Tower Hamlets is broken: How City philanthropists can put it back together

Dan Corry
The borough’s future is an important test for corporate social responsibility (Source: Getty)
Tower Hamlets goes to the polls today to elect a new mayor. Whoever takes charge from Friday will inherit a rotten borough, hollowed out by the behaviour of the previous administration.

Former mayor Lutfur Rahman was kicked out of office in April after an electoral court found him guilty of electoral fraud. The bitter irony is that, at a time when the neighbourhood most needs the sort of support and imagination that civil society at its strongest can bring, many public bodies and faith groups have become suspect. Some community-based charities fare little better: the court found that Rahman had used local charity grants as one more means to funnel cash and influence where he needed it.

Half the children in the borough live in poverty. So who can step up to do good, and how?

Head half a mile up the road from the mayor’s office, and you hit the imposing glass towers which headquarter some of the UK’s largest banks. The banking citadel of Canary Wharf also lies within the borough. Go to the top floors of these mega buildings, representing companies which trade, lend and borrow trillions a year, and you can literally look down on some of the poorest families in London.

Given the will and imagination, banks can emerge as unlikely heroes in the future of Tower Hamlets.

Natwest, one of the City giants housed in the borough, committed £46m to charitable work last year – plenty of which stays locally. These numbers derive from a mish-mash of different activities: cash given directly to local and national charities, as well as volunteer hours from bank staff, some pro-bono expertise, plush rooms made available free to charities wining and dining potential donors, and so on. UBS, just the other side of Liverpool Street Station, boasts of the support it gives its 2,000 regular charity volunteers.

Amid talk of poverty and political scandals, Tower Hamlets is also a thriving centre for philanthropy. In a neighbourhood where civil society is so much needed, smart philanthropy can play a crucial role.

The borough’s future is an important test for corporate social responsibility. The City has always produced impressively glossy leaflets and websites about its good works, and likes to emphasise how much it does locally. But the rebuilding of civil institutions in Tower Hamlets requires much more.

Community groups will need resources but also leadership. Signing-off cheques can be the easy bit. The real value from the City is its expertise in strengthening organisations, making them sustainable and guaranteeing serious impact for beneficiaries. Its army of financial thinkers and legal experts will be far more important than one more afternoon off for staff to paint a cricket pavilion.

And they’ll need to think about the tough, unglamorous stuff too: can City experts help charities measure and assess their success, and share what they’ve learned so that others don’t repeat mistakes? This is pretty rare among charities, but essential to finding effective ways to help people.

Tower Hamlets is broken. When the new mayor starts planning its rehabilitation, he or she would do well to think about the philanthropists sitting just up the road.

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