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Archive for June, 2012

The following is a guest post by Nigel McCollum, who was a Liberal Democrat councillor in Bow East from 2002 until 2006. 

I was a Liberal Democrat councillor for Bow East for one term, so have some minimal insight into the way politics seem to be played out in this borough, and frankly it is getting worse and I despair. I am still asked to take up casework for residents and pass it on to current elected councillors, so I do hope I still have some feel for what the issues are that matter.

For me, what mattered most as a councillor was the grass roots casework – being the ‘scissors’ that assisted those unable to assist themselves in cutting through the masses of frustrating red tape. The “Politics” of the borough was a turn off then, and is a turn off now. Yes I was lured into the machinations of the seemingly exciting Machiavellian gossip and power bases around the Town Hall. But now I recognise this was and is a fundamental problem.

There is an unhealthy “chattering class” from all shades of the political spectrum, and even political online blogs are I believe a symptom of this. On the streets, across the borough, the overwhelming majority of people are totally disengaged, and this is reflected in their knowledge, or rather lack of, about what the Council does, about their knowledge of who the Mayor is and what he does, and crucially about what political parties are offering local people on issues that matter.

Frankly, the vast majority of people in Bow don’t actually care about what state small sections of Victoria Park are left in after LoveBox; they couldn’t give a damn if Lutfur Rahman was driving around in a gold plated stretch limousine; I would say that outside the Bengali community few would recognise him if he started doing his shopping on Roman Road. Their eyes glaze over if we start to talk about links between Baroness Warsi (who’s she? they will say) and the Mayor’s cronies; for them a cabinet is a piece of furniture not some committee sitting in the Town Hall.

What is terrifying is the fact that the very important issues around housing for example are simply not discussed. Within a decade, Housing Choice which was supposed to be small local housing associations taking over council estates in the borough, and improving the housing stock has become something completely different. Housing Choice was in many ways the precursor to “localism”, offering local residents more say in how their local communities were run. Yet within a few short years, while the chattering classes are busy with their gossip and internal factions, what has happened is these small local housing associations have been victim of what in the City of London would be deemed a successful hostile takeover bid.

Old Ford where I live is now managed through an office in Stratford, in the London Borough of Newham, ultimately answerable to a corporate head office in Norwich. In the Isle of Dogs I believe Swan Housing has upped and moved to Camden. Remember the golden days of little but effective organisations like Bethnal Green & Victoria Park HA? Does it frankly matter what local parties offer in terms of housing policy anymore? There is simply no democratic accountability or scrutiny of big decisions that impact on local people’s lives. I do not see any political party really getting their teeth into issues around accountability and scrutiny of public housing. This is a tragedy.

Instead it is total turn-off and irrelevant gossip. Just as in my days on Council the Liberals were led to try and find every bit of alleged dirt possible on essentially Bengali Labour councillors. Even now, I read with despair when I see it is reported that the Mayor and a councillor from Shadwell came to see my former ward colleague, Ray Gipson to backstab Labour’s Josh Peck. So what? Is this talking about important issues that actually matter to local people? There is an element of late night private meetings in smoke-filled rooms that still permeates Bangladeshi politics (I know, I lived there for some years). But these tales are irrelevant and pointless – apart from anything, a respected local man like Ray wasn’t even able to get his core vote out in 2006 to be re-elected, probably because the Liberals were unable to focus enough on policy but more on people. So I ask again does it matter whether the Mayor was backstabbing the Labour leader to an ex-Liberal councillor?

I see former councillors who I worked with, who never once spoke in council meetings, whose ability to fight for their wards was questionable, and as such were defeated, are then put up again as candidates in recent by-elections hoping that their ethnicity and kinship networks will win votes. Please local parties, stop treating the voters with contempt. Forget ethnicity and deal with policies then maybe we will have a more engaged more diverse electorate.

I am shown case work from serving councillors and I am frankly appalled. No supplementary follow-up. No getting to the core of the problems. I was trained in many ways by the late Cllr Bette Baunton, and she instilled in me the need to keep on the case until residents got a satisfactory result. It may have simply been about an overhanging branch or a ripping tap. But, if that meant dogged terrier-like determination so be it. What happened was a local resident and her immediate friends and neighbours were relieved and thankful. That is the bread and butter of local politics. What it certainly didn’t mean was trying to become some quasi-private detective delving into another culture’s deeply held familial and communal traditions and trying to expose it as wrong and flawed. This helps no one and certainly doesn’t help Tower Hamlets.

