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Archive for November 30th, 2010

In August, a planning blog here highlighted a new two minute animated film that had just been produced by Tower Hamlets council. It was commissioned in December 2009. In it, a cartoon man and dog experience what it’s like going through the council’s planning process.

It starts with East End Life being delivered through the man’s door (that’s a rarity in itself, by the way) and then him turning to the front page. “New Plans For Your Area” is the freesheet’s splash. (That never happens either: to find out about a planning application in your area you have to scour the public notices in the back pages).

However, continuing in this sunny vein, the narrator says: “In the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, there are plenty of opportunities to have your say.” Suitably inspired, the man and dog stroll through the spotless, empty streets into an Idea Store to check out council information and then head for the various public consultations.

The message is laudable: get involved. Because if you don’t, the council planning officers will have their way.

Until I was notified of this film by a councillor today, I’d never heard of it. And neither have I been told by the council that tomorrow night there is one of its “highly publicised” consultation meetings about the desperately-needed regeneration of the Poundland and Perfect Fried Chicken boulevard that is the Roman Road (anyone unfamiliar with the Roman should know that it is about 500 metres or so from the Olympic Stadium: the stadium dominates the view looking east now).

This is one of those events at which we are told we can shape our future here. But if it hadn’t been for some active neighbours of mine, no one would have known. In fact, so secretive are the plans the council has for our area that it has declined a series of Freedom of Information requests for the minutes of a secret town hall group called the Roman Road Implementation Group. See the rejection letter from the council’s legal chief Isabella Freeman here. Yes, the council wants to hear YOUR views, according to its cartoon, but it certainly doesn’t want you to hear THEIRS. Apparently, revealing what planning officers are planning would be very, very bad. Here’s what Ms Freeman said:

…the disclosure of these minutes would reveal the Council’sinternal thinking processes. This would be detrimental to the ultimate quality of decision making as it will make officers reluctant to explore possible solutions which may, after discussion, be disregarded but which could have the potential to deliver valuable results for the community. This would have an adverse effect on the work of the Council.

The council’s cartoon has been watched by fewer than 1,000 people and most of them are probably puzzled American teenagers trying to “get” British humour.

Tory group leader didn’t find it amusing, though. He asked officers how much it cost to make. Answer: £16,440. “Words fail me,” he said. “Tower Hamlets is supposed to be the most deprived authority in the country, they complain constantly about cuts and yet spend public money on this nonsense. What an absolute farce.”

Here’s the council’s response to Peter:

25 November 2010

Dear Councillor Golds

Re: Members Enquiry – Tower Hamlets Gets Animated About Planning

Thank you for your Members Enquiry dated 23 November 2010, regarding the cost and commissioning of our Planning Consultation Animated Film.

The film was commissioned in December 2009 by officers in Planning and Building Control and, after a selection process, it was produced in partnership with the experienced film and media company ThirtyThree, who have produced this kind of film before.

The full cost for the film totalled £16,440, including subtitles and Bengali translation. It has been well received in the community and nationally and we have had a lot of positive feedback. We will be further monitoring the success of the film at upcoming planning engagement events, where this film will play a consistent role. Its objective is to encourage more local people to get involved in planning, which is even more important now given the emerging Localism Bill. We anticipate there will be a real focus on Local Authorities to better engage and involve local people in the planning process.

I hope my comments are of assistance to you. Should you require any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours sincerely,

Owen Whalley

Head of Planning and Building Control

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Another dodgy dossier

I’ve a busy few days coming up this week, so I won’t be able to write as much as I’d like to at the moment on a new report funded by the Cordoba Foundation. I haven’t read all of it yet, but I have looked at those parts which relate to Tower Hamlets.

The report is the work of Dr Robert Lambert and Dr Jonathan Githens-Mazer. The former was head of the Met Police’s oft-criticised Muslim Contact Unit, while the other is a North American academic. Both now run the European Muslim Research Centre at Exeter University, which is funded by Islam Expo and the Cordoba Foundation.

I’ll be blunt: I don’t trust the Cordoba Foundation. I first came across them in February 2008 when I broke the story (subsequently raised in the Commons here that Tower Hamlets Council had allocated the organisation, which is headed by Anas Al-Tikriti, £38,000 of Government Preventing Violent Extremism money to fund a debate including Hizb ut-Tahrir. The debate at the London Muslim Centre was legitimate enough – whether Muslims should participate in democracy (the audience overwhelming said no) – but council leaders agreed that using money to pay HT speakers was not exactly appropriate. After I told the council about the guest list, they said they would withhold some of the £38k. After several weeks of deliberation and obvious collusion with the Foundation, the grand sum of £4,000 was kept back. I wrote about it in the East London Advertiser here:

A SURE way to gauge how sensitive, panicked and confused the Town Hall is over a story is to see how long the council’s press office takes to answer our questions.

