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Archive for July 27th, 2011

Well, that didn’t take long did it. No sooner was Stephen Halsey promoted to Deputy Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets Council than a wearily inevitable report appears under his name for the borough’s cabinet meeting on August 3.

I’ve seen quite a few cabinet reports in the past few years while watching Tower Hamlets Council, but this has to be one of the most extraordinary.

Last September, in the run-up to October’s Mayoral election, I predicted that in the event of a victory for his friend Lutfur Rahman, millionaire housing association tenant Shiraj Haque would be determined to wrest back control of the annual and lucrative Baishakhi Mela festival.

Here’s what I wrote then:

Was this one of the reasons why he backed Lutfur Rahman’s bid to become the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets? Time will tell. 

Well, time is beginning to tell. Last month, I reported here that Mr Halsey had been holding meetings with the businessman (then positing himself as the head of a so-called Baishakhi Mela Advisory Board) about how he could “advise” on the running of the three-day event.

And now, thanks to this latest council report, we now know how Shiraj could be helped. For in agenda item 6.5 on p261 of the pdf here, there is the quite remarkable proposal to privatise the lucrative Mela because “there is a strong wish within the community to return the management to a local organisation”. (Oh yeah? From who “within the community” exactly?)

Here’s a bit of background. Up until 2008, the Mela was organised by a “Baishakhi Mela Trust” controlled by Haque. in the run-up to the 2008 event, there were a number of quite serious allegations levelled against him, including ones made by then MP George Galloway that he might have been using the festival to smuggle Bangladeshi artists into the UK. Haque strongly denied these claims.

However, he was found guilty by the council on one issue: of running a trust riddled with financial irregularities. A report in 2007 by auditors Deloitte found they could:

‘provide no assurance that the financial practices and controls adopted by the BMT are sufficiently adequate and effective to enable robust financial management of the trust’s funds’.

Haque’s trust was therefore shunned by the council, which was led at the time by Labour’s Denise Jones, and the Mela was run in-house from 2009 onwards.

Despite all this, history is being whitewashed and rewritten in Lutfur Rahman’s new Mulberry Place. Shamefully, Mr Halsey seems to be going along with it: there is not one mention of that Deloitte report or the financial irregularities in his new cabinet paper.

Instead, in section 5.2, he writes:

During this period [2002-2007] there was growing disagreement within the community as to who should run the Mela, with two groups contesting the right – the BMT and the New Banglatown Baishakhi Mela Trust. In 2008 the issue came to a head when both organisations sought to run the event on Weavers Field on the same day. The 2008 Mela was again organised by BMT without financial support from the Council.

Mr Halsey now says Haque’s Baishakhi Mela Advisory Board has now proved itself clean and capable. He says it’s now time for the council to bow out.

Except it won’t because even in these hard-pressed times, when every penny spent is a penny less for social care for example, the council will continue to provide a public grant to this commercial event. Mr Halsey has even agreed to fast-track an unspecified amount of Section 106 planning gain money to help (cash that could be spent on cultural programmes in schools).

So who will be in charge of spending our money then? Fear not, Mr Halsy says. Why? Because there’s going to be an “Independent Panel” who will interview and recommend a “preferred applicant” to Cabinet to decide.

Quite who will be on this Independent Panel, who chooses who will be on it and who picks the shortlist for interviews is not clear. Let’s hope all this done in the open. Perhaps they should consider webcasting the interviews. I’m sure it would generate a decent audience at no cost.

And, amazingly, this new contract will be for nine years.

Here’s some of the more interesting elements of the report

6. BODY OF REPORT

6.1 During the development and implementation of the 2011 Mela there was increased engagement with  the community, primarily through the voluntary Baishakhi Mela Advisory Board, but also through a more localised Mela Parade which involved a number of local organisations. There was a strong desire shown to return the Mela to community management and this report sets out a process for achieving this that relies on the community forming its own management arrangements rather than the Council trying to undertake this process.

6.2 It is proposed to undertake the following processes to allocate the right to hold the Mela in Weavers Field/Allen Gardens/Brick Lane:

· Cabinet approve the approach to return the Mela to the Community

· A specification will be produced (see headlines below)

· The opportunity to manage the Mela will be advertised widely

· Responses will be shortlisted (if necessary)

· Representatives of shortlisted organisations will make a presentation to/be interviewed by an independent panel who will recommend an applicant to Cabinet

· The Mela Selection Panel will be formed of suitable independent representatives. The Panel will, with the support of officers, examine detailed documentation and negotiate final arrangements with the preferred applicant

· A report will be submitted to Cabinet on 5 October recommending that the responsibility for the management of the Mela transfer to that organisation

· Cabinet approves the final arrangements

· Paperwork finalised and the right will be awarded for a period of nine years, with reviews at the end of one, three and six years. The review will be undertaken by the Independent Panel.

· Board members will be selected by the Trust, but the Council would, to protect its own reputation, expect them to comply with the highest standards (i.e. people without criminal records).

· The Council would expect sponsors for the event to be acceptable (for example no cigarette / alcohol companies)

The Council will, in 2012, passport remaining S106 (Balleymore) funding that it has secured for the Mela and which has to be used forparticipatory elements of the event.