The borough is not worse off because of some alleged Bangladeshi conspiracy. It is because the elected reps in the main, no longer fight for local people on local issues. Rather they navel gaze, live in their Town Hall bubble and have simply forgotten that a local councillor is supposed to be a local champion – fighting on issues that matter on a day to day basis, not worrying if it is true that the Mayor’s second cousin’s wife’s uncle is actually a millionaire living on housing benefit.

By focussing on these ‘conspiracy-type stories’, we have turned off entire generations of voters. Of course were serious wrong doing takes place then I applaud you and your blog for exposing it. But could we not for once actually discuss policies rather than personalities? By focussing mainly with the latter we are on a dangerous road to a much divided community. Furthermore, I believe by ignoring the everyday concerns of people we are alienating them from ever voting again.

The political culture of Bangladesh is different from the political culture of England. The political culture of Somalia is different from the political culture of Jamaica. But there can be a unity in our diversity if once and for all local leaders stopped this puerile gossip and backstabbing and actually dealt with important day to day issues – jobs, poverty, housing, education, crime, health. Please stop trying to do a Miss Marple on certain councillors. Rather use this as an opportunity to expose the serious policy problems that affect the borough’s politics.

Involve residents once again – go out onto the streets and forget the bubble around the Town Hall and local party executives. By turning in on themselves, the councillors have shamefully allowed the key foundation of our borough, namely housing, to be removed from all democratic accountability and scrutiny.

Finally, regarding Ofcom and Channel S. While this channel may be popular among one section of our community, it is merely one of a handful of Bangla language channels. Ought we not be focussing our energies more on trying to figure out how to re-engage the other disillusioned sections of Tower Hamlets. The silent majority who currently do not vote. Engage them. Come up with discussions that will make them feel involved again, and I predict a much more diverse council, with many parties represented and local people feeling once again they have not been left out to dry.

Rant over. Back to my cave

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As Lord Justice Leveson comes towards the end of his scrutiny of the links between politicians, businesses and the national press, he may want to have a chat with the broadcasting regulator Ofcom for its views on what is happening in Tower Hamlets.

It goes without saying that the media has some influence over people’s opinions, but in Tower Hamlets its role is crucial. There is probably no other borough in Britain in which there is such an appetite for “news”. The Bengali population, particularly the more elderly, devour the bulletins broadcast in Bangla by several satellite TV stations, including ATN Bangla, Channel i and Channel S.

However, in all the years I’ve been covering Tower Hamlets, it has been rare to see reporters from those TV stations actually attend council meetings. Yes, cameras are banned, but that doesn’t stop proper journalists observing proceedings and filing reports outside.

Instead, these channels rely on council press releases and town hall handouts. When Labour was in power, they knew this and for years, their cabinet councillors quite sneakily and divisively held briefings exclusively for the Bengali media. Papers such as the East London Advertiser were deliberately excluded from these cosy affairs, often held at various curry houses in Brick Lane. When the Commission for Racial Equality found out, they ruled the practice divisive.

However, to some extent, this still goes on. Mayor Lutfur Rahman, more than anyone else, knows the power of these satellite channels and he has spent years courting them, including Channel S, which was founded (and quite possibly still run) by Mohammed Ferdaus Jalil, a convicted insurance fraudster.

So important is Channel S that Mayor Rahman poached its chief reporter Mohammed Jubair to act as his special political adviser on media affairs. Well, I say “poached” but that’s not strictly true because Jubair continued to work for Channel S.

Could you imagine the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson doubling up as an adviser to David Cameron?

In Tower Hamlets, though, anything goes.

And this decision today from Ofcom (see p4 and I have copied it in full below) is the result of that blatant conflict of interest. The Evening Standard has reported it here. The regulator has said Channel S has breached its Code for producing an unbalanced report of Lutfur’s budget proposals last February. Ofcom said a voiceover by a Channel S reporter was biased and did not seek opposing opinions. It’s possible this was Jubair.

Channel S, in its defence, said the complaint to Ofcom was by a group out to get them. The complainant was Tory group leader Peter Golds.

No doubt Lutfur and his mates will plead they are victims of a little Establishment plot. But they should know that the Ofcom Code was drawn up for a reason: broadcasters have a duty, particularly at election time, to be impartial and balanced in their news coverage in the UK because of their privileged position in being able to speak to large numbers.

At the end of its decision, Ofcom states the following (my emphasis):

We are concerned that the breach in this case comes after three previous contraventions of the Code rules covering due impartiality and elections recorded against Channel S: in Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 1773; Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 1884; and Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 2035. We therefore put the Licensee on notice that further breaches of the Code of a similar or related nature will be considered for statutory sanction.

Lord Justice Leveson would be doing local democracy a good service were he to call Mayor Lutfur for his views.

Here’s the Ofcom ruling:

Standards cases

In Breach

Channel S News Channel S, 9 February 2012, 22:00

Introduction

Channel S is a free-to-air satellite general entertainment channel aimed at the Bangladeshi community in the UK and Europe. The licence for Channel S is held by Channel S Global Limited (“Channel S” or “the Licensee”).

A complainant alerted Ofcom to a news report in the above edition of Channel S News, which the complainant described as a “political press conference, broadcast as a „news‟ item without any attempt to give an alternative view”.

Ofcom reviewed the news item in question, which was broadcast in Urdu. Ofcom therefore commissioned an independent translation and transcript of the output from a native speaker. We noted the following from the transcript. 

The news report concerned the proposed 2012/13 budget for Tower Hamlets Borough Council. Tower Hamlets London Borough Council is the local authority for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in Greater London. 

The council is notable in that its executive function is controlled by a directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, currently Lutfur Rahman, who was elected to this role in October 2010 as an independent candidate. He had previously been deselected as the official Labour Party candidate in the election to be directly elected mayor, and in that election beat the official Labour Party candidate. 

Following the May 2010 election, Tower Hamlets London Borough Council was composed of 41 Labour Party members, eight Conservative Party members, one Respect Party member and one Liberal Democrat Party member. Eight councillors elected in May 2010 as Labour Party candidates, who support Lutfur Rahman, subsequently became independent councillors, and taking into account by-elections since May 2010 the council‟s current composition is: 32 Labour Party members; nine independents; seven Conservative party members; two Respect Party members; and one Liberal Democrat Party member.

We noted that the newsreader in the programme introduced the item as follows:

“Despite the government proposing a cut of £100 million in the proposed budget of Tower Hamlets Council for the financial year 2012/13…In a press conference this Thursday, Lutfur Rahman, the Executive Mayor, has labelled this budget as ‘aimed at the benefit of the people’”.

The news report included footage of Lutfur Rahman, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, conducting a press conference announcing his proposed budget for 2012/13 for Tower Hamlets Borough Council. At the same time a Channel S reporter said in voiceover: 

“In making the budget of the financial year 2012-13, Lutfur Rahman, the Executive Mayor, has given the most importance to the opinions of the residents of the Tower Hamlets Council. This is why he has described the budget as a progressive one for the local residents. Despite the massive funding cuts undertaken by the Conservative government, all attempts have been made to continue with all the important services in this budget. The services to be continued include free home care service, youth service’ funding, children centres, the requirement to pay a single parking fee (even if families own more than one vehicle) and Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers (THEO). Lutfur Rahman stated that ensuring Council Tax freeze, just like last year, and ensuring employment of additional 17 police officers while there are number of police cuts across the country ongoing – these are the main objects of this budget”.

The item included the following statements in relation to the proposed 2012/13 budget for Tower Hamlets Borough Council:

Lutfur Rahman said:

“The central government has given us a target to find £100 million of cuts over four years, a very difficult time, we have to do it to remain with the legal means. We have found the cuts, but I can assure you that we have protected the front line services, we have protected our staff. Our swimming pools will be open, our libraries will remain open. We have invested money in our education service. You know the education maintenance allowance, the only council in the country, we have introduced that”.

Soon after, the Channel S reporter said:

“….This budget was described as „a budget of opposite flow to the national government‟ by the Finance and Resource Cabinet Member Alibor Choudhury”.

Alibor Choudhury then said:

“Tower Hamlets Labour Party have sought to work with the Tories to make life difficult for the Mayor [Lutfur Rahman] and this administration. Make it difficult for them to deliver a progressive budget and as far as most people are concerned, what the Mayor is proposing in his budget is progressive”.

This was followed by the Channel S reporter saying:

“Asad Ali, the Health Cabinet member, from his experience of 23 years of being involved with the budgets stated, ‘This is the only budget in this period in which the public opinion was given so much direct importance’”.

Asad Ali then said:

“Based on the history of this council in the last 23 years, I have never seen a budget being made for which the general public were being referred to so that their interests are taken care of. For this one, the public opinion was called for. Public involvement was welcomed…”.

Ofcom considered the material raised issues warranting investigation under Rule 5.1 of the Code, which states: 

Rule 5.1: “News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality”.

We therefore sought the Licensee‟s comments as to how this material complied with this Rule.

Response

Channel S stated its view that the complaint in this case originated from “a group of people raising anything and everything that could cause Channel S inconvenience and make our life difficult in relation to the Mayor and Tower Hamlets Council”.

