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
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
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
“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
Chronicle’s 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
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
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.”