ANOTHER VIEW; Docklands needs marathon effort

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The Independent Online
As yesterday's London Marathon wound its way down the newly reopened Marshwall road, runners and onlookers had a chance to see the effects of the Docklands blast 10 weeks ago. They must have been impressed by progress. The authorities have worked hard to make offices safe.

But what about the 550 families whose homes were devastated? From the route, which looped past the Barkantine estate, everything seemed fine, apart from a banner, draped from one tower block, proclaiming "Help the Barkantine". In reality, many victims still lack the support they need. Families that lost homes and possessions and sought grants have been turned down by the Department of Social Security. Those still living in Lantern House, the most badly damaged block, have yet to learn whether the Government will provide any new money.

British Telecom has been unsympathetic. I wrote to Sir Iain Vallance, BT's chairman, about the company's decision to impose reconnection fees after the blast. His office replied: "His heart goes out to the local community". But it declined to waive the charges.

Tower Hamlets council has done its best. Staff collected three tons of broken glass and replaced more than a thousand windows and doors. Our teachers got the local primary and nursery school reopened three days after the school hall had been blown apart.

All this will probably cost about pounds 1m. Yet the Government has so far failed to say what financial help will be available. When I showed John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, around the damaged estate, he told me to apply to the little-known Bellwin Fund. Yet, to date, civil servants haven't decided whether we are entitled to apply, and have failed to produce an application form.

The main problem would seem to be that applicants are expected to have taken out insurance against terrorist attacks. Yet this had become prohibitively expensive for Tower Hamlets, given its large number of properties and an increase in premiums that followed the earlier, unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Canary Wharf tower.

So, much as everyone on the Isle of Dogs enjoyed yesterday's race, local people kept asking me: "If they can do all this with the Marathon, why can't something be done to help us?"

When a tragedy like this occurs in America, the President declares a state of emergency. In Northern Ireland, the Government coughs up. Yet here in mainland Britain, local councils and voluntary groups are expected to pick up the pieces and grovel to civil servants, who behave as though they wish they would go away.

The Government must revise the entry criteria that is barring families and local authorities from immediate financial assistance. We need a properly co-ordinated national response to disasters like the Docklands bombing to be up and running before the next London marathon gets under way.

The writer is a Labour councillor for Millwall ward on the Isle of Dogs.