With regard to the news item itself, the Licensee said that the news item did not relate to a “Party political press conference”. Rather, the news item in question consisted of coverage of the press conference called by Lutfur Rahman to which “all the media in Tower Hamlets” were invited to “announce his budget for the financial year 2012-13”.

Channel S said that it had “a duty to broadcast this news [and]…At that time, we were not made aware of any other interests against” Lutfur Rahman‟s proposed budget for 2012/13. Further, the Licensee said, “If we were invited to attend any other press conference to raise their views or anyone making comments in the press conference, we would have entertained this”.

In conclusion, Channel S said that “Tower Hamlets is not a political organization but a public body. We do not see any reasons to take other views while a Council called a Press Conference to announce their annual budget”.

Decision

Under the standards objectives of the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has a duty to ensure that news included in television and radio services is presented with due impartiality. This objective is reflected in Section Five of the Code. 

When interpreting due impartiality, Ofcom must take into account the broadcaster‟s and audience‟s right to freedom of expression. This is set out in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 10 provides for the right of freedom of expression, which encompasses the right to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without unnecessary interference by public authority. 

The broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression is therefore not absolute. In carrying out its duties, Ofcom must balance the right to freedom of expression on one hand, with the requirement in the Code to preserve “due impartiality” in news programmes. Ofcom recognises that this requirement acts to limit, to some extent, freedom of expression. This is because its application necessarily requires broadcasters to ensure that, for example, neither side of a controversy presented in news programmes is unduly favoured. 

Rule 5.1 of the Code states that:

“News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality”.

The obligation in Rule 5.1 to present news with due impartiality applies potentially to any issue covered in a news programme, and not just matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy.

However, in judging whether due impartiality has been preserved in any particular case, the Code makes clear that the term “due” means adequate or appropriate to the subject matter. Therefore “due impartiality” does not mean an equal division of time has to be given to every view, or that every argument and every facet of the argument has to be represented. Due impartiality may be preserved in a number of ways and it is an editorial decision for the broadcaster as to how it ensures due impartiality is maintained.

We noted that the news report in question showed Lutfur Rahman, the independent mayor for the Tower Hamlets Borough Council, at a press conference announcing his proposed 2012/13 budget for Tower Hamlets Borough Council. In Ofcom‟s opinion because Lutfur Rahman was elected to his post, and exercises certain important executive financial powers in that post (including setting the Tower Hamlets budget), a press conference called to announce and promote his budget could reasonably be regarded as a press conference dealing with policy matters that were politically controversial. In presenting a news item on a press conference dealing with such a matter, a broadcaster must present that news with due impartiality.

In assessing whether any particular news item has been reported with due impartiality, we take into account all relevant facts in the case, including: the substance of the story in question; the nature of the coverage; and whether there are varying viewpoints on a news story, and if so how a particular viewpoint, or viewpoints, on a news item could be or are reflected within news programming.

In this case, Ofcom noted that the news item in question included various statements that could be characterised as: supportive of Lutfur Rahman’s proposed 2012/13 budget; critical of the cuts that Tower Hamlets Borough Council was reported to having been required to make by central government; and critical of the current and past actions and policies of the Conservative Party and Labour Party in Tower Hamlets. In our view, these statements clearly related to aspects of public policy and would have been likely to attract a range of viewpoints. For example, we noted the following statements within the news item:

“The central government has given us a target to find £100 million of cuts over four years, a very difficult time, we have to do it to remain with the legal means…I can assure you that we have protected the front line services, we have protected our staff”.

“… .This budget was described as ‘a budget of opposite flow to the national government’ by the Finance and Resource Cabinet Member Alibor Choudhury”.

“Tower Hamlets Labour Party have sought to work with the Tories to make life difficult for the Mayor and this administration. Make it difficult for them to deliver a progressive budget…”.

“I have never seen a budget being made for which the general public were being referred to so that their interests are taken care of.”

We considered that the news item did not reflect any alternative viewpoints to Lutfur Rahman’s as the independent directly elected mayor or to those who were supportive of his policies. For example, there was no reflection of the viewpoints of the Conservative Party and Labour Party on Tower Hamlets Council in reaction to Lutfur Rahman’s budget. Nor was there any indication in the news item that alternative viewpoints were even sought by the broadcaster.

There is no requirement on broadcasters to provide an alternative viewpoint in all news stories or all issues in the news. All news stories must however be presented with due impartiality: that is with impartiality adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme. Presenting news stories with due impartiality in news programmes very much depends on editorial discretion being exercised appropriately in all the circumstances. 

In reaching our decision, we took account of Channel S‟s various representations in this case.

Firstly, we noted that, in the Licensee’s view, the complaint in this case originated from “a group of people raising anything and everything that could cause Channel S inconvenience and make our life difficult in relation to the Mayor and Tower Hamlets Council”.

