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At Lutfur Rahman’s first full council as mayor in October 2010, the East London Advertiser reported the following:

Lutfur Rahman will not have appreciated that his first matter of council business last night (October 27) as the borough’s new mayor was a £10,000 cut to his salary.

Appearing at the first council meeting at the Town Hall in Mulberry Place since his election, he spoke of his pride in his new role in front of over 100 supporters in the public gallery.

Tower Hamlet’s first-ever directly-elected mayor also rewarded his campaign manager, Ohid Ahmed, by appointing him as deputy mayor but will wait until November 11 to announce his cabinet.

Mr Rahman’s joy at the occasion soon turned to dismay though as he accused the council’s Labour Group of pettiness in putting forward an amendment to cut his annual salary from £75,095 to £65,000.

The amendment to a constitutional report, which also limits the number of paid advisers the Mayor can employ, was passed by the council.

Mayor Rahman said: “It saddens me on the first day that we indulge in this kind of petty politics.

“During my two years as council leader I was the only leader in this council’s history that took a 25 per cent pay cut for the year.

“Let me say, I don’t do this for money but let me remind you I have given up a successful legal career and a partnership in a legal firm.

“What drives me is will and the urge to serve. I am happy with whatever I am paid.”

The mayors of Hackney, Lewisham and Newham earn salaries of between £75,000 and £78,000 a year.

Speaking to the council, Labour councillor Josh Peck, chairman of the working group which put forward the constitutional report, said there had been an ‘oversight’ after the report was originally agreed in August.

At an internal Labour meeting in September, members narrowly voted to increase the salary for the full-time role to £75,000 but Mr Peck told The Advertiser today this shouldn’t have been included in the report because it was not agreed by other parties.

Last night, Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem councillors all voted in favour of the amendment.

But Independent councillor Oliur Rahman, one of the ‘gang-of-eight’ councillors expelled from the Labour Party for backing Lutfur Rahman’s mayoral bid, said: “This can only be a petty and cynical response to losing an election.”

Mr Peck replied that the lower salary was set before mayoral candidates were selected and said the new mayor proposed a salary of £32,000 before he was shortlisted.

He said today: “£65,000 is the right salary, it is a good salary.”

This coming Wednesday, the full council will in Item 11 debate the pay arrangements for elected representatives over the coming year.

In an email to councillors eight days ago, Mayor John Biggs explained the proposal from the majority Labour group (which is likely to pass).

This is the proposed table of pay:

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 11.13.49

[Since his email, proposed pay rises have been suggested for the Speaker to £10,000 and for the Deputy Speaker to £5,000.]

First off, let’s have these facts in our minds: 1) deep Government cuts affecting frontline services; 2) pay for most local government employees is proposed to go up by just 1% this year; 3) councillors’ pay has remained frozen for a number of years; 4) some councillors rely on their allowances as sole (declared) income (not a good thing); and 5) very many councillors work extremely hard, while others do not.

Under these proposals, there will be inflation-busting pay rises for everyone. Basic pay for all councillors will go up by 5.3%. Oli Rahman would see his Special Responsibility Allowance for being leader of the THING go up to £11,300 (7.5%); and Tory leader Peter Golds would have a 40% jump in his SRA from £5,709 to £8,000. The total pot paid to councillors for all these roles would rise 6%.

But most of the political backlash will no doubt focus on John Biggs.

As I’m sure you’ve already spotted, the proposed mayoral salary goes back to the figure slashed by Labour more than five years ago – to £75,000. He has announced he accept only half that rise this year (to around £70k), and will take the rest next year if progress has been made. And although he’s entitled to £11,300 as a majority group leader, I think I’m right in saying he doesn’t take that.

The likes of Oli will also point out that John’s pay rise comes just a week or so after the loss of his salary for being a GLA member.
I think this is a difficult one. Pay at some levels of local government is outrageously poor; at others it’s ridiculously high. The council has just recruited a new head of communications, for example, at a salary of around £100k. Many believe that’s way too high, while others believe it needs pitching at that level to attract good candidates. But whatever the merits of that salary, should the executive mayor’s post, done properly, be valued almost a third lower?

