in
    East London share similar problems and challenges, so why have they
    performed so differently? Patrick McCurry investigates.

    All located in London’s East End and working among some of the
    country’s most deprived communities, you would expect the boroughs
    of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets to offer similar levels of
    social services.

    But in practice it is not that simple. There have been highly
    critical inspections of Hackney and Newham, and although Hackney
    has shown recent signs of improvement both have been placed under
    Department of Health special measures. By contrast Tower Hamlets,
    while far from perfect, has been praised by inspectors for
    improvements in many of its services.

    So why is Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived boroughs in
    the UK, making encouraging strides in service provision, while its
    neighbours have found themselves mired in under performance?

    It is important to see the inspection findings in perspective.
    Some believe the government has resolved to “take on Hackney” for
    political reasons, while others point out that Social Services
    Inspectorate and joint review inspections cannot show the whole
    picture. “A lot depends on who the inspectors talk to and on what
    day. I’ve worked all over London and I know there are pockets of
    social services in Hackney that are very good and better than
    equivalent services in Tower Hamlets or Newham,” says one

    Nevertheless, there is a recognition that things have gone
    seriously wrong in Hackney since the mid-1990s.

    Tower Hamlets, too, is not without problems. A joint review
    published last year came up with mixed findings but concluded that
    the borough was moving in the right direction. After a long period
    of political and management uncertainty there was encouraging
    progress, the inspectors found, but there was still a lot to do in
    improving key areas.

    Tower Hamlets’ progress was confirmed earlier this year when an
    SSI report into the borough’s children’s services found them
    satisfactory, with examples of innovation and good practice.

    Meanwhile, a joint review in Newham published in January was
    highly critical. It found that more than 500 children had no
    allocated social worker, that the authority was not serving its
    people well and that prospects for improving services were
    worrying. The findings led to the borough being placed on special
    measures by the government and contributed to the early retirement
    of social services director Deborah Cameron in December.

    Hackney, which has been wracked by political and financial
    crises in recent years, has been the subject of several highly
    critical SSI reports of its children’s services and registration
    and inspection unit, and is under special measures for parts of its
    children’s services. But things do appear to be improving, with an
    SSI report in April identifying “emerging signs” of improvement in
    children’s services.

    All three boroughs jostle for the top spots nationally for
    indices of deprivation and all have extremely high minority ethnic
    populations. But there are demographic differences that, arguably,
    have an impact on the challenges for social services.

    “The population is much more mobile in Hackney and Newham than
    in Tower Hamlets,” says Hackney social services director Mary
    Richardson, adding that Tower Hamlets has a fairly stable white and
    Bangladeshi population while Hackney’s ethnic composition is much
    more diverse and less settled.

    But clearly differences in performance cannot be primarily
    attributed to demographic variations and Richardson puts the
    problems in Hackney social services down to the political and
    management chaos of the mid-1990s onwards, when there was
    internecine fighting among Labour councillors and no party in
    overall control. In that vacuum, former chief executive Tony
    Elliston pushed through a radical restructuring of services, known
    as Transforming Hackney, which has since been blamed for
    fragmentation, lack of cost control and plummeting morale, says

    The poor performance of social services has clearly been in
    large part a reflection of the overall chaos in the council, which
    has also resulted in a highly criticised education department,
    appalling council tax collection rates and a crisis in housing
    benefit payments in the borough.

    There have also been allegations of corruption among officers
    and councillors. Earlier this year two councillors were jailed for
    a vote-rigging fraud, which was widely believed to be responsible
    for the fact that no party has had overall control of the council
    for the past four years.

    But Hackney’s problems go back much further than the

    “Even in the 1960s Tower Hamlets was seen as a well resourced
    and innovative department, while no one wanted to work in Hackney
    because they did not invest in the service,” says a former senior
    figure in Hackney social services.

    Things got worse in the 1980s in Hackney, when the borough
    emerged as one of the leading “loony left” councils. The anonymous
    former manager explains:”It was chaotic, with corruption, chaos and
    a lack of professional management and managers were scorned by an
    alliance of the unions and councillors.”

    Richardson, who was deputy director of social services in the
    1980s, is defensive about the period: “There was some political
    posturing and budgets were sometimes not managed well but Hackney
    was also doing a lot of good stuff in social services, such as its
    work with the black community.”

