Archive for January 4th, 2012

Happy New Year to all and sorry for the recent lack of posts.

I know I’m going to be shot at for this (again) but 2012 has started well: well, quite well. Details have just been published here about a good decision taken by Mayor Lutfur Rahman two weeks ago here, but as with many things Lutfur, with there is a sting in the tail.

He has decided against taking the borough’s housing stock back into council control and instead has left it under the management of Tower Hamlets Homes (THH). However, he has also taken political control of the organisation, which is responsible for 22,000 properties, by appointing four of his friendliest councillors to its board. His appointees include someone who has bordered on being unstable in public meetings recently: more on him later.

THH, which was set up as the Arm’s Length Management Organisation (Almo) after the failure of the Housing Choice option a few years ago, has not been everyone’s cup of tea but in my experience as a leaseholder of theirs, they have been excellent. Its chief executive, Gavin Cansfield, and its former leaseholder services manager, Gareth Candlin, have been, or were, much more focused, responsive and productive than the previous council management. I have to stress that that is my own experience and I have no doubt that others see it very differently (THH’s own survey shows that leaseholder satisfaction is only 47 per cent, while 73 per cent of tenants are apparently satisfied: see para 3.2.7 on p5 of this report).

The detail of Lutfur’s decision shows he believes he can make £8.7 million of savings via Tower Hamlets homes over the next five years, and although the model predicts another £180,000 savings if the stock was brought back in-house, that is said to be a “high risk” option.

Lutfur says that although THH has made “improvements” to achieve its two star Audit Commission status, there is “considerable room for further improvement”. He said any restructuring required under a new council model would put £71 million of “decent homes” funding at risk and that the THH model is the one which best engages with residents.

Another person who has been extremely helpful with housing issues in our little neighbourhood in Bow has been Cllr Marc Francis, the once mighty Rasputin of Tower Hamlets politics who has been a little shy of late, possibly because he has had to keep his continuing advice to Lutfur under wraps (Marc remains a Labour group member, you see).

He now has his reward, for he is the only Labour group member to retain his place on the board of Tower Hamlets Homes.

And here is the other side to Lutfur’s move. Prior to this decision, the five councillors on the THH board were Marc Francis, Amy Whitelock, Judith Gardiner, Sirajul Islam and Kabir Ahmed (who was replaced temporarily by Cllr Helal Uddin at the end of November) . These were appointed after a General Purposes Committee meeting last June. As of last month, the attendance records at THH board meetings for the second half of 2011 for Marc, Amy, Judith and Sirajul were, respectively,  50 per cent, 50 per cent, 100 per cent, 20 per cent. Kabir, who is a paid ‘executive adviser’ to the Mayor, failed to attend any.

Lutfur, using his executive powers (and advised by council legal chief Isabella Freeman), has now annulled those appointments as invalid. Paragraph 3.3 of his decision notice says:

The Monitoring Officer has advised that the appointment of councillors under the Memorandum and articles of THH is an Executive matter as it relates to executive functions. Housing Management is an executive function. It would appear that General Purposes Committee [TJ: which is also advised by the Monitoring Officer ] should not have made the appointment recommendations is it made last  May (sic). Accordingly the Mayor is requested to make the councillor appointments set out in recommendation 2.1 (c).

Which are….*drum roll*…..Alibor Choudhury, Kabir Ahmed, Rania Khan and Marc Francis.

So, all Lutfurites. That’s politics, I guess. I think it’s now a certainty that Kabir Ahmed will bother to turn up and it’s good that Marc is still a member. But the appointment of Alibor is a statement of intent. As the borough’s cabinet member for finance, he now has his paws close to the operational budget for the borough’s housing stock.

He’s a bit like Winnie the Pooh is Alibor in that respect. But whereas Winnie was a bit docile, Alibor’s growl is notorious. Let’s hope Marc, who used to be an enemy of Alibor’s in pre-mayoral times, helps to keep him in check.

Anyway, here’s the press release from Tower Hamlets Homes:

The Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, has decided to retain Tower Hamlets Homes as the Council’s housing management provider, following an Options Appraisal. 

Commenting on the decision Mayor Lutfur Rahman said, “Housing is my number one priority and my actions over the past year to increase funding for Decent Homes and deliver my new housing targets demonstrate my commitment to improving the condition and availability of affordable social housing.  Tower Hamlets Homes is a young organisation and having examined resident views and the merit and costs of the various models I believe that currently continuity with THH will sustain my drive to improved housing in our borough.  They have made good progress in the first three years but I am keen to ensure this trend continues, especially given the changes driven through by central government.  This proposal and the changes to the board will strengthen our ability to ensure continued performance improvement and fast delivery of the Decent Homes programme”.

Tower Hamlets Homes Chief Executive Gavin Cansfield said, “I am delighted by this vote of confidence in Tower Hamlets Homes from the Mayor and the Council.  This means we can start 2012 confident in our future as an organisation, and focus on continuing to improve the way we do things for residents and to deliver our vision of providing the best housing services in Tower Hamlets by 2014.”

The details of the Mayor’s decision can be found here.

UPDATE – Jan 4, 4.30pm

I’ve been contacted by a couple of councillors. There is a real worry that these structural changes could damage the reputation of Tower Hamlets Homes with potential development partners. THH is meant to be an “arm’s length” outfit but Lutfur is elbowing his way in. Until his decision on December 21, the THH board comprised 15 members: five councillors, five independents, and five resident members.

As of today, there are just eight on that board. We have the four Lutfur councillors above, no independents and four residents who have been retained on an interim basis. They are Iain Lawson, Ian Fincher, Sheila Beeton and Shamsul Hoque. They will remain as members until the council (presumably Lutfur because housing is deemed an executive function) decides on a new process to appoint new ones. THH have confirmed to me that they do not know the timescale for that process.

The council/Lutfur has also yet to decide on a process for appointing the independent members. Presumably, both the resident and independent members would have to go through an application and interview process.

It would be incredible and highly risky if Lutfur gains control of every member of the board, particularly given some of the friends he keeps.

A THH board meeting has been pencilled in for January 24, the quorum for which would be two councillors and one resident. We do not yet know whether that will go ahead.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: