Last Saturday’s Observer carried an article lambasting LB Tower Hamlets, whose Mayor Lutfur Rahman is attempting to sell a Henry Moore sculpture, which belongs to the Borough and is worth an estimated £20m.

‘Times are hard, but its loss would be a tragedy – and would set a dangerous precedent’, argued Rowan Moore. I’m afraid to say I almost choked on my cornflakes.

Henry Moore was apparently ‘delighted’ when his sculpture, which he sold to the borough for a much reduced rate of £6000, was installed in the Stifford estate, a group of tower blocks in Stepney. And I agree with him on the principle that art should not just be for the privileged few, and should be accessible for all.

However, since the Stifford estate was demolished in 1997, the sculpture has lived in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which Google maps reliably informs me is 183 miles from Tower Hamlets.

In the current climate, where people in the sector are forced to make difficult decisions every day, prioritising between levels of need, decommissioning some services and reconsidering all options for savings, however difficult, I know which way I would vote if I was a member of the Council’s Scrutiny and Overview committee.

The author remarks that selling the piece would be “a betrayal of working class heritage”. I would argue that, in selling the art if a responsible way – to an organisation which agrees under the terms of the sale to keep the piece in a public location, within the borough, the Council is doing more to support the working class than to betray them.

To deliver a balanced budget for 2011-14, Tower Hamlets Council has to set a savings target of £72m, on top of the £7m savings they were forced to make in 2010/11. And this is not just a temporary shrinkage of budgets, but a complete reconfiguration of the way local authorities operate, and the scope of their business. 

Local authorities play a vital and incomparable role in protecting our most vulnerable residents, in providing them with education, housing, support and advice. I would argue to the hilt that these services are more important in securing our future generations, and supporting our current ones, than any publically owned asset.  As one comment on the article says, “I grew up on Stifford estate. Old Flo was 100yds from my doorstep. She has always been beautiful and Henry was a true genius. I was malnourished back then and limited by a school system that protected the status quo. I couldn’t wait to get as far from Old Flo as possible.”


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