High hopes for a community downed by Canary Wharf

Seeds of community partnership with business leaders are sown, but the biggest player stays away

Garlands were hung on the executives of some of the country's biggest development companies on Wednesday night as the ordinary people of East London tried to strike a new contract with the "power players" in their midst.

Stephen Jordan, managing director of London Continental Railways, looked slightly awkward with bright tinsel and a large coloured heart over his suit. But for the 1,200 people from diverse communities packing York Hall, Bethnal Green, the, gesture was highly symbolic.

In the Indian sub-continent, garlands are given as a mark of respect to honoured guests. From the stage, Mr Jordan and executives from other companies transforming east London committed themselves to respect and to work with their poorer neighbours.

Rich and poor, congregations from a melting pot of faiths, and tenants' groups had come together for the launch of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO) - the sixth broad-based body formed in an attempt restore a sense of hope through civic power in poor areas.

Cardinal Basil Hume, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, emphasised the need to act together. "We live at a time of social fragmentation and division, where more and more people live alone, family stability is threatened, and employment is insecure." Covering the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham and Waltham Forest, Telco is deliberately based on the most stable groups within in the area - churches and tenant groups. Anglicans and Catholics and the free churches were side-by-side in York Hall with delegations from mosques, saffron-turbaned Sikh, Hindus and Buddhists. Two schools were also represented. In an almost evangelical atmosphere, the 33 founding groups pledged commitment to Telco and promised to "pay their dues". Subscriptions, which help fund two organisers, range from pounds 200 for small tenant groups to pounds 1,800 for large congregations.

The dues are hefty for a poor area, but financial independence is a tenet of citizen power. "East London is heavily `welfarised', but people need to feel they are not asking for charity when trying to build a relationship with the power players," one organiser said.

As a first step, the executives were asked to commit themselves to recruitment policies favouring the boroughs. In general terms, they did. LCR, builders of the pounds 3bn Channel Tunnel rail link, is developing a 300-acre site in the middle of Stratford for a station. There were garlands too for the Spitalfields Development Group, building offices, shops and homes, and the Health Management Group, responsible for the new London Hospital.

The notable absentee was Canary Wharf Ltd. The office blocks the company is developing in Docklands will eventually provide 55,000 jobs. Under a condition laid down in the more socially conscious 1970s, some 2,000 posts must be held from people from the boroughs. There is even a penalty of pounds 7,000 for each missing local employee. But after a meeting on Monday between six Telco representatives and Gerald Rothmann, managing operator of Canary Wharf, the company decided to send no one. A message of "goodwill" was read out, but the significance of the launch was that commitments were made in person. A spokesman for Canary Wharf said nobody was able to attend at such short notice. But Telco leaders, who sent an invitation on 1 October, believe the absence was deliberate.

Father John Armitage, of St Margaret's, Canning Town, said it was "a shame" the company was not present. "Part of the process is for people in power to meet and be seen by ordinary people like ourselves."

A garland was hung on the chair Mr Rothmann could have occupied.

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