Take the controversy surrounding the council’s £38,000 grant to the Cordoba Foundation. You’ll recall that Tower Hamlets had agreed to subsidise a series of debates and media training courses by the foundation in the name of “tackling extremism”.

When we revealed in February that this meant they’d be subsidising the appearance of Dr Abdul Wahid, the UK leader of Hizb ut- Tahrir at a debate, council leader Denise Jones promised to pull the plug.

Every week since then I’ve asked whether a final decision had been made. The council finally gave its answer on April 7. Not a very detailed response, mind you, just that it had “terminated” relations and agreed to pay some costs. I asked how much it was paying out. Answer the next day: £34,000 of the £38,000.

The remaining £4,000, the council insisted, represented the cost of the February 26 debate. So on April 8, I asked for a breakdown of the £34,000. Now, given that the council had been in negotiations with Cordoba for the best part of six weeks before settling on the figure, you’d have thought that breakdown would be ready to hand.

But no. It took Tower Hamlets two weeks to produce it. Why? My bet is that no one at the council had examined the detail and that the figure of £34,000 was little more than a back-of-the-envelope compromise calculation, rather than based on actual costs and invoices.

For example, the foundation says that a debate almost exactly identical in length and content held last October (that also included Hizb ut-Tahrir it turns out) cost £8,000; the broadcast on its partner Muslim Community Radio alone cost £3,000.

Other entries show speakers at the debate being paid £600 and a peculiar “management fee” (the foundation is run by Anas Altikriti, the boss of the Muslim Association of Britain) of £4,500.

Some £19,000 was also spent on a series of media training course aimed exclusively at helping “young Muslims” deal with the press. Experts in microeconomics always look for the incentives behind people’s actions: what motivates them.

Whereas you and I will always check our own bills and bank statements for mistakes because it’s our money, there’s no such similar pressure on council officers with other people’s cash (they would have been more interested in damage limitation).

Similarly, the Cordoba Foundation would be bound to do everything possible to secure as much of the £38,000 grant it was originally promised. It’s up to the council to ensure Cordoba has not frontloaded its costs on projects already completed.

As such, I asked the council’s press office a bunch of follow-up questions. This was their (immediate) answer: “We won’t be providing any more information or breakdowns about work with the Cordoba Foundation.”

I also asked the council’s Freedom of Information Act manager for all documents on the affair, but he’s delayed his response beyond the statutory 20 day limit too “to take advice”. I wonder why that is.

The Foundation seems to be going strong still and Dr Lambert and Dr Githens-Mazer give it high praise in their report here. It’s called, “An introduction to a ten year Europe-wide research project: Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crime – UK Case Studies 2010”.

One of those case studies is Tower Hamlets and in particular the “establishment” victimisation of Mayor Lutfur Rahman. The relevant section starts on p179 of the document under the heading, “Barbarians at the gates of the City” and the sub-heading, “A case study in the subversion of liberal democracy in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets”. A footnote says that section has been written anonymously by someone who has “worked extensively in Tower Hamlets politics”.

Now, in the all the time I’ve covered Tower Hamlets politics I’ve never seen either of the good doctors at the Town Hall. And neither did they or anyone else call me or try to contact me about this report, which, given that they have cited my name and quote extensively much of my work from this blog and from my time at the East London Advertiser, is a bit lazy to say the least.

If they had have done, they might have avoided the simplified and inaccurate rewriting of history – designed, no doubt, to meet their pre-determined conclusions – that this section of their report actually is. I read it agog.

On p180:

In May 2008, Labour became aware that a new direction was needed, and a broad coalition of councillors….elected Lutfur Rahman….However, Rahman’s brand of left-wing populism represented a direct threat to the established hierarchy within the Tower Hamlets Labour party.

Left-wing populism?? Labour becoming aware that a new direction was needed?? Dear doctors, his coup against the then group leader Denise Jones was all about factionalism. In the two years before he took over – both as a member of Denise’s cabinet and also as a backbencher – Lutfur was one of Labour’s main ringleaders against Respect’s populist Left-wing policies and motions in the council chamber. In one of my columns I described him as the leader of Labour’s “giggling squad”, so vocal was his mockery.

On p183:

Britain’s Islamic Republic [the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary] played into existing narratives in the local and national media that accused the council of imposing ‘Islamic values’ on the borough. The most bizarre example concerned the proposed replacement of the dilapidated arches at either end of Brick Lane with two new structures that were described by several media sources as “hijab-shaped”. Quite apart from the fact that comparing a 10-foot steel arch to a piece of cloth requires a certain leap of imagination, the arches…were not designed by the council but by an external contractor.