In fulfilling its duties in relation to enforcing broadcast standards, Ofcom does not investigate matters on the basis of broadcast complaints alone. Complaints are useful because they alert Ofcom to potential issues. Ofcom however only proceeds to a full investigation of broadcast content after carefully assessing programme content as broadcast against the provisions of the Code, and deciding that the content does in fact raise potential issues under the Code. Therefore, whatever the alleged provenance of a particular complaint, broadcasters must comply with the Code.

Second, Channel S said that the news item did not relate to a “Party political press conference”, but rather, a press conference called by Lutfur Rahman to which “all the media in Tower Hamlets” were invited to “announce his budget for the financial year 2012-13”. Irrespective of whether the press conference in this case was being run under the auspices of for example a political party or a local government institution, as already pointed out the matters discussed at the press conference related to policy issues which were politically controversial. In broadcasting a news report of that press conference it was therefore necessary for the broadcaster to ensure alternative viewpoints were appropriately reflected to ensure that due impartiality was preserved.

Third, the Licensee also stated that it had a “duty” to broadcast this particular news item. Ofcom recognises that broadcasters will want to include in their news programmes reports on issues relating to public policy affecting the broadcaster‟s target audience. We further recognise that Channel S, as a channel serving the UK Bangladeshi community, would want to report on policy matters relating to Tower Hamlets Borough Council, given the large Bangladeshi community residing in that borough. However, whatever the understandable sense of obligation the Licensee felt it was under to report this particular press conference, it was also obliged to comply with Rule 5.1. 

Fourth, Channel S stated that “we were not made aware of any other interests against” Lutfur Rahman‟s proposed budget for 2012/13 and if “we were invited to attend any other press conference to raise their views or anyone making comments in the press conference, we would have entertained this”. In addition, the Licensee stated that, “Tower Hamlets is not a political organization but a public body. We do not see any reasons to take other views while a Council called a Press Conference to announce their annual budget”. Given that this news item was: dealing with issues relating to the public policy of an elected mayor and the local government administration he is leading; and included statements that endorsed that elected mayor‟s policies and criticised other political parties locally, we considered it was incumbent on Channel S to seek to reflect appropriately alternative viewpoints on the matters under discussion. This is irrespective of whether the policy issue being reported on originates with a political party or a public body. Further, in such circumstances, it was not acceptable for the Licensee to wait to be “invited” to attend press conferences that might express alternative viewpoints. Given the seriousness of the issues being discussed, at the very least, Channel S should have sought and reflected the views of, for example, political parties that oppose Lutfur Rahman on Tower Hamlets Borough Council, and specifically his proposed 2012/13 budget. In this regard, we are aware of, for example, the publicly stated viewpoint of the Labour Party in Tower Hamlets to certain proposals contained in Lutfur Rahman‟s proposed 2012/13 budget2. It is an editorial decision for the broadcaster as to how such alternative viewpoints are reflected within news programming, but when reporting the news, broadcaster must ensure that it is presented with due impartiality.

Given the above, we concluded that on the specific facts of this case these news items were not presented with due impartiality. We have therefore recorded a breach of Rule 5.1 of the Code. 

We are concerned that the breach in this case comes after three previous contraventions of the Code rules covering due impartiality and elections recorded against Channel S: in Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 1773; Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 1884; and Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 2035. We therefore put the Licensee on notice that further breaches of the Code of a similar or related nature will be considered for statutory sanction.

Breach of Rule 5.1 

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I wrote this article for yesterday’s Sunday Express (I’ve copied it in full below to save you the link) about some radical new ideas from the New Local Government Network think tank.

They are huge backers of the potential of local government to do good and they want Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to devolve more powers to town halls.

To ensure these new “super-councils” would be fully accountable, the NLGN (whose communications boss is Phil Baker is a former chair of the Tower Hamlets Lib Dems by the way) says they should be elected by compulsory voting.

This would also avoid rogue results and naturally this got me thinking about Tower Hamlets as I went on my run today.

Then I reached Victoria Park.

Less than a month after I raised this warning, our council has allowed London’s most beautiful park to be ruined.

And that’s not just me saying that; those are the words of Eddie Gladman and his wife Iris.

They were in the park for a walk this afternoon. They said the damage caused by the Lovebox and Field Day festivals earlier this month was “heartbreaking”.

These photos don’t do the damage the full justice, but they give you a flavour:

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As I was talking to Eddie and Iris, others who had been taking their grandchildren to play also stopped by.

There is real anger about what has happened. One man said the paths that have now been churned into mudtracks were now “dangerous”, that one child had already tripped on a rut.

