Two problems appear to be specific to Tower Hamlets. Firstly the proposal seems to have become confused and conflated with the creation of a directly elected mayor for the borough. The argument that the town council could be a counterweight to an as yet unelected mayor was not a clear one to grasp in July 2010. Residents were perhaps uneasy about so many changes they did not understand, especially when the matter of costs is broached but not fully elucidated.
More significantly the ghost of the 1980s Liberal Democrat decentralisation of the borough (now reversed) appears not have gone away. There is suspicion voiced in the meeting that this is some sort of “back door” attempt to divide up the borough again. Not that the 1986 decentralisation was that unprecedented. Before 1900 the Wapping area was divided between two fairly small local authorities, the vestry of St George in the East and the board of works of the Limehouse District. But collective memory only goes back so far.
The main problem with this campaign appears to have been getting bogged down in detail too early. On the subject of powers (i.e. benefits) there is a vague promise of oversight over planning, but the extent of the power isn’t made clear. The idea that the community can negotiate with Tower Hamlets Council over what services they will run met with scepticism. This distrust of the council could have been capitalised on, but was not. Concrete examples of what the town council could do would probably have helped residents see the potential.
Most significant appears to be the precept. Although this is an important consideration in the setting up of a local council, by making it an issue this early, before the services to be provided had been considered, it was a little like putting the cart before the horse. The choice of speakers, that included a local councillor who might feel usurped by the town council, was probably not the best choice at this stage.
In summary, the proposition offered a vague range of services that might become locally provided, with an unspecified level of control and for an unspecified cost. Hardly surprising this did not excite the local population into action. I don’t doubt that a local council could be valuable to the community in Wapping, but what this proposal shows is that a well organised campaign is as important as need.