As promised, here’s Stephanie Eaton’s valedictory piece–a look back on her past eight years in Tower Hamlets as she prepares to stand down on May 22.
(For what it’s worth, my view is that apart from one or two slightly rose-tinted opinions on the current regime–at its outset, at least–she’s been the most reasoned councillor in that time. Like Peter Golds, she has also been the target of attacks from senior council officers and ruling Labour councillors after she dared to take them on. The below front page story we did for the East London Advertiser was particularly memorable; it came only a few months after she was elected. It was highly embarrassing for Labour at that time, so much so that the council’s communications department posted thousands of letters to nearby residents to say she and the ELA were scaremongering. We weren’t. Eight years on, that site at the Oval in Bethnal Green remains derelict. But that brush with the East End Life department certainly opened her eyes to the misinformation it can spread.)
Here’s her final fond farewell (she declined to offer any views on the calamitous Lutfur Rahman/Labour fallout, but she does share a quite pointed opinion on the system of directly elected mayors; perhaps there’s a hidden meaning, who knows…)
I was elected to Tower Hamlets Council on 4 May 2006. On July 7 that year, I attended a memorial service for the victims of the London bombings the previous year. The then Assistant Chief Executive, Sara Williams was there too and I asked her what she had been doing at the same time last year.
Her answer opened my eyes to the importance of the organisation I had just joined.
Sara told me that the Council had activated its emergency plans on that terrible day, to ensure that children who could not be collected from school were cared for until their parents arrived; that meals for vulnerable residents were still delivered; that Mosques and Muslim businesses in the community were supported and protected from any retaliatory actions; that resources were made available to help the hospitals and Police; and transport was arranged so that workers at Canary Wharf and around the Borough managed to get home, or to other accommodation for the night.
Sara had worked continuously for 18 hours even though she had lost contact with her own family members.
Recognising the importance of the Council to people’s daily lives, it was a steep learning curve for me to appreciate how all the different elements of the Council work in the Borough. It was an even more difficult task to understand the politics of the Council and how to get things done as an opposition councillor.
I may be unusual in not coming from a political family or from student politics, and some political experience would have helped. I was told that people considered me naïve – I’m sure they were right. But I did have a terrific mentor in Peter Truesdale from Lambeth, and Peter’s advice and encouragement proved invaluable.
He told me not to take criticism personally, to divide my time equally between managing my group of fellow Liberal Democrats, attending Council Committees, and spending time in my ward listening to residents and helping them deal with concerns.
I didn’t quite manage to split my time into thirds: in my first year I attended every committee I could so that I could get to grips with the business of the Council. It was useful and important. However, when the then Leader of the Conservative group Simon Rouse told me “You’re spending too much time in the Town Hall”, he was right and I changed the balance of my work to spend more time with businesses and residents.
Being in opposition is horrible.
I presume some people enjoy it, never having to take difficult decisions, but not me.
Nevertheless, being in opposition is important, and a lot can be achieved, but it’s not the same as having a chance to put your plans into action or working closely with officers to implement policy. But all councillors can do important work to represent their constituents.
One of the first and most important pieces of casework I did was for a man who lived in a two-up two-down maisonette. He was dying of emphysema and could barely walk. He had a choice of living upstairs with the bathroom or downstairs with the kitchen.
He came to me and asked for help because he had been sleeping on the sitting room couch, using a bucket for a toilet so that he could be close to the kitchen. I arranged for him to get a stairlift as an emergency, to enable him to sleep in a bed and use a bathroom for the last few months of his life.
It shook me that firstly, it was so easy for me to do this for him – Council staff were brilliant and immediately recognised the need and urgency of the case – and secondly, that I had the power or influence, whatever it should be called, to make this happen.
All Councillors will have stories about strange requests and unreasonable demands: mine is the man who called me and said he had an emergency and I needed to come to his house. I had to see the problem, he couldn’t describe it, and it had to be that day.
I reshuffled my life, rushed over there to be shown to the back patio area. “Look!” he said. I looked and then asked “What am I looking at?”. “The leaves” he replied. “They’re falling onto the ground”. “It’s autumn” I said, “That’s what leaves do…”. “The council must sweep them up” he said. I’m afraid I left a slightly disgruntled homeowner that evening – even though I had offered to sweep up the leaves myself!
I have loved (nearly) every minute of being a Councillor, but especially the first four years up to 2010. I opposed the directly elected mayoral system made possible by the Local Government Act 2000.
The referendum in 2010 that brought an executive mayor to Tower Hamlets was shrewd politics for the Respect party – because it means that only one elected position really matters any more – that of the Mayor, as that person can administer the borough without the input of any councillors.
Having power vested in one individual is potentially risky, and for me, the model of collective decision-making by a leader and cabinet elected from among the Councillors provides a more representative way to take decisions on behalf of our community.
On a personal note, having been a councillor for eight years, I now understand much better how the world works, from getting the rubbish collected, to the development of multi-million pound contracts for new homes.
I have been warmly welcomed by many people into their homes and lives. I have made an astonishing range of friends across the political boundaries: of course my partner is a Labour councillor and our home has been visited by people from all parties.
Other political party activists canvassing in our area know they are always welcome to use the loo! On one memorable occasion – Liberal Democrats, Labour, and Conservatives met in our house on the same evening – but that’s a story for another generation.
My best wishes go to all new and continuing Councillors taking office on May 23.