The mums who use the One O’Clock Club are now forced to take a long detour to avoid the ruts.

The 400m athletics track, the only free one in east London, has been turned into a commandos’ assault course: what an “Olympic Legacy” that is.

The mud is now so inviting that it’s ripe for quad bikes: in fact, two little urchins screeched by on a mini-motorbike as I was taking pictures. Here they are: not a park warden in sight.

Eddie told me he’d lived here all his life. He said: “If I had a penny for every time I have walked around this park, I’d be a very rich man.

“They had allotments here during the war. They kept it better then than they do now.

“There’s no respect for it. I called the council to complain about the mess and the woman there told me ‘not to worry’. She said, ‘It’ll be back to normal next week.’

“What planet are they on? The’ve just spent £12million of Lottery money renovating it, and now look at it.”

Even a policewoman riding by on a horse rode agreed it was a disgrace: “And they used to moan about the marks from horses’ hooves!” she said.

Yes, we’ve had a lot of rain, but this was always an accident waiting to happen. That we haven’t had rain before during these events before has been quite fortunate.

The previous Labour run council and Mayor Lutfur Rahman just got greedy.

One of our councillors must now come out and say enough is enough. This has to be the last year that Victoria Park hosts these events.

Last weekend, tens of thousands went to Hackney Marshes for the Hackney 2012 gigs. Hackney Marshes are a far more appropriate venue for these events: there are far fewer neighbours affected by noise, they’re a much larger open space and they don’t pretend to be anything more than a wide expanse. They’re not a landscaped park like ours.

One park keeper told me today that the council was going to try and bill the organisers of this month’s events £30,000 for the damage. He also said there was no way it could be repaired in time for the next festival onslaught: the 17 consecutive days of Olympic Live Nation gigs next month.

A few weeks ago, Lutfur and his unofficial deputy Alibor Choudhury came calling on a neighbour of mine, former Lib Dem councillor Ray Gipson. Alibor told Ray that Labour group leader Josh Peck, a councillor for Bow West, had been letting Bow down and that he, Alibor, was there to fix things.

Well, Alibor, here’s a message: why not start with Victoria Park? Why not tell Live Nation that, aside from the health and safety issues, the muddy park simply won’t be able to withstand more than a million people jumping up and down next month? As the man in charge of our council taxes, you are quite happy to take money for our parking permits based on CO2 emissions, so come on, be consistent in your green credentials and protect our green spaces.

Anyway, here’s the Sunday Express article on localism: given the experience of Tower Hamlets, I think the NLGN needs to think about how local leaders and council officers are more responsive to residents’ views.

ENGLISH councils should be given new powers over benefits, prisons and “the levers of economic growth”, a think tank will urge this week.

The New Local Government Network is calling for a Devolution Bill that would enhance the role of councils in England just as the question of Scottish independence rages north of the border.

It wants a new generation of so-called “super-shires and city states” elected by compulsory voting to “balance the power of the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly”.

The structure would be modelled on Boris Johnson’s Greater London Authority, but with services such as prisons and benefits administration and job centres also pushed out to the local level.

Skills training would also be left to the authorities to match the business needs of individual areas. Think tank director Simon Parker said voting for the councils should be compulsory, with fines for anyone who failed to vote. He said the reforms would do away with any need for a separate English parliament.

Mr Parker said: “The Government needs an answer to the English question. This doesn’t require expensive new parliaments with yet more politicians – it can be done by giving more power to towns and cities.

“That way, local people are in the driving seat of change.”

In Westminster two weeks ago, Mr Parker told Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that the Government’s localism agenda “could be running out of steam”.

In the introduction to the manifesto, he urges the Minister to go further, adding: “England stands at a moment of profound political and constitutional stress.

“The combination of economic crisis, spending cuts and an ageing population is forcing a historic reformation of public services, which has been grasped with varying degrees of enthusiasm by the UK’s politicians.

“This report argues that these challenges can be addressed in part by a renewed push for greater localism, by which we mean the devolution of substantial power from Whitehall to cities and shires and the further devolution of power from localities to neighbourhoods.

“At a time when the country desperately needs a return to robust economic growth, an emerging body of research shows that devolving funding to councils has the potential to increase GDP.

“We currently have a unique opportunity to create a new generation of self-governing shires and city states. The Government appears willing, but it must go further to give cities and shires control over the levers of economic growth.”

Only those existing councils willing to create larger strategic authorities would be eligible for more powers.

Mr Parker concludes: “The argument is for the kind of strong localities that can be found in places such as the US, Germany and the Scandinavian countries.”

