City corporations challenged by people power as East Enders seek a share in their future

Citizens of poor London boroughs are taking action to secure a contract on jobs, reports Stephen Goodwin
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The Independent Online
This week will bring a defining moment for "citizens' power" when the poor of east London try to strike a contract on jobs with the corporations whose glass temples tower above them.

A revived form of civic politics has already established itself in a handful of urban areas, winning modest changes in supermarket polices, altering police tactics and forcing councils to clear illegal tips.

But the launch on Wednesday in Bethnal Green of The East London Communities Organisation (Telco) ushers in a more ambitious agenda.

On the platform, if Telco's approaches have paid off, will be executives from the companies that control the destiny of much of east London - Canary Wharf; London & Continental Railways, builders of the Channel rail link; Spitalfields Development Group; and AMEC, developers of the new London Hospital.

Before an expected audience of 1,300 local people, the companies will be invited to work with Telco over the next five years to ensure that an agreed proportion of the jobs they create will be reserved for residents of four of Britain's poorest boroughs - Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Waltham Forest.

Leaving the boardroom to rub shoulders with their disadvantaged neighbours is not a situation to appeal much to businessmen and Telco is anxious not to give the impression that they will be harangued. Fighting talk is eschewed, even if the York Hall where they will meet is best known as a boxing venue.

"We don't want to be confrontational. First we need to build a relationship with people," Jason Wu said, explaining how Telco's approach differs from that of single-issue groups.

Mr Wu practises with the London Buddhist Community at Bethnal Green, one of the latest groups to join forces with the churches, mosques, Sikh gurdwaras, tenant groups and schools which fund Telco. Organisers would like to draw in trade union branches but so far the brothers have proved too politically hidebound. Unison would be a natural ally in an area where so many are dependent on public services.

In the argot of citizen organising, Telco wants to build relationships with the power players of east London - business leaders, local authorities, health services and MPs - and then hold them to account.

"Often we find people are willing to begin a dialogue if they are given a chance. But we are going to be strong on the power players having to recognise the community, and, unlike single-issue groups, we are not going to go away," Mr Wu said.

Telco is the sixth broad-based citizen body to be formed since 1990, trying to recreate a sense of shared responsibility and fill the vacuum left by the neutering of local government. Last week, 300 leaders from the 20 groups that make Trefnu Cymunedol Cymru, the only rural citizens' body, met to report on their work on pollution, drug-misuse services and access for the disabled in north-east Wales.

Despite the predominant church and mosque membership, Telco is not a religious organisation. As Neil Jamieson, its lead organiser, pointed out, churches are about the only place left in the community where people meet every week and in sizeable numbers.

Cardinal Basil Hume, the Roman Catholic leader, and Manazir Ahsan, head of the United Kingdom Islamic Foundation, will be at Wednesday's launch. In a message of support, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said that "social fragmentation" should be challenged.

The Church Urban Fund is a major contributor to The Citizen Organising Foundation to which the area initiatives are affiliated. Dr Carey describes them as "footsoldiers in a necessary war on fatalism, social division and the decay of hard-won liberties through lack of use".

Sitting in Bow Road Methodist Church, the Rev John Whitwell, vicar of St Michael's and St Mary's in Manor Park, Father Tim Hutton of St John the Baptist's in Hackney, and Siraj Salekin of the East London Mosque acknowledge their part in the revival of "social morality".

"Virtually all the established religions have a concept of the way we conduct our lives and there are an awful lot of values in common," Fr Hutton said. "We are picking up on that."

Rev Whitwell said there was a danger of "passivity" in religious communities. "We need to retain the spiritual substance but it needs to be translated into practical concern."

Telco's early "political actions" seem modest to outsiders but have paid dividends locally, particularly persuading Pura Foods to end the smells emitted from its Canning Town factory. Undertakers have promised to peg funeral price rises to inflation and traffic dangers outside a Newham school have been lessened.