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Archive for May 4th, 2014

This is probably a little bit cheeky of me but I’m sure The Guardian’s Dave Hill will understand that copy and paste is, digitally speaking, the sincerest form of flattery.

I’m going to reproduce here his two very interesting and lengthy interviews with John Biggs and Lutfur Rahman, whicht he published last week.

I’m told on pretty good authority that Lutfur wasn’t at all happy with the Biggs piece (which is good and measured) and that it was part of the reason he pulled out of yet another debate with the Labour man on a Bengali TV station on Friday night, this time ATN Bangla.

Dave’s interview with the Mayor is also good and Lutfur comes across well in his opening answers. He’s confident on his well practised turf, on issues such as housing. But when he’s put under questioning on the more controversial stuff, he flounders…just as he did with John Ware in the Panorama programme. It’s something that I’ve noticed time and again in the years I’ve known him: he’s just not quick on his feet. I think this is the real reason why he limits his risk for on the spot public scrutiny in debates and at council meetings. I think he lacks confidence in himself, weirdly. He’s not a great public speaker.

What’s missing from both interviews, frustratingly, is the issue of racist accusations. Dave doesn’t really probe either candidate on this, despite it being the main line of attack against Biggs from Lutfur’s camp on the doorstep. I understand from Dave he’ll be addressing this topic in a future piece.

As I warned these pieces are long, so I may be wrong to publish them together, but hey, it’s a Bank Holiday weekend and Liverpool don’t play until tomorrow night…

Here’s the Biggs interview:

The main challenger to the East End’s independent mayor makes a trenchant yet measured case against the way the Town Hall in distinctive part of London has been run

The first time Tower Hamlets voted for an executive mayor, in October 2010, the Labour candidate Helal Abbas was heavily defeated by his independent rival Lutfur Rahman. This time the contest could be much closer.

Four years ago, the mayoral ballot took place in isolation. This time, it will be held on the same day as the votes for borough councillors and members of the European parliament. This should produce a much higher turnout, which, according to orthodox opinion, would help Labour’s 2014 candidate John Biggs. Tower Hamlets politics, though, are nothing if not distinctive.

I spoke to Biggs for around 90 minutes last week, initially at a nice but rather noisy cafe near Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood and then at the Labour Party office on Cambridge Heath Road. Aged 56, he’s an experienced politician who became a Tower Hamlets councillor in 1988 and led Labour in opposition from 1991-94, a period when the council was run by a controversial Liberal Democrat administration, which Biggs wryly characterises as “a sort of bolt-hole for the League of Cockneys”.

It was during this period that a BNP candidate won a by-election in the borough. “It was quite a rough time,” says Biggs, who led Labour to a huge win in 1994 only to be deposed as leader by fellow Labour councillors the following year. But he plays down the borough’s enduring reputation for political viciousness. “It’s not that bad here, really,” he says, perhaps surprisingly.

Biggs grew up in Barnet, studied chemistry at Bristol University, and then moved to the East End which, he says, “politicised and energised” him. He went on to work as a financial analyst in the City of London. Since 1990 he has represented Tower Hamlets, along with Newham and Barking and Dagenham, on the London Assembly and he is deputy leader of the Labour Group at City Hall.

Our conversation covered housing, employment, schools policy, how politics and religion should co-exist, fostering harmony in a diverse and largely poor part of the capital, building an ‘outward-looking’ attitude among the borough’s people, and the repeated allegations made against Rahman that he fosters a culture of favouritism towards his fellow Muslims with the help of questionable friends. Some of Biggs’s views may surprise. Now read on…

Dave Hill: Is Tower Hamlets a badly-run council?

John Biggs: By and large, no. In its day-to-day services it’s not catastrophically bad. It’s quite good in a number of areas – education’s improved massively over the years, though that’s been a 20-year journey. No individual mayor or leader can take credit for it. There are a number of areas where there is anxiety. One is that this area is going through massive change. A lot of that is about property development and demographic change. The price of land is going up and people are being squeezed out.

The other thing that sits alongside that, and has done for over a century in East London, is the way in which different communities work together, which can sometimes be a cause of tension. Quite often external people will stir things up, whether it’s Oswald Mosley or the BNP or George Galloway. But people come to East London because they’ve got a hunger to get things done and they feel quite often that they are competing for opportunities with other people. So what is needed is a leadership here that understands that and is seen as fair. And the big problem we have here at the minute is that the council leadership is not seen as being above the sometimes divisive inter-community competitiveness.

Has the running of the council deteriorated under the current mayor?

My fundamental critique of the current mayor is that he’s so preoccupied with little things and with his own insecurities that he’s not offering the leadership the council needs. We have a number of problems, which need to be sorted. One is that the senior management team is very unstable here. Because of the stand-off between the [independent] mayor and [majority Labour] councillors there’s been a failure to appoint permanent staff. Another is that the signals coming out from the politics discourage good people from applying for jobs here.

We’re at risk of playing a kind of lowest common denominator politics, with the mayor, because of his insecurities, playing to his core vote. His people are interpreting that point as me in some way trying to divide people, but I think it’s them doing the dividing. And if you knock on doors around here I think you’ll find people feel that the council isn’t standing up for everyone. I’m part of a party that is deeply rooted in all the communities in East London, in terms of socio-economic groups and ethnic groups. I think it’s very important that we reach across and provide some kind of united leadership. I’m aware that that can sound like a nicey-nicey soundbite, but it is actually crucial to getting the area to prosper.

Your manifesto implies that Lutfur Rahman hasn’t done enough to help young Tower Hamlets people secure Olympic-related jobs. What should he have done and what could you do better?

There’s a whole lot of things that sort of hang off that, but one is that the borough left to its own devices can be a very inward-looking place and the politics can become very E1-focussed – the City fringe area, Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Whitechapel, the big mosques and so on. But the borough consists of E1, E2, E3 and E14, basically. So the east of the borough can become quite neglected and that’s where the Olympics were. The community politics can become so inward-looking too that people can forget they are sitting on the doorstep of the biggest city in Europe and so many opportunities. So it’s about the inward versus the outward-looking perspective.

Tower Hamlets was the only borough where unemployment rose during the Olympic games. You could blame everyone but the mayor for that, but it was on his watch so you’ve got to ask what he could have done that might have made a difference. There was an initiative to promote Brick Lane as the Curry Capital, but the amount of business in Brick Lane went down during the Olympics. Now, there was a pattern across London where people were busy watching sport instead of stuffing themselves in eateries but even so everything sort of happened in spite of Tower Hamlets rather than alongside Tower Hamlets.

We have an enormous advantage here compared with other parts of the country where there is high unemployment, in that there are so many jobs around. There’s a whole lot of good reasons why people might not be working – lack of skills, lack of language skills, childcare difficulties, health issues and so on – but brokering the sorts of skills that will improve people’s employability is one of the key things we haven’t done enough of.

We have an organisation called Skillsmatch but Robin Wales in Newham has Workplace, which is bigger and better. If you talk to the corporates – who are all very polite people and who want to get on with the mayor whoever he is – Lutfur seems to want to do things that involve having his photograph on them but aren’t really partnerships. Many people seem angry that the mayor wants to have his picture everywhere – they’d like fewer images and more action. And that’s what I would provide. I have the intrinsic advantage of being ugly, of course. But the point is it doesn’t bloody matter what your mayor looks like. What you want is to have your bins emptied and your kids in jobs.

You talk in your manifesto about the need for more school places in the borough. Free schools are about the only game in town just now. Are you going to encourage them?

I don’t like the free schools programme as a principle because it enables opting out of the co-ordination and planning that’s required to make a complicated area work. You can end up with free schools that have two percent free school meals in an area where 20% of kids qualify for them. But with the school leaving age rising to 19 there may be real opportunities to have free schools which provide specialist niches for kids who maybe aren’t going to follow an academic course but could do well at other things. There’s lots of young people who are really switched on by music, for example, which can help them acquire skills in other areas too. So as mayor I’d want to hold useful free schools close, if they want to be held close, and create a situation from which both sides benefit. As with academies we shouldn’t get too transfixed with the structures and we should think more about the partnerships we can build.

You say you want to build 1,000 new council homes. How would you achieve that and over what time period?

There’s a limited amount of available publicly owned land in the East End, but there’s still quite a lot of it. We think that without creating problems on existing housing estates and by using other land we could build about 1,000 homes over the next decade. Within the first four years we’ll identify where they are going to be and should have built several hundred of them and know where the rest are going to go. We think providing council housing should be part of the offer and the current mayor has failed to do this.

He’ll boast about the Poplar Baths deal and one or two others, but they are very clumsy deals. We think he could have put more effort into it. He boasts about 4,000 affordable homes being built, but they’ve been built by private developers and are the skim off, if you like, as part of the planning consent. Not only were they happening in spite of the mayor, but a lot of them are affordable only according to the Mayor of London’s definition, which is actually unaffordable even for teacher couples, for example.

It needs the mayor to do some thoroughly boring stuff, which is to sit in the Town Hall, not having his photograph taken, roll his sleeves up and actually think about the bloody policy in order to broker the best possible deal for local people. We need to look at all these other ways of making our housing more accessible including to some people on middle incomes. To an old child of the sixties like me, that sounds outrageously pragmatic but that’s also the world we’re living in.

Do you mean assisting the middle-classes with subsidy? How scandalous!

I think helping aspiring people on to the housing ladder, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you look at travel patterns in London you’ll find that the long distance bus routes like the 25 or the 149 are packed with cleaners in the early mornings because they can’t afford the train fares and they can’t afford the housing in central London like they used to be able to.

Your manifesto talks about stopping the over-commercialisation of the borough’s public spaces. Can you elaborate on that?

One of the bugbears is Victoria Park, with people who live up there feeling they are overburdened with late-night, under-regulated events. Clearly, you’ve got to raise revenue from your open spaces if it helps to cushion your budgets. But you’ve got to get the balance right, and there’s a perception up there that money is raised in the park yet not spent in the park.

And I read that you intend to stop the council charging people for pest control services.

One of the problems if you start charging people for dealing with their mouse infestation is that poor people will stop getting it done. Again, how do you get the balance right on that? These are the sorts of things we need to think hard about.

Is the Mayor’s educational allowance – his version of the educational maintenance allowance – a bad policy?

EMA was a good policy of the Labour government and if we can find ways of replicating it, then we should support those. Lutfur Rahman has done that, though with the help of Labour councillors. I would like us to do it and more effectively, but over the next few years we have some pretty horrendous cuts coming, regardless of who the mayor is – about £80m. So I don’t think you can guarantee anything. But one of the fundamental principles of a Biggs administration should be a series of policies challenging some of the problems of inequality and lack of income. They could include helping people in their relationships with private landlords, skills advice, and providing free school meals for primary school kids. It’s about the mix and you can’t do everything. You can’t have the penny and the bun, as someone once said.

The mayor has been criticised for promoting himself through the council’s free newspaper East End Life, but he’s not the only mayor to do that. A recent Newham Mag is packed with pictures of Newham’s Labour mayor, Sir Robin Wales.

Robin’s a mate of mine but I’m not his cheerleader. He can look after himself. I’m very clear that the role of a council newspaper is not to promote the mayor or the leader of the council but to inform people about the services they can access through the council. I find offensive the idea that you should use council money to provide propaganda on the rates.

The recent Panorama programme about Mayor Rahman focused on his allocation of grants to local organisations, alleging that he’s favoured Bengali and other Muslim groups in order to benefit politically. He’s countered that he’s spent the money where the need is greatest. What principles would inform how you allocated that part of the mayor’s budget?

What we’re talking about is grants for adding value in the community, doing things the council can’t do itself. Those should all be about improving the capacity of people to get on with their lives. It’s about doing the things that help to support a strong civic society in the borough. In a multi-faith, multi-ethnic community everyone who gets a grant must buy into the principle of community cohesion, which doesn’t mean they have to be totally secular – I don’t agree with Robin’s approach on this – but people do need to understand the importance of being outward-looking in a borough like Tower Hamlets and not creating inward-looking bunkers, whether they are ninth generation cockneys or fourth generation Bengalis.

I think Lutfur has taken too much of a micro-managerial interest in the grant-making decisions. When you look at the amendments he made [to the advice of his officers] I don’t think he has ever properly justified them. It is the right of a mayor to make such changes, but when a mayor has that power there is a potential to abuse it and I don’t think he has answered his critics.

Certainly I have come across organisations who have been reluctant to talk to me because they think they might not get a grant as a result of being seen to be too close to someone who disagrees with the mayor. Certainly there have been luncheon clubs across the borough, which have been presided over by the mayor’s councillors and seem to be working on a sort of reward-and-punishment basis in the way in which they hand out their meals to elders. There seems to be an unhealthy focus in some of those decisions.

The council should be about providing services to people without favour. I think he’s got a case to answer. I don’t want it to become personal and I don’t want it to become racially polarised either. But there are quite a lot of poor white people in the borough. There are certainly a lot of poor Somali people and a great number of poor African people. There’s quite a lot of poor older people on limited pensions and with a very limited support network.

You could bring all this down to an absurd level and say, well, we’ve got ten lumps of money and 30% of the people here are Bengali so they must have three of the ten lumps and so on. That would be wrong too wouldn’t it?

You raise an important point and, yes, that would be wrong but not necessarily completely wrong because not only do you need to have an approach which is transparent and justified, it also needs to be seen to be fair. I spoke to a pensioners’ group in Bow, which is predominantly white, and they do get a grant, but they look covetously down the road at what they perceive to be the grants received by other people. Now, I think there’s a certain amount of disinformation there. But the perception of unfairness is very real.

Is it possible to define principles and clear criteria for grant-giving and, if so, what should they be?

The principles need to be about what the basic purpose of the services is, and it’s about helping to provide the glue that helps make strong communities. All communities should recognise that they need to be outward-looking as well as supporting themselves. I’m very clear that Bengali elders will tend to stick together – they have kinship, memories, language and so on, and that’s perfectly reasonable. We shouldn’t force people to have a multi-racial luncheon club, though it would be great if there were more than we have at present. But that doesn’t mean we should be facilitating ghettoisation.

I think we have a duty in London, in the UK, in a multi-faith, multicultural community to try to tie people together, recognise common interests, provide coherent leadership and create a very strong sense of fairness and that we’re looking after everyone. Lutfur shows a misunderstanding of his role. He’s created a culture in which people are looking over their shoulder, wondering what they need to do to please the emperor.

You have some thoughts in your manifesto about the management of Brick Lane. There’s been plenty of rubbish written and broadcast in recent years describing Tower Hamlets as an Islamic Republic or claiming that no white person dares to walk down Whitechapel Road in case some mad mullah attacks him, yet Brick Lane on a Friday night is full of people boozed up to the eyeballs.

Well, Tower Hamlets is not full of mad mullahs and all people, I think, can feel safe walking down the streets apart from those who represent a threat to the rest of us. The Brick Lane area up into Shoreditch has become one of the three night time hotspots in London, alongside the West End and the Brixton area. There’s a lot of trade there, a lot of potential, a lot of money’s being made. A lot of it is very pleasant and enjoyable. But there are problems with uncontrolled street drinking and people pissing in doorways, which causes massive offence. It needs proper Town Hall management and better partnership with the police.

The other thing about Brick Lane is that it’s still seen as the heart of the Bengali community. You’ve got the Brick Lane mosque, you’ve got the curry trade, you’ve got some lovely cafes down there. It’s being squeezed by the rising rent levels. Also, if we’re going to have a thriving curry business there, some of it needs to be better than it is at the moment.

If we’re going to retain Brick Lane as the heart of the Bengali community, in the way that, say, Chinatown has maintained some character, then it needs a lot of long, hard talking about how we sustain that in the context of ever-rising property prices. We need to give the curry business some support, and the current council has done very little about that. The mayor talks about it, but it needs some disciplined leadership because the traders themselves often have difficulty reaching agreement. It’s a big piece of work, but the community feels strongly about this and we need to see what we can do.

Why do you think Lutfur Rahman has been a successful politician? Why do people vote for him?

He very successfully managed to position himself in 2010 as a victim in a contest with a low turnout that looked like a contest between two Bangladeshi factions in which the rest of the community didn’t have much interest. Plus a lot of people, I think, didn’t realise how powerful a mayor could be.

You’ve said to me before that you recognise that plenty of voters here in Tower Hamlets see him as their champion, a success story they can call their own. And doesn’t he seem to be sticking up for them in a wider context where the media is full of stories about sinister Islamist plotters and when certain politicians are busily assertingfor electoral gain that this is a Christian country? Isn’t that part of why people voted for him in 2010?

We need to have a values-based political system. I don’t think that religious affiliation should form an important part of that in what is, essentially, a secular community. The story of Bangladesh is a story of secular struggle against the oppressive Pakistani government in support of peoples’ right to develop their language and so on. So the religious argument, in my view, is a red herring other than in terms of the values of mutuality and respect. I live by very strong Christian values, even though I’m not an active Christian. And I think those values are pretty universal, actually.

But his success is symbolic of something, isn’t it? And he has some good principles, doesn’t he?

Yes, I’m sure he has. And it’s very lazy politics to say, you know, Margaret Thatcher will steal your children and sell them into slavery, or that Lutfur Rahman will convert the borough into an Islamic Republic. All that sort of rubbish. And it is rubbish. From what I know of Rahman, he’s a pretty secular guy. He has formed affiliations with people who are not very secular, and I think that’s a little bit suspect because I think that, while respecting peoples’ faith and their particular values, he needs to say it shouldn’t be part of the deal here, you’ve got to subscribe to something bigger. Everyone goes through the motions of that, but some organisations don’t really follow it to the letter.

Our community in Tower Hamlets is a pretty secular community, in which people knock around together pretty well. I think within the Muslim community there is anxiety about Islamisation and the risk of it. I think we should be alive to that, but I wouldn’t want to overstate it. I will hopefully win the election and reassert strong secular values in an administration which nurtures and supports and encourages our strong faith communities but also creates greater cohesion. We won’t be tolerant of groups who seek to divide. Rather than any Islamisation of the council, I think there has been political opportunism in which people have turned a blind eye to some of the more questionable practices of some people affiliated with some religious groups. And I think a lot of people in mosques would agree with me on that.

One influential organisation based in Tower Hamlets, the Islamic Forum Europe, is frequently described by some people extremist. Is it?

I remember a meeting on one of Ken Livingstone’s campaigns with a bunch of people from IFE and one guy opened a briefcase and took out a list and said these are our members and each of them will be expected to bring out 20 voters in support of you, Ken. Now, if I was a conspiracy theorist who thought the country was being Islamised I would see that as evidence of people wanting to build an Islamic Republic. But I don’t think it was anything of the sort. I really don’t.

Imagine you’re a young Muslim person growing up in a predominantly Christian country. Your parents came here with all sorts of expectations, some were fulfilled, some weren’t. There’s a struggle for identity in a complicated world. I see the IFE at its core as being a forum where people can share ideas and understand the relationship between their faith and their role in society.

Just as monks did years ago some people may conclude that they should withdraw from society and become exclusively devoted to their faith but most will find a pragmatic accommodation between their faith and their values and the way in which they get on in society, bring up their kids and so on. A forum is not a re-education camp. There are doubtless people affiliated to the IFE who’ve got other agendas. But I think predominantly it’s not an organisation that’s trying to take over the world. 

Why should Bengali voters here, many of them very politically engaged, vote for you rather than for Lutfur Rahman?

Because I’m a Labour politician committed to respecting communities, faiths, and diversity, but also part of the mainstream, which is what people came here to be part of. I’m a respectful, decent bloke who’s got a track record for delivering and I will roll my sleeves up and get on with the nitty gritty of providing opportunities and school places and trying to challenge the rough edges of the housing market, rather than getting preoccupied with some of the niche issues that have preoccupied so much of Lutfur Rahman’s administration.

And here’s the piece with Lutfur:

The East End’s independent mayor seems permanently embattled yet has a history of thriving on it and he defends both his policies and his administration’s culture vigorously

London’s East End has a turbulent political history and Lutfur Rahman’s mayoralty forms the latest chapter of it. Born in Bangladesh but raised from an early age in the borough he has led since 2010 as its executive mayor, he is the most probed and denigrated local authority leader in the land.

The decision last month by communities secretary Eric Pickles to send inspectors in to the Town Hall to look at the council’s books, following a BBC Panorama programme about Rahman, is but the latest example. These auditor deliberations form the more forensic part of the backdrop to an election campaign which also features a venomous array of claims and counter claims about corruption, cronyism and covert “Islamisation” with, it often appears, everyone accusing everyone else of racial bias. It’s not a pretty sight.

Ladbrokes make Labour’s candidate John Biggs the slight favourite, but the local party has bitter experience of Rahman taking on and beating it. A former Labour leader of the council, he forced his way on to their mayoral candidate shortlist for 2010 after taking legal action and won the selection vote with ease, only to be dumped by Labour’s national executive committee. He fought the inaugural, stand-alone mayoral contest as an independent and romped to victory.

I met Rahman in his plush office at Tower Hamlets Town Hall, which is located in the wealthy Docklands part of this borough of economic extremes. We spoke for 50 minutes about housing and regeneration, education, and claims that he’s constructed a culture of self-serving patronage. As ever, he was gleamingly turned out. As usual, he was strident in his dismissal of his critics. Now read on…

Dave Hill: At the top of your manifesto list is housing and regeneration. You say you’re hoping to build 5,500 new affordable homes over four years. How much of it will be social rented of one kind or another and how much will be the intermediate kind of affordable?

Lutfur Rahman: First of all, can I say we need to deliver affordable houses because of the overcrowding in the borough and the number of people who are on the waiting list. Before my last term my commitment was for 4,000 and we have met that commitment. Ken Livingstone set out in his London Plan, and which to some extent I think Mr [Boris] Johnson has continued this, there was a 70/30 divide, so 70% will be to rent and 30% will be intermediate, shared ownership.

What about council housing specifically?

On three of our sites we will deliver 100% council housing. So, on the Poplar Baths site we’re delivering some 60 council houses there, then 40 on the Dame Collet House site, and then on Watts Grove, another site – I’m sure [my Labour challenger] Mr Biggs has thrown that in somewhere[see footnote] – again, we will get 150 council homes.

The Whitechapel Vision is, of course, a big regeneration scheme in the borough. Projects like that always upset some people and the difficulty with them is that they can end up making life more difficult for the sorts of people who most need an improved neighbourhood. Everything becomes more expensive. As a politician of the left, how are you going to avoid those unwanted consequences?

Obviously we have Canary Wharf to learn from. Although I’m a firm supporter of that financial district I believe it could have been delivered in a way that worked in partnership with the indigenous community there, the white working class community, and not forced them out – a way where they could co-exist. There’s a lesson from that that we’re taking forward. So I’ve got officers on board and I’m glad that Ken Livingstone has agreed to come on board as an adviser, with all his experience with the Olympic site.

It’s about working with the existing shop owners and stallholders of the market in Whitechapel as part of what we do, then working with the big landowners: Transport for London has land behind the Crossrail station, we have some land and there are other stakeholders such as the Royal Mail site, the London Hospital site, and a site has already been bought by London and Quadrant Housing Association. So I’m very mindful of the existing community, very mindful of those who live and trade and have offices there. But with that in mind, life needs to go on.

When we did the masterplan I said all along that the existing communities must be protected, must be looked after and supported. We had a rigorous, three-month consultation process led by officers, and the cabinet member for regeneration Rubina Khan was part and parcel of that, and we met the stakeholders and people were quite excited, but of course there was some anxiety and opposition but we made sure we heeded those apprehensions and accommodated them.

I remember asking Newham’s mayor Sir Robin Wales about Queens Market on his patch, which he had plans to revamp, and complaints that it would become too posh and unaffordable to the local people who used it. Can you reassure people who use Whitechapel market, which offers very good value, that it will stay that way?

I believe the change will be a positive change. Of course, we want gentrification, but gentrification that supports and assists the existing local community. We want to bring in jobs, housing, office space and shopping, but local shops, not big chains. We’re not here to compete with Westfield [in Stratford]. We’re here to complement Westfield, and the shopping centre in Canary Wharf. We’re five minutes away from the City. We’re in the middle of the A11 corridor. We want to complement and add to what already exists.

And can I also say this? We are in the process of relocating the Town Hall to the middle of Whitechapel, the old Royal London Hospital site, as part of a new civic hub. That’s for two reasons: one, to keep that building in public ownership, so it doesn’t become a five-star hotel, and make our Town Hall more accessible; two, we want to save the £40m a year we spend on rent on this place [the current Town Hall] and take the workforce into the heart of Whitechapel so that their buying power is used for local products. We will be the catalyst. I support inward investment, I support mobility and capitalism. But it must be managed capitalism, a managed market economy that benefits the local people.

Brick Lane, with its extraordinary history, is also part of all this. When I interviewed your main opponent John Biggs he said Brick Lane’s night time economy needed to be managed more rigorously and that if the area’s distinctive character is to be maintained the curry trade there needs to be helped and improved. He says you haven’t made a good enough job of that. What’s your vision for Brick Lane’s future?

I don’t want to have a slanging match with John Biggs, but I’ve been here for three and a half years and in that time I’ve done twice as much for the markets, and the shopping districts and for Brick Lane as Labour did in the previous 15 years. I have not seen Mr Biggs show any interest in Brick Lane since he became a London Assembly member. So with great respect to him, I don’t think he’s in any position to lecture me or my administration.

Of course, Columbia Road market, Petticoat Lane market, Bethnal Green market, and Brick Lane/Banglatown, are the heart and soul of Tower Hamlets. Brick Lane and Banglatown are very precious to me. It was home to the Jewish community, home to the Huguenot community, and now it’s home to the Bangladeshi community. It’s our identity, our fathers came here. I live in that ward and I have represented that ward. When my father came to this country in the Fifties, have a guess where he stayed? On Old Montague Street, where I stay now. So it’s the heart and soul of the Bangladeshi community, but it’s also part and parcel of Tower Hamlets.

Can I just say that the money we’ve spent and in partnership with the police – and they’ll tell you this – a lot of the resources goes on the west of the borough [where Brick Lane and Whitechapel are] and with its name going up in the entertainment world, of course there will be some unwanted elements. So I will do whatever is necessary to protect and work with the traders there, and I have done.

You talk in your manifesto about a registration scheme for private sector landlords. Are you modelling that on schemes that already exist, such as in Newham and Lewisham?

As you know, because of government benefit caps many landlords are not willing to house tenants who are on benefits or are increasing the rent excessively and many of those properties are in a poor condition. A large number of our homeless households are in private dwellings, so we want to ensure that we know who the landlords are, the number of properties they have in the borough and the condition of them so that we can do a proper survey.

So will you be giving the equivalent of a kite mark to those properties reaching the standard you expect?

Absolutely. And there will be some sanction: some civil sanction, some penalties, if they don’t comply with a minimum standard or agree to come on board with us.

Such as?

That’s the model we’re working on, and it’s being refined as we go along. As you said, it’s working I think reasonably well in Newham and one or two other authorities and we will learn from them. We’ve got some fantastic landlords in the borough, and we’re going to work with them. The ones that aren’t so good, we’ll support them with bringing them up to a good standard.

There’s a need for more school places here and in many parts of London. You’re opposed to academies. What’s your attitude to free schools?

It’s the same view. I’m a product of state schools. My kids go to state schools. And for me the state schools have worked very well in Tower Hamlets.

Well, free schools are a type of state school. They are funded by the government.

I’ll come on to that, but for us it is about schools that are fit for their purpose, that have proper playgrounds where kids can feel free at that age to be innovative and creative. We have a £380m school refurbishment programme. Some of our schools are fantastic, in beautiful buildings and the Institute of Education said only a few months ago that some of our schools are among the best urban schools in the world.

But free schools are already on their way. There are different ways for local authorities to deal with them. What’s your approach?

Well, there are groups here and there who want to set up free schools. We will not support them, as such, in their endeavour. But once it has happened we will work with those institutions to make sure that our children get the best education.

There are people and politicians who dislike the free school policy as a whole, but can see ways in which it might provide schools that meet a particular need that other schools, even if they are good schools, cannot.