    Since becoming director last April Richardson has been
    attempting to turn around social services, particularly children’s
    services. But the short-term outlook looks rocky, with industrial
    action staged by Unison against renegotiation of staff’s terms and

    A Unison spokesperson criticises Richardson for cutting services
    like meals on wheels and home care and says staffing is still in
    crisis: “Teams are a third understaffed and Hackney is even finding
    it hard to recruit agency staff.”

    Richardson says the department must “cut its coat according to
    its cloth” and says no services have been cut without other
    services offered in their place, though there have been increases
    in charges.

    “The council’s top priority is managing its budget and social
    services have a role to play in that,” she says.

    Hackney can also look forward to more political stability, she
    says, as Labour now has an overall majority.

    In contrast, Tower Hamlets has had a relatively stable political
    environment following the defeat of the Liberal Democrats in 1994.
    They had decentralised during their eight years in power, which
    left social services fragmented.

    Social services director Ian Wilson says: “Decentralisation had
    some advantages but there was little value for money or corporate
    overview, which are essential in social services.”

    Re-establishing a modernised, corporate model took years, he
    says, and led to a period of financial instability as previously
    dismantled corporate monitoring systems were rebuilt and it is only
    since 1996-7 that the department has got back on its feet.

    One of Tower Hamlets’ big advantages, he says, is in staffing,
    with social worker vacancy levels at less than 10 per cent. A
    £600,000-a-year secondment programme means the borough has
    been able to develop its own social workers, particularly among the
    Bangladeshi community, by sending them on Diploma in Social Work

    Things are still less than perfect in the borough from the
    staff’s point of view, according to Unison branch secretary Jean
    Geldart, but they could be worse. “Our members complain about an
    increasing workload and staff shortages but most would probably say
    things are better here than in Hackney or Newham.”

    Of the three boroughs, probably the most surprising inspection
    findings were for Newham, which has been widely regarded as one of
    the country’s best run and most innovative councils. It was a
    pioneer of Best Value and won the Local Government
    Council of the Year award last year.

    The borough introduced a radical cabinet-based local governance
    system in 1999 and has built an impressive track record in service
    improvements in areas like education. But the borough’s ambitious
    programme of change, while leading to success in strategic planning
    and commissioning, has not been reflected in core services where
    there is low morale and high staff turnover.

    Joint review inspectors concluded that there has been too much
    change in Newham, resulting in staff experiencing “constant
    turbulence rather than steady progress”.

    Newham declined to allow the new social services director,
    Kathryn Hudson, to speak to Community Care. A spokesperson
    says: “We just want to keep our heads down and concentrate on
    fixing the problems.”

    Some, such as Unison, blame the leadership of previous director
    Deborah Cameron for the problems. But there are other challenges
    facing Newham. Although it borders Hackney and Tower Hamlets and
    has similar deprivation levels it is an outer London borough and so
    does not qualify for London weighting payments, which makes
    recruitment much harder.

    One of Newham’s problems, says another London social services
    director, was it became too caught up in its own publicity and the
    need to raise its profile with central government.

    “One of the risks of marketing yourself as a high-profile,
    innovating council and becoming involved in all kinds of
    initiatives is that you can take your eye off the ball of providing
    basic services and it can become difficult to acknowledge

    How quickly the problems in Newham can be turned around is
    unclear. Hudson has told Community Care in the past that
    there will be no “quick fix” but that targets for improvements
    would be drawn out of the action plan agreed by the council and the

    In Hackney the challenge appears greater, given the serious
    financial squeeze the council is facing and the problems of recent
    years. Mary Richardson says she hopes that social services, and the
    council in general, can turn around culture and performance in
    three years.

    But one London director thinks three years is optimistic: “Over
    the years Hackney has slid into a situation where corruption,
    political chaos and financial mismanagement have eroded its base
    and its probity and once that’s happened it takes a long time to
    reverse it.”

    Tower Hamlets, meanwhile, will continue to make steady progress,
    believes Ian Wilson: “We don’t have a high public profile but
    that’s fine with me as long as we can just get on with the job of
    modernising and improving the service.”



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