I’m not sure if the anonymous author of the doctors’ report talked to the architect of the proposed arches: I did. In our background conversation before going on the record, he was extremely uncomfortable. When I pressed him, he said:

“We were briefed to design something that celebrates the demographic changes of the area. The arches were not designed to look like hijabs. Huguenot and Jewish women wore headscarves. The arches are just modern curves and they will have symbols on them reflecting the different immigrant communities. Having the Star of David on them is one option we have considered, but no decision has been made yet.”

Sometimes, it pays to read between the lines.

Pages 185-186 devote a special section to the “removal of Lutfur supporters” in the selection process for the 2010 council elections. The author says this move was designed to undermine the future mayor, thus:

In August 2009, Mohammed Shahid Ali, Salim Ullah, Shafiqul Haque and Fazlul Haque were the only sitting councillors to be de-selected at the first stage of the process to choose candidates for the 2010 local elections. The reasons given for their removal were spurious, and do not appear to correspond either to their performance as councillors or to the Labour party’s previous support for them. The only factor that they all had in common – other than being Bangladeshi Muslims – was their support for Rahman.

Unlike the men of Exeter, I witnessed these four characters at work first hand. Salim Ullah, I had a lot of respect for and I was surprised at his de-selection, but during his time as Labour chief whip he was not the most calming of influences. He was said to be a poor performer in group.

Shafiqul Haque was a die-hard supporter of Michael Keith and Denise Jones, so much so that when he was appointed to Denise’s cabinet in 2007 (to replace Rupert Bawden), one gobsmacked Lutfur supporter said of him: “You’d have to go a long way to find someone less able to lead the council on strategic development than Rupert Bawden, but true to form the leadership has managed it. What next: Mohammed Shahid Ali for mayor?”

Which brings me to Mohammed Shahid Ali. In November 2007, I reported at that month’s planning committee meeting that his eyes closed for long periods, his body jerked about and his vocal chords emitted grunting sounds that were extremely similar to snores. He had a “headache”, he said later. And like Shafiqul Haque and Salim Ullah, his English was poor.

And then there is Mr Fazlul Haque. Soon after he won a by-elction in the Weavers ward in 2008, I received a tip-off that the Tower Hamlets address he had declared on his nomination papers was not actually his home. The rumour around the council was that he lived with his wife and kids in Ilford. So one night, I parked outside his Ilford home and watched his Mercedes pull up late into the evening. He didn’t leave in the further hour I waited there. I returned the next morning and spoke to his wife. She said they were “separated”  and that he had just been “visiting” her and their children.

I then drove over to his small flat in Tower Hamlets. The estate caretaker told me Haque used to live there, but he had left with his family several months ago. A startled Chinese student answered the door. She said she lived there with another student and “Fazlul – yes, Fazlul lives here as well. I sleep in the living room and Fazlul is in the bedroom.” When we returned there not long afterwards and as Haque deployed Labour’s lawyers on us, his tenant students had disappeared leaving Haque to “live” there alone. When senior Labour councillors were told about this, they were horrified.

So in each case, these four “Lutfur supporters”/”Bangladeshi Muslims” were removed because they were either just poor councillors, or just rotten, or both. UPDATE: Of course, Shafiqul Haque appealed against his removal and won to retain his council seat.

On p190 of the report:

The next major blow came in May 2009 when Rahman moved to appoint a new chief executive to the council. Given that the council had seen four chief executives in six years, this was by no means extraordinary in the context of the borough

Inaccurate and disingenuous in the extreme. Here’s the list of chief executives from 2000-2009: Christine Gilbert, 2000-2006; Martin Smith, 2007-2009. In between Christine’s departure in September 2006 and Martin’s formal appointment in April 2007, there were two “acting” chief executives. One was the social services director, Ian Wilson, who led the town hall until his retirement at the end of 2006; the other was, er, Martin Smith, who stepped up to the position from finance director after Ian left.

It is simply rubbish, therefore, to say that Martin’s forced departure by Lutfur Rahman was “by no means extraordinary”. Extraordinary is exactly what it was because it ended up costing council taxpayers like me something like £400,000 in silence money. What is also extraordinary is that the report fails utterly to mention the name of Lutfur Ali, the moonlighting assistant chief executive appointed so eagerly hired by Mr Rahman despite the mistakes on his CV and despite the doubts about his ability among professional headhunters.

In all the analyses of Labour’s treatment of Lutfur Rahman, there’s one aspect that many overlook: his ability to do the job. One senior London Assembly member (not John Biggs) told me during September’s saga: “The problem that Lutfur has is that he’s just rubbish. That’s why the party doesn’t want him as Mayor.” A bit harsh perhaps, but that’s probably nearer the truth than any mocked-up Islamophobia. I don’t believe for one second that he’s an Islamic fundamentalist, but neither am I sure he has what it takes to avoid being used by the likes of them and whoever authored the garbage in the Exeter report.

I’ve not yet read the rest of the report, but if it’s of same quality as the Tower Hamlets section, should I bother?

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