Maybe in other boroughs that need may be there, but I don’t believe that in Tower Hamlets there is that kind of need. And always in our policy process we are looking for opportunities to expand our schools and create new ones.

Let’s look at some of the criticisms made of you by opponents and in the media. There have been allegations and, let’s say, mutterings about the youth service. You’ve brought that under direct Town Hall control and invested a lot of money in it. It’s been said to me that some youth service staff find themselves put under pressure to deliver votes for you. Any truth in that?

Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I have the highest respect for our staff, whether it’s the most senior staff on the council or the most junior. There’s a dividing line between politics and governance and delivery and I respect that very much as mayor.

Let me tell you why I brought the youth service in house. We spend £10m a year on youth services, and that all started when I was leader of the council [under the previous local government arrangements in Tower Hamlets] and I have continued that as mayor. We’ve had to find some £125m of cuts. There were two or three areas where I said, “no cuts” and the youth service was one of them.

Now, what I saw – and I grew up in this borough – when I spoke to people, was that the youth service was being delivered in a disjointed way. A lot of money was going into middle management, sub-contracted and so on. So I said let’s bring it in house so that we can deliver the service directly with the various stakeholders in the community, and in that way we can know who’s accountable, say I know who is delivering what.

Under no circumstances do I have any unprofessional relationship with any youth workers in this borough. That’s a lie, it’s an untruth that was peddled against me when I was leader of the council and it is being peddled against me now that I’m the mayor.

But people aren’t saying, “Lutfur says to x go and say this or that to y”. They are saying that there is a kind of culture in which the sort of behaviour I’ve described can and does go on – which is a slightly different charge, isn’t it? Are you absolutely satisfied that nothing like that is going on?

Listen, I’ve always had allegations [like that] made against me since I was leader of the council in 2008. None of it has been substantiated, none of it will be substantiated. This is dog whistle politics at play in Tower Hamlets. In any event I have no dealings with junior officers on the ground. One, I’m not allowed to. And, two, I have no time for that. All I want to see is a top class youth service being delivered across the borough, and that’s why it was brought in house.

So my predictable final question on this is, if serious evidence of that sort of thing – people working in the youth service saying to those they work with, in effect, we expect you to help Lutfur – was brought to you, what would you do?

Residents of this borough have a right to choose who they vote for in any election. And unless they are politically restricted they have a right to go and campaign for whichever candidate or party they wish to. But if someone who’s not politically restricted is campaigning for x, y or z, how can I stop that?

But the nub of the allegations is that it’s within their work with young people – that they are allowing their political campaigning to influence the way they are delivering a council service.

Well, I believe that during their work time they should not indulge in political activity. That’s wrong, whoever it is.

And you would take steps against it?

Absolutely, whether it was someone supporting me or someone supporting someone else. But if someone does something on their own time, whether it’s supporting me or my opponent, I can’t stop that.

The allegation, though, is that the boundary is getting blurred.

I don’t think they are getting blurred. The lines and the boundaries are very clear. They have always been clear and we have a strong management in this council. I have confidence in senior officers to make sure that junior officers or any officer doesn’t indulge in partisan activity during work time.

Let’s deal with the other part of the youth service allegations, and this connects up with the claims of favouritism over grant allocation made in the Panorama programme. The claim is that too much youth service provision is directed at young Bengali men in particular and that too much of that provision is…well, the term “Islamisation” is used, and the complaint is that this goes against what should be a secular ethos in the service. How do you respond to that?

That is quite new to me, but again it’s another accusation that I’m not surprised about. It just annoys me that it’s being thrown at the good staff of this council. Let me tell you something: our youth workers are some of the best in the country. Our rapid response team is fantastic.

Why didn’t we have a riot in Tower Hamlets [in 2011]? Why didn’t we have that mindless activity by the youths? It’s because of the partnership that we have with the various communities. And very importantly because of the relationship our youth service and youth workers have with the young people of this borough. During that day, our youth workers were out from three in the morning walking the streets, and so was I, making sure that the youths were not engaged in any such activities.

During the English Defence League marches our youth workers were on the front line, protecting and working with the police so there was a clear buffer between the EDL supporters and our residents so there weren’t any riots. So they should be praised.

I asked John Biggs about the grants allocation. I asked him what principles should guide this and I want to put his answer to you, because it was interesting and quite measured. He said: “In a multi-faith, multi-ethnic community everyone who gets a grant must buy into the principle of community cohesion, which doesn’t mean they have to be totally secular – I don’t agree with Robin [Wales’s] approach on this – but people do need to understand the importance of being outward-looking in a borough like Tower Hamlets and not creating inward-looking bunkers, whether they are ninth generation cockneys or fourth generation Bengalis.” He feels that you aren’t following such principles and are, in fact, favouring one community over another.