I asked John to justify the rise in the context of cuts and value for money. His answer below is damning of his predecessor’s work ethic (something that is echoed among senior officers). This is what he told me:

Because of the stand-off between the former mayor and council there had been no proper review of allowances for some years. The proper time for such changes is in my view in the period immediately following the elections but this was missed. 

I am proposing a number of changes to committees and structures and as a part of this a short review of allowances. I have informed and involved the opposition leaders in these discussions. The main change is to update the general allowance paid to all members.  Increases are also proposed for those holding Special Responsibilities (SRAs), and for the Mayor.

If agreed the Tower Hamlets allowances will become fairly average for London and our Mayor would remain the lowest paid. If the Council agreed the change to my allowance I would only take half of it, with the other half next year provided we have made further progress in sorting the Council out.

As a further consideration for members, particularly those who rely on their allowances for a significant part of their income, it is worth noting that the Government recently banned members from membership of the pension scheme, which included employers contributions of over 10% on top of their allowance. This loss is partially also reflected in the updating of allowances proposed.

As far as the cuts argument is concerned: there is never a good time to agree allowances, but all are within or below the range suggested by an independent panel for all London councillors, whose report guided us. However, the increased cost of about £46,000 should be considered against the saving of about £300,000 in the costs of operating the Mayor’s office, and the mayors allowance compared the the scrapping of the chauffeured car, which saved about £30,000 a year.

A comparison with council staff is tempting but is based on soft foundations – whereas for example many council officers receive increments, promotions or upgrading, plus an annual increase in most years, elected members have no such opportunities and do not have secure employment as councillors, while making in most cases great personal and career sacrifices. It’s quite right that these are tough times but the proposals are a recommendation and up to the Council to agree or reject.

As regards my workload and whether I am worth a reasonable pay that is for others to judge, but I work at least 80 hours a week, am at my desk by 7.15am most mornings, getting home normally after 10pm. As an indicator, I read and respond to about 1000 emails a week, with more than this dealt with by my office. The council is in a worse state than I had expected – beyond the headlines of the misbehaviour of the previous mayor a whole number of key decisions had been missed, in an outrageous failure of leadership.  Were it not for the superb effort and commitment of many of our officers we would be in a far worse state. 

I anticipate working at this level for the foreseeable future. The previous Mayor on the other hand, as far as I can tell, rarely appeared before the afternoon, generally failed to keep appointments, never sent emails on official business and appears to have ‘kicked the can down the road’ where leadership was needed.

Those who said he was a hero should more accurately perhaps have scored him as a zero. And the borough will take some time to recover. It takes serious and dedicated effort to do that.

An executive mayor is full time job. If he had more hair, John I’m sure would say he’s a L’Oreal mayor (“because I’m worth it”.) Is he? What do you think?

He’s going to get a lot of flak for this – and as it was Labour which cut Lutfur’s pay, he knows where to point the finger of blame…

Personally, I think if he does the job well, he deserves it. I have more concern over SRAs paid to other councillors, and it will be interesting to examine who gets which posts for the coming year and then to check their attendance records thus far.

One thing I’ve noticed over the past 11 years covering Tower Hamlets is how easy it is to find some kind of link in national political rows to the politics of east London.

Today, the Mail on Sunday carries a story on comments made at a Palestine Solidarity Campaign hustings in Ealing in February 2015.

It quotes Rupa Huq, then the parliamentary candidate for Ealing Central and now its MP, telling the audience that a Labour government “could probably” ensure Britain apologised for helping to create the state of Israel in 1948.

The story says this is the latest episode in Labour’s anti-Semitism row.

It’s not been a good couple of weeks for Rupa Huq. Ten days ago, she unwisely went on to the Today programme in an attempt to defend Naz Shah over her anti-Semitic Facebook postings. She told Radio 4: “If it is career destroying it seems we are entering a phase where its trial by Twitter. As far as I know Naz Shah did not write antisemitic tracts or anything, she pressed ‘Share’ on a picture which was idiotic and foolish.