And who is the cabinet member in charge of culture? Ex-SWP member/Respect, Labour and now Independent councillor Rania Khan.

Here she is with third from left at this year’s Mela with Shiraj (her mother, fellow ex-SWP member Cllr Lutfa Begum is on the far left).

And at 58 seconds on this video here, you can see her hugging Shiraj Haque (when Lutfur was temporarily declared Labour’s candidate last September):

After a row on Facebook about that video last October, she claimed this:

Rania Khan: By the way for ur info Siraj is my mama meaning my mums brother who saw ne in my nappies.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Rania is Shiraj’s blood niece, just that their families are very close. I wonder if Rania has declared this relationship to council officers? I’d imagine it would rule her out of any official discussions, either with Shiraj or around the appointment of members to the Independent Panel.

Either way, the dots in Lutfur’s administration are beginning to join…

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For what it’s worth, here’s my take on the countdown to the Olympics, It was published in the Sunday Express about two weeks ago. And I did NOT write the headline, by the way….

IN 1983, budding athlete Michael Spinks was what he now describes as “training fodder” for an Olympic champion by the name of Sebastian Coe.

He was one of a group of runners who helped prepare the international star for even greater heights in Los Angeles in 1984. Three decades later Coe is the chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and, with the opening ceremony a mere leap year and 10 days’ time away, Spinks is going to sue him.

Spinks is now managing director of Essex Flour and Grain, a catering supplier on the edge of the Olympic Park that risks going bust amid a huge security lock-down during next year’s Games. “I’ve sent a message to Coe,” he says. “It’s you and Locog [the London 2012 Organising Committee], Seb, versus me and EFG. May the best man win but you haven’t got a prayer.”

Spinks may be angry, but he’s not bitter. He is a businessman of the more generous mould and, instead of shunning the Olympics, is helping to make a once miserable area a better place.

Literally a stone’s throw from the Olympic Park across the River Lea, he’s allowing a group of artists led by Marek Wasniewski to use his depot to inject life and fun into the under-used waterways and even into nearby concrete slabs. Wasniewski pays tribute to Spinks: without him, he says, his boat building project (he takes people on short canoe tours of the river) would not be there.

Neither would the arty Folly café and open-air cinema, run by young architects on the towpath under a road flyover, which will delight hundreds of families every weekend throughout the summer. Spinks provides their electricity and water and has set aside a strip of his depot as the artists’ creative hub.

It is Spinks’ struggle against the corporate Olympic machine and Wasniewski’s dream to create a sustainable area which locals can be proud of after next year’s jamboree, that sum up my own love-hate marathon with London 2012.

For me it will be the climax of several years of fluctuating emotions. I’ve lived in the same place in Bow since 2002 and was all too familiar with the area where a new mini-city now stands. It was previously an industrial wasteland of filthy marshes whose main attractions were thousands of scrapped cars.I live just 800 metres from the Olympic Stadium (1min 41 seconds in Coe-time) but, thanks to the disgraceful ticketing process, like thousands of other neighbours on July 27 next year I will have the dubious pleasure of listening to the opening ceremony through my sitting room windows while watching it unfold on my TV screen inside.

For most of those nine years I’ve also been a journalist and have watched the Olympic journey more closely than most. While Seb Coe’s organising team spewed out its propaganda, I’ve covered those who have lost out and those who were simply concerned.

I’ve reported on the bulldozing of businesses, the burial of radioactive waste, how official records show an unexploded Nazi bomb under the main stadium, the invitation from a nearby housing estate to Barack Obama for tea and scones when he attends the Games and how the site once housed a PoW camp for German soldiers.

Our reporting also improved the conditions for the hundreds of ex-Gurkha soldiers who guard the perimeter of the park. Yet despite all those articles, and despite the £9.3billion cost, I have a growing pride for the area; an excitement and admiration for what has been achieved.

I was among a coach load of political journalists from Westminster touring the park a couple of months ago. All were equally impressed. Locals are also warming to the project: the chat down East End pubs is where they’ll put the Olympic flame (my own hunch is on top of Anish Kapoor’s Orbit installation; you read it here first).

Last Sunday I cycled the canal and river towpaths on the edge of the park with Alberta Matin, an amateur triathlete who grew up in the East End and who now works in architectural design. A few years ago those pathways were muddy, neglected and uninviting. Now they have come alive with families on days out and with other cyclists and walkers admiring the wildlife on one side of the water and the Olympic venues on the other.

Marek Wasniewski and his friends from the Folly café were also there, bringing a buzz to an area that simply didn’t exist before. Alberta told me: “We’ve had two major regeneration projects in this part of London, but whereas Canary Wharf was for businesses, this is for real people. It’s a massive chance for us.”

She’s right. In September a huge Westfield shopping centre will open in Stratford, right next to the Olympic Park. If anything it could be a bigger catalyst for change than the Games itself.

There are worries about the ugly houses in the Athletes’ Village but overall, despite my sympathy for Michael Spinks’s lawsuit, I think Seb Coe could have been right: this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to regenerate, to bring the centre of London east.

So, as we enter the home straight, let the Games end and let the Legacy begin.

PS Can I have a few tickets now please, Seb?

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