The saga of Raines House shows us everything that is wrong with Tower Hamlets Council. We spend our Council meetings either agreeing a substantial increase in some Councillors pay or discussing issues over which we have no direct responsibility. Anything other than discussing what we are directly responsible for.
We are though responsible for one of the oldest buildings in Tower Hamlets, the Grade I listed Raines House built in 1719, it will celebrate its 300th anniversary next May. For three centuries it has served the community since it was built as a school and we all agree that it needs some work to protect it from the damp and rain.
Nearby is a much more modern building, 15 Chandler street used by a number of local community groups. The two buildings are a real asset for the Wapping community, but they are owned by Tower Hamlets Council, managed by people who sit far away.
On the ground floor of Raines House, a long-standing group of elderly residents meet daily, they have a bar, kitchen and comfy seats. On the first floor is Pollyanna theatre school, where a generation of Wapping children have learnt to dance and sing. On the 1st floor of Chandler street different community groups including an NHS funded mindfulness workshop and a rape crisis group use the space to meet vulnerable residents.
But the Council has a plan to improve your access to community space. They want to build four new community hubs across Tower Hamlets and with £513 million in reserves they have the cash to do it. They also have a problem with the group of elderly residents who run the club in Raines House. They have been using the club for so many years that perhaps the management arrangements no longer match the needs of a 21stcentury bureaucracy. And despite the formation of a new management group the Council seems determined to strip them of any control over the space. They just do not fit the profile that the Council wants.
So, the Council decided with no consultation to put a new community hub into the ground floor of Raines House removing the elderly resident’s access, but they would get in return a brand-new community hub, all modern and gleaming with charges of £30 per hour for a small room, £40 per hour for a multi-purpose space, and £40 for the kitchen. But the ladies of the bingo club just want to make a cup of tea and have a natter, they do not have deep pockets.
To do the work though the Council needed planning permission especially for a Grade 1 listed building. So, they went through the full consultation process on the new interior design. But when the application first came to planning committee Councillors asked for a site visit. Then at the 2ndcommittee meeting on the 27thSeptember when residents asked to speak, the Council refused disagreeing with the definition of the words “new full report” and whether a new report was ‘full’ or not. But Councillors left berefit of information voted to reject the application. There is now no planning permission to change the building.
Residents thought they had won a reprieve, time to come up with a better plan, to celebrate Christmas at Raines House perhaps even the 300thbirthday of the building.
Unfortunately, the Council it would appear had already agreed with contractors to do the work. So, this Friday groups using Chandler street need to move out so that Pollyanna can move in while work is done on Raines House. The elderly group last week thought they had to move out this week but now have a few weeks delay. They are supposed to move to Glamis Hall in Shadwell ward even though it does not appear to be immediately available. How long will it take a 90-year-old woman to walk a kilometre and cross a major road to get from the old to their new temporary space? Is there nowhere closer they can move to?
And where do the NHS funded wellness group and the rape crisis counselling service move to? Nobody knows.
What is worse is that the Council are directly ignoring the decisions of elected Councillors who on the 27thSeptember said this in the Development Committee.
That planning permission be refused.
Members voted to refuse the application on the grounds that the internal specifications of the application would not preserve or enhance the appearance of the building and that the proposed internal alterations would have an adverse impact on the special architectural and historic character of the listed building.”
But the Council officers chose to ignore Councillors, the internal work is going ahead. The Council are saying they are removing more modern alterations, but they are rebuilding the interior of the building and not repairing the external damage which is what Raines House really needs.
So, in creating a new community hub the Council is damaging the existing community in Wapping. There is no plan, no engagement just a need to prove that something is being done. And if anybody gets in the way, too bad they can pay £40 an hour to move back in.
Raines House exemplifies the weaknesses of the Council. Doing things to the community rather than with them, not listening, a lack of joined up thinking, a lack of local knowledge exemplified by the number of Council staff who do not live locally, substituting action for vision, community hubs rather than a community vision.
The Council really need to stop, re-engage and re-think what they are doing. Do the work required to protect the building but not the internal changes until they have a plan for all of the groups both in the short term and long term.
And a last thought what do the two local Wapping Councillors elected in May think about this situation? if you see them please ask them, I have no idea what they think about all of this.