“I do think this does demonstrate the perils of social media. As far as I understand, this is before she was an MP, before she was a candidate even. She shared a post on Facebook. It’s easy to click those buttons.”

It’s not only the perils of social media. As Rupa is learning, it’s also the perils of speaking in public, on the hoof, on matters about which you’re not fully briefed, where anyone can record you, and particularly if those knowledge gaps include Palestine and Israel.

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 12.35.55I first met Rupa in 2007, when she was up against the likes of Lutfur Rahman, John Biggs and Rushanara Ali in Tower Hamlets trying to secure the Labour candidacy for Bethnal Green in Bow. She wrote a short diary piece (left) about her experiences for me at the East London Advertiser at the time – and asked it be headlined ‘Diary of a Nobody’.

She struck me then as being slightly naive about the poisonous waters of Tower Hamlets politics and I was relieved for her when she failed to beat Rushanara.

I’m not sure some of that general naivety has completely disappeared.

As a direct result of the Mail article (which, at her insistence, this morning changed the words ‘should apologise’ in its headline to ‘could apologise’), she has received some pretty vile hate mail by email.

This one has been forwarded to the police:

“Get out of my country you ugly racist cu*t! Ugly, smelly Muslim vermin.”

I won’t name the person who emailed this, but let’s look at what prompted him to send it.

In the article, Rupa was quoted in this context:

Answering a question about whether an apology should be made, Ms Huq said: ‘1948, that happened under a British government. To my mind, an apology – yes. You could do one. A Labour Government could probably get that through.’

She added: ‘But it sounds a bit Tony Blair to me though, and we all know what happened to him.

Ms Huq – whose sister is the former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq – told The Mail on Sunday that the remarks she made did not reflect her actual views.

‘I don’t think that, those aren’t my views,’ she said. ‘I was answering a question. I went on later to say that there shouldn’t be an apology.

‘I have supported Labour Friends of Israel events and am a signatory to the We Believe In Israel charter.’

The video clip of the meeting is here:

Rupa told me today that with Angie Bray, the Tory candidate, declining to attend the February 2015 meeting, she was ‘probably the most right wing person there’ and was frequently jeered. She said she felt a little bit out of her depth on the specifics of questions raised.

She said the candidates were asked ‘Should the UK apologise for Israel?’ This was her answer in full:

“On the question of the historic legacy… I mean I said at the beginning that it’s a long, long history – you can trace it back to BC. I mean I think you’re referring more specifically to 1948 that happened under a British government? To my mind… an apology… Yes you could do one…. a Labour government could probably get that through, but it sounds a bit Tony Blair to me though, and we all know what happened to himHe did apologies for the Irish potato famine in 1998 amongst other things but he was pilloried. I mean you couldn’t make it up.

“But yeah, it would be possible to do an apology, but I think what’s more important is to move forward and to make sure that Palestinian people can live in peace in an independent state of their own, I think that’s what we need to focus on. I mean an apology – yeah you could do that, it might be symbolic but for the future we want a viable Palestine.”

So a bit more nuanced. She is a strong supporter of the two-state solution and strongly supports Israel’s right to exist. No doubt she’ll get vile emails from the other side now.

However, for the wellbeing of her own political career, she’d be well advised to stick to subjects on which she is a master of detail from now on…and stay away from the media for a while.

I may well be a bit late with this and apologies for that but as I’ve done in previous elections, here’s a live open blog for you to feed back observations on turnout and any other shenanigans in Tower Hamlets (and Newham?) today.

And thoughts on candidates and voting tactics.

Over to you.

Update at 7.20pm:

As the reader who sent me this image of Labour GLA candidate Unmeah Desai says: “A picture can tell a thousand words.”


Behold, wearing the shades..that’s ex-Respect group leader and ex-Tower Hamlets First member, the one and only, the martial arts king, Cllr Abjol Miah. Has he now joined Labour??? We must be told…

The night John Biggs was finally elected mayor last June, a number of senior councillors from all parties chatted to me about ways in which the borough could now move forward.

The one word I offered up in every conversation was ‘transparency’. There needed to be a culture change, not just from the Lutfur Rahman years but also from the decades before that.

This wasn’t just about the elected mayor answering questions at council and scrutiny committee meetings, nor being more open in the way grants decisions were made. But more a change in mindset at every level; a need to encourage councillors and officers to invite scrutiny.

LBTH Councillors' Portraits - 28May14

So credit to Labour’s John Pierce (pictured), the chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, for establishing last July a new Tower Hamlets Transparency Commission which included the likes of Tory leader Peter Golds.

And of course credit to John for inviting me and Mark Baynes of Love Wapping to offer our thoughts and advice at one of his early sessions.

I tweeted this at the time:

Mark, an expert in open data and data analysis, wrote about this last August in an excellent detailed post here. His thoughts centred on essential technical issues about how data should be presented in a clean and readable way.

For example:

Love Wapping’s four Open Data recommendations for Tower Hamlets

Open Data Payments to Suppliers payment thresholds

Open Data endpoint identification

Presentation of council data

Identification of Local Election Candidates and their proposers

1. Open Data – Spending

Currently every local authority is required by law to publish all Payments to Suppliers over £500. While this is useful and has been the basis of the majority of LW’s data investigations into grants payments recent events have shown that this threshold is too high.

LW recommends that Tower Hamlets Council should publish all payments to suppliers above £100.

LW also recommends that the threshold for publication of credit card payments should be £10.

For my part, I made clear my well known views on grants, spending, registers of interests and Freedom of Information, as well as making some other points.

For example, I suggested the council publish on the home page of each councillor (the one where they include their contact details) the total amounts they are paid in allowances and expenses. I said this should include not only their current fees, but also the total amounts paid to them since the last election.

Taking John Biggs’s page as an example, you currently see this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 15.30.08

As you can see, there’s nothing about his salary. It should be the first thing on the list.

I also told the committee that Tower Hamlets now had the chance to become a beacon for transparency. The council’s image was mud in this regard and things could only improve. Handled well, it could set the standard for local government generally.

Having given our thoughts, Mark and I were told we’d be kept informed throughout the process and until the commission’s report was published.

So it was a bit of a surprise and a little disappointing to learn when I Googled the “Tower Hamlets transparency commission” late last week that the report had already been presented without any fanfare at all to the mayor on Jan 29. Another search revealed a small press release had been sent out on February 5. Neither Mark nor I were included in the distribution list.

This is what the press release said:

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 14.54.14

Sparkling it most certainly was not. I think the statistics issued on tractor production by the Communist Party of the USSR had more passion and news sense.

So no surprise not a single mainstream media outlet has picked up the relatively good news.

The council is currently recruiting for a new head of communications to replace my old mate Takki Sulaiman who is now upsetting the hacks of Aberdeen. The job is offering a £100k a year salary, which should attract someone with a top background in local government comms. According to the Appointments Committee, the interviews will be held on March 31. The new person will have the chance to help transform the image of Tower Hamlets, but they will need an understanding of what’s gone wrong.

But more on that another time – let’s look at the transparency report itself. It’s here. There is regular reference to the Mayor’s Transparency Protocol announced last November. That protocol says:

The transparency protocol sets out a series of pledges from the Mayor:  

• The Mayor will take all decisions in public through Cabinet, and where this is not possible, a clear reason will be provided to explain why

• The Mayor will be open to the public, scrutiny and opposition questions at all public decision making forums

• The Mayor will create more opportunities, through public meetings, for residents to ask questions and raise concerns

• The council will involve residents and Councillors in consultation at the earliest possible point in any policy or decision making process

• The council will make information available to the public and all Councillors in a timely and easily accessible format

• The council will actively communicate with residents and respond to queries positively

Cllr Pierce in his foreword to his own report says:

The ambition of the Overview and Scrutiny Transparency Commission is to move Tower Hamlets Council forward to enable it to become a beacon council for openness, transparency and accountability.

This agenda is paramount if the Council wants to regain the trust of our residents while turning around our reputation.

It was right for the cross-party committee, which holds the council and decision-makers to account, to establish a commission to begin this journey. Our goals and recommendations set out the building blocks needed.

It has become clear we need to create an organisational culture, led by senior management and the Mayor, which values and presumes openness. I welcome the Mayor’s transparency protocol, and the commission’s recommendations enhance this work.

The challenges for the council in the coming years are unprecedented. We need to enhance the role of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee to support the council to meet these challenges, along with the requirements of the Best Value Improvement Plan.

With this, transparent open data is essential for accountability, and providing access to our data can empower individuals, the media, civil society and businesses to achieve better outcomes for themselves and for our public services.

Tower Hamlets Council’s motto is ‘from great things to greater’. So let’s aspire to set the gold standard for local government transparency.

 

And its first section says this:

 

Summary

Key Goals

  • Make the council a beacon for openness, accountability and transparency by the end of 2017-18
  • Enhance the role of Overview and Scrutiny to enable greater openness, accountability and transparency in 2016-17
  • Publish all data by default wherever possible by the end of 2016-17

Recommendations to achieve key goals

To make the council a beacon for openness, accountability and transparency by the end of 2017-18, the Commission recommends that:

  1. The Mayor considers additions to his Transparency Protocol to include actions to create an organisational culture, led by senior management, which values and presumes openness. This should include explicit support for whistleblowing.
  2. The Mayor extends his Transparency Protocol to include required conditions for the use of individual mayoral decisions.
  3. The council implements a protocol governing the use of planning pre-committee briefings with applicants present, and includes materials used and any outcomes in reports to the development committees.
  4. The new process for deciding on the spending of planning contributions is open and transparent, and includes some resident involvement.
  5. Information on spending of planning contributions is publicly and easily available delineated by ward, and sent to members, with regular progress reports to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
  6. The council increases opportunities for community engagement in democratic processes, including by:
  • Exploring holding committee meetings in a variety of venues more amenable to the public in different parts of the borough;
  • Providing plain English summaries of items on upcoming committee agendas via the council’s existing communications channels, and reporting these afterwards;
  • Making Council and Cabinet webcasts viewable from the Council’s main social media accounts and on popular video hosting sites such as YouTube;
  • Exploring options for remote and electronic participation in committee meetings, such as offering live streaming and tweeting, and allowing questions via social media;
  • Enabling e-petitions on the council’s website; and
  • Allowing the public to propose items for Overview and Scrutiny workplans.

7. The new Community Engagement Strategy, and changes planned under the Mayor’s Transparency Protocol to the consultation process for policy development and service change, takes account of the findings of the Commission’s consultation.

8. New localised consultation forums allow a key role for ward councillors.

9. Licensing and planning teams explore the feasibility of enabling the public to sign up to receive weekly email bulletins detailing applications received, consultation arrangements, and the status of existing applications, at ward level. They should also:

  • Explore utilising social media and text alerts in relation to consultations; and
  • Use plain English as far as possible in communications, and include guides to technical language that cannot be avoided.

To enhance the role of Overview and Scrutiny to enable greater openness, accountability and transparency in 2016-17, the Commission recommends that:

10. The council undertakes a full review of its Overview and Scrutiny arrangements, and amends these as necessary.

To publish all data by default wherever possible by the end of 2016-17, the Commission recommends that:

11. Officers undertake a full review of compliance with the requirements of the Local Government Transparency Code, and take any action required to secure this compliance on a regular basis.

12. Officers explore approaches to achieving three-star status for all relevant information required to be published by the Local Government Transparency Code (as applicable) within six to nine months; and assess the feasibility of achieving five-star status for different categories of data published by the council on an ongoing basis, in the longer term.

13. The Mayor’s Transparency Protocol is extended to include exploring the feasibility of publishing all of the information recommended in part 3 of the Local Government Transparency Code.

14. In the short term, the council develops a frequently-updated online hub of information accessible from the council homepage, including all information required by the Local Government Transparency Code, as well as additional categories of information suggested in the body of the Commission’s report.

15. In the longer term, the council explores the costs and benefits of regularly publishing all of its data, with exceptions, as recommended in the Local Government Transparency Code.

16. Officers explore options to allow the public to access data published by the council
via user-friendly, visually appealing and easily-navigated interfaces, using Redbridge DataShare and Bath:Hacked as benchmarks.

17. The council appoints an open data champion for each directorate.

18. Progress on implementing the above recommendations supporting open data is reported to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee on a six-monthly basis.

So an awful lot of fine words and theory. We’ll have to wait and see how it works out in practice (something the new head of comms will have to play a major role in).

As for the question of councillor allowances, there is sadly just a single mention of that in the report. It says on page 22 that not only is the council is already publishing those details, but that it is already doing more than required.

The council has a dedicated transparency webpage to access this information, which also links to other information not specifically required by the Code, including the council’s log of Freedom of Information requests and responses; details of allowances paid to members since 2010; and business rate charges for premises.

 

Which kind of misses the spirit of reform.

But so you can see what the council does actually publish in this regard, go to this page and select any year.

I clicked on 2013/14, which gives you this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 14.56.01

 

 

Which doesn’t give a councillor’s first name and so makes an independent Google search of them more difficult if not useless (we have an ‘AR Khan’, and ‘AR Khan’ and an ‘R Khan’ for example); and nor does not it explain or link to what the Special Responsibility Allowance refers to.

And neither does this list include the value of other benefits received by councillors, such as laptops, mobile phones, call charges, and borough wide parking permits.

Were I a councillor running the commission, this would be the first thing I fixed.

Charity begins at home, as they say.

Today is International Mother Language Day, which according to Wikipedia “is a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism”.

Wikipedia adds: “International Mother Language Day has been being observed since 2000 to promote peace and multilingualism. The date corresponds to the day in 1952 when students from the University of DhakaJagannath University and Dhaka Medical College, demonstrating for the recognition of Bengali as one of the two national languages of East Pakistan, were shot dead by police near the Dhaka High Court in the capital of present-day Bangladesh.”

So in Tower Hamlets in particular in the UK it is a significant day, one that is celebrated by several events such as the laying of flowers in Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel.

I’m only into my third lesson learning Bengali and all I can do so far is offer a few basic greetings, say ‘I don’t understand’, and count to 30…which at my pace is long enough to utter the kind of sigh we all thought was disappearing from Tower Hamlets.

One of the songs people sing on this day is…well, instead of me explaining, let’s refer to the council’s own ‘cultural walk’ leaflet for ‘Banglatown and the Bengali East End‘, which states:

In February 1999 the United Nations declared February 21 World Mother Language Day. At midnight on 20 February (Shahid Dibosh) the Language Movement is remembered in a solemn ceremony in the Park – to which the Bengali community comes to lay wreaths. Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, journalist and freeman of Tower Hamlets, wrote the well-known Martyr’s Day song Amar bhaier rokte rangano Ekushe February which is sung at the ceremony.

Abdul_Gaffar_ChoudhuryAbdul Gaffar Choudhury, 81, as might be expected of someone  honoured as a Freeman of the Borough, is famous and highly respected.

He also has a Wikipedia entry, which outlines his long career as a journalist and columnist, the last 41 years of which have been based here in the UK.

Today, he was due to appear at the Whitechapel Idea Store for a panel discussion on the Language Movement alongside a couple of academics and Mayor John Biggs.

This was the advert put out by the council ahead of the event:

IMLDay-2016 copy

But when we arrived, visitors were met by this:

IMG_2266

The extremely courteous Idea Store manager told me that council bosses had cancelled the event after a “reassessment”. He explained that senior managers had at the last minute decided Choudhury’s presence on council property for such an event was not consistent with council booking policies and procedures.

People could sing his song but not hear his words.

Why? Because a complaint had been made by some in the Tower Hamlets community that he had made “defamatory remarks” about Sylhetis (who form by far the vast majority of Bangladeshis in the East End), including Lutfur Rahman and twice convicted insurance fraudster Mahee Jalil Ferdous. And that were the Idea Store event to go ahead there would be “violence”.

Seriously. A threat of violence was made and the council kowtowed.

At this point, I declare an interest. My brother-in-law, Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a man I respect deeply, had been one of the people organising another event in honour of Gaffar Choudhury, for yesterday at the council owned