Mr Pickles said he was looking forward to reading the full report.

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The long and expensive search for someone to run Tower Hamlets council…er..continued tonight after councillors decisively voted to defer a decision on what to do next.

At a grandly titled Extraordinary Meeting of Tower Hamlets Council, pretty much next-to-nothing happened.

Councillors had been due to set out a way forward after Tory and Labour councillors last month voted down the previous process, effectively blocking the proposal by Mayor Lutfur Rahman and his merry band of independents to appoint the Development and Regeneration Director Aman Dalvi, who, the last time I saw him reminded me of those plastic little ducks being fired at with bent guns at a dodgy fairground shootout.

But, of course, this being Tower Hamlets, nothing really didn’t happen. The reason they voted to defer a decision until another meeting on July 11 was because today, I understand, two legal notices were served on the council.

One, I’m told, was served by Lutfur Independent Councillor Kabir Ahmed.

Apparently, he has served a pre-action notice of intention to launch a Judicial Review of the failed appointment process. This action, as I understand it, would be against the council, which would mean taxpayers like me and you liable for any costs.

I’ve no idea who is funding Kabir’s action: his latest register of interests from November 2011 show him employed by the Bangladesh Youth Movement, so I doubt he would qualify for legal aid. Perhaps he feels he is wealthy enough to risk such an action, which has apparently named Aman as an interested party.

As for the second legal process, I’m told that is being filed by a senior council officer. I’ve been given the name, but I’m not yet 100 per cent sure it is right. I’ll update this post when I am.

It’s a bit like the last days of the Roman Empire at Mulberry Place at the moment…but without the fun.

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As one councillor said to me last week, why is it that everything seems to come back to Tower Hamlets?

I already know Eric Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government keeps a close eye on the borough and now, with the Baroness Warsi affair, I suspect Downing street will as well.

Last Sunday, the Sunday Telegraph’s excellent investigations editor, Jason Lewis, broke the story that the Tory chair had failed to declare her dealings with an Abid Hussian, her husband’s second cousin. She had taken him on a Government trip to Pakistan July 2010 shortly after becoming joining the cabinet. At that time, both owned shares in a small Yorkshire food company, Rupert’s Recipes, but she failed to declare that.

Warsi apologised, said it was an oversight and then detailed another meeting the pair had both been at in Pakistan the following year. Whether she has been completely candid about the full extent of her dealings with Abid is something a Downing Street investigation will probably consider. Certainly the photos of their meetings suggest Abid more than a mere coincidental spectator.

Here he is with her, for example, in Lahore in July 2011.

He seems to be some form of political fixer for her on Pakistani affairs…when he’s not doing his day job at Tower Hamlets council, that is. And this is where it starts to get really interesting.

I’ve written this piece for the Sunday Express today – better to read it online as it was only placed on p29 of the print edition – and I’ve pasted it at the end of this post below.

As Jason Lewis discovered last week, Abid earns about £60,000 a year as the “third sector and external fund manager” at the council. Originally from Yorkshire, he seems to have dabbled and debated with Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir as a student before later getting a job with the Doncaster New Deal for Communities housing regeneration scheme. He left that post in 2003 when he got a more senior role at the £56million Ocean NDC under its then chief executive Matin Miah. One of the key board members on the NDC was Alibor Choudhury, now Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet member for finance.

A couple of years later, the council began a major push on the Housing Choice initiative, which was farming off for free many large estates to housing associations in the name of regeneration. None was bigger than the Ocean and the council and the NDC selected Sanctuary housing association as its preferred partner. Abid was a major backer of the Sanctuary move and gained a reputation for being pretty persuasive, in a charming way.

Then MP George Galloway warned there would be “no sanctuary with Sanctuary” and the vote, amid concerns of fraud, went against the council. Abid stayed with the NDC and became the interim chief executive from late 2007 until it was eventually wound up in late 2009.

At that time, Lutfur Rahman was the council leader and his assistant chief executive was the one and only Lutfur Ali. It was Lutfur Ali who oversaw the selection of a new job, the “third sector and external funding manager”. It was advertised in November 2009 at a local government grade of LP08. Friends tell me these grades would normally be politically restricted, although they do depend on the nature of the work. I’ve no idea if Abid’s job is as such and the council won’t tell me.

If it is politically restricted, then he would have had to declare any political activity with Baroness Warsi and quite likely with the Pakistan Muslim League N (UK). Again, the council declines to comment on this.

However, there are more interesting aspects to this.