I agree with the principle of One Tower Hamlets and the principle of community cohesion. I agree with the principle that public money must be used based on need and based on a process, but I don’t accept his insinuation that I’m favouring the Bengali community. Let me say this to you: we deliver £300m of contracts and 99.9% are delivered to non-BME organisations. They are big organisations. No-one questions them. No one says, let’s look at those and how why serve the BME community.

What’s being talked about with the mainstream grants is 0.5% of the total budget of this council. That’s £8m. Mainstream grants were delivered under other leaders of the council, but no questions were raised then. Can I also say, 37% of population, including the Bengali and the Somali population, are non-white. Only 8% of our grant, as you’ve heard, goes to that community. And even then there is an officer process involving eight or nine meetings and at the end of it I said yes or I said no. The mayor has that power. In only a tiny minority of cases…I know the area, I grew up here, I understand the need, and I said, look, we need to have a look at this. It’s a tiny fraction of the overall grant process.

I think it is accepted that we’re discussing a very small part of the amount of money you have to spend. But because control of it is within your very particular power as mayor, and because a place like this has a lot of people competing for very limited resources, even the perception of unfairness or favouritism is something you really do need to avoid. That’s a point John Biggs is making.

I take offence to that remark from him that he made on the BBC that I’m favouring the Bengali community. I say to him, and to my other opponents who make those kinds of untrue and unfounded allegations, that there’s a list of some 350 organisations. Don’t be scared. Show me an example of one that shouldn’t have got public money. Come on, Mr Biggs!

He also said he thinks you’ve taken “too much of a micro-managerial interest in the grant-making decisions” and haven’t properly justified the amendments you made.

If he’s got a specific allegation, why doesn’t me put it in writing, why doesn’t he be specific? This is nothing but dog whistle politics. Listen, there are historical inequalities and they need to be balanced. For me, race is not an issue here. For me, the issue is 265,000 people live in this borough. Whatever background they come from is not important to me. What’s important to me is deprivation, is disadvantage, is equality of opportunity and community cohesion. I want my borough to go forward. And if we see disadvantage and if we see deprivation and if we see there is a need in this part of a corner of the borough then we need to address that and get people on board with us.

It’s like with education. The white working-class boys and the Somali boys are not doing so well. We have intensive interventions in the council’s education service to help them to bring their education standard up. So wherever there is need, we will work with people to support them. So, of course I want to see a fair distribution of public money, and it is fair.

John Biggs makes a more general criticism. He says you have “created a culture in which people are looking over their shoulder, wondering what they need to do to please the emperor.” The emperor being you.

Oh, my God!

He has a nice sense of humour, let’s be fair.

I see myself as a public servant. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity I’ve had to serve the people who gave me so much as a youngster, gave me a break in life and have given my children a break in life. This isn’t my job, this is my passion. As long as I have an opportunity to serve the people of this borough, I will serve them. I am part and parcel of this community, and I’m not going away anywhere. Look at what we have achieved over the past three and a half years.

For him [John Biggs] to say there’s a culture of fear here is, again, dog whistle politics. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have received some of the top accolades in the country, such as on education, or with the LGBT community.

Why did voters choose you over other candidates in 2010?

Because I am a product of the education system here. I grew up in this borough. I have a huge stake in this borough. I want to see a borough that is competing with the City of London and Westminster, you know the best in the country and in Europe. And I’m connected to the people of this borough, whether you are young, old, black or white.

Do you think some of your success might be to do with the wider political context? If I were a young Muslim man growing up here and I wasn’t too interested in the minutiae of policy, I might still look at you and think, ‘this guy is sticking up for me. He’s a bit like me’. He might see the big car you’ve been using as a sign of success, not ostentation. Are you seen by fellow Muslims in this borough and in this time as someone who sticks up for them?

Well, I’m glad if I’m a role model. But where this comes from, this idea that only Muslims voted for me, that’s a dangerous race card that some people are playing. Look, I grew up in a part of Bow in the 1970s that was full of skinheads. But you know who protected me? White kids and black kids. White kids gave me the shelter and gave me the protection.

They said to the skinheads, don’t pick on him because he’s a good lad. If it wasn’t for those white kids who gave me the support, I wouldn’t be the Lutfur Rahman I am now. And I say to my detractors, people are not voting for me because I’m a Muslim or because I might be a successful lawyer, it’s because I’m clear in my policies and I’m going to do my damned best to deliver those policies. That’s why people vote for me.

Lutfur Rahman’s manifesto can be read here. My interview with his chief rival John Biggs is here.

Footnote: The original Watts Grove Depot housing scheme, which is in Bromley-by-Bow, had to be shelved by the mayor on grounds of affordability, resulting in Labour and Conservative councillors voting for an investigation into the deal. Mayor Rahman’s administration said last November that it was looking at “alternative ways to deliver the outcome of the Watts Grove Depot scheme”.

 

 

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