In March, Lutfur Rahman abolished the longstanding and cross-party Grants Panel and assumed full executive control. The author of the proposal for this move was Abid Hussain. See the cabinet paper here. The grants system is one of the most important elements of political control. The usually small community groups which apply for the annual £3.5million of funding can be important to councillors in their own wards in terms of building networks of votes. There have been concerns in the past about the way this money is doled out: you’ll remember I highlighted one here earlier this year (about free extracurricular Bengali lessons for all children).

Under the Grants Panel system, officers would assess the applications and make recommendations to the Grants Panel for councillors to decide. Lutfur’s move means that these recommendations will be made to a new board controlled by Lutfur. It is Abid Hussain who is in charge of presenting those recommendations to that board.

That puts him in a very special position.

And Lutfur is likely to think he is special. After all, in August 2010, during his campaign to become Labour’s candidate for mayor, I’m told it was Abid who arranged for Lutfur and his deputy Ohid Ahmed to “gatecrash” (as one councillor put it to me) a meeting in Walthamstow where David Miliband was present as part of his then leadership campaign. Abid lives in Walthamstow and is friendly with Labour councillors there. If Abid’s job is politically restricted I’m not sure he should have been getting involved like that…

As ever, don’t be shy in sending me more information and here’s the piece I’ve written for today’s Sunday Express, which contains more colourful (and, in a sense, admiring) descriptions from senior council figures about Abid Hussain.

THE Downing Street probe into Tory chairwoman Baroness Warsi is likely to examine her association a businessman-cum-middle ranking council officer who colleagues jokingly call the “Arthur Daley of Pakistan”.

The Sunday Express has learnt that Abid Hussain, a second cousin of Lady Warsi’s husband, regularly boasts about his connections to her and to senior figures in Pakistan.

An inquiry ordered by David Cameron last week will consider whether Mr Hussain, 42, had styled himself as a form of informal special adviser to Lady Warsi on Pakistani affairs.

Mr Hussain, 42, is regarded by colleagues at Tower Hamlets Council in east London, where he works as a £60,000 a year grants manager, as “charming, clever and canny” but they also joke he is like a “wheeler-dealer” notorious for name-dropping and frequently talking “extremely loudly” on his personal mobile phone.

While there is no suggestion of impropriety, they claim he wields far more influence than his relatively junior job title suggests because he is close to the regime of the borough’s controversial independent mayor, Lutfur Rahman.

Mr Hussain is now said by friends to be “very worried” after the revelations of the past week.

The Prime Minister has ordered his officials to investigate whether Lady Warsi broke the ministerial code by failing to declare her business interests with Mr Hussain when she took him on a Government trip to Pakistan shortly after she joined the Cabinet in July 2010.

At that time, the pair were both shareholders in Rupert’s Recipes, a small Yorkshire food company.

Lady Warsi apologised to Mr Cameron last week but insisted there had been no financial motive or wrongdoing for either of them.

However, she is facing further questions. 

In her letter to the PM, she detailed “in the interests of transparency” another meeting she and Mr Hussain attended in Pakistan in February 2011, but explained they had been there on separate delegations.

Photographs show Mr Hussain as one of the trip’s key figures, lavishing praise on his relative and gently guiding her through a crowd of admirers.

Five months later, they attended another meeting in London at which key Pakistani leaders were also present and at which Mr Hussain also played a prominent role.

Reported to be a former member of Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, he is now an activist in the more secular and influential UK arm of the Pakistan Muslim League N party.

He also has interests in a number of UK business ventures.

The Sunday Express and senior councillors have asked whether he was required by his bosses to declare his business and political interests and, if so, whether he has done so.

The council said it would not comment on any employee but added: “We do have mechanisms to look into matters of public interest.”

Calls to his office were answered by weary-sounding colleagues last week and he has failed to respond to questions posed by email.

Mr Hussain is known to be highly regarded by Mayor Lutfur Rahman and is also close to ex-Labour peer Lord Ahmed, another Rahman ally.

He moved to east London from Yorkshire in 2003 after quitting the Doncaster New Deal for Communities housing regeneration scheme for a more senior role at the Ocean New Deal for Communities. 

He was later interim chief executive before the organisation was wound down in late 2009 when his experience won him his current role.

Only months after taking up his non-partisan council job, sources say Mr Hussain played a part in Mr Rahman’s mayoral campaign by taking him to see David Miliband for an opportunistic photo at a friend’s house in Waltham 
Forest, east London.

Mr Hussain is now a key player in an ongoing controversy at the council.

Last March, Mayor Rahman abolished the “inefficient” cross-party grants committee and now controls the £3.5million annual pot of grants. 

Mr Hussain will be responsible for assessing applications and making recommendations to the mayor and a new board.

One councillor said: “Anyone who meets Abid soon knows he’s close to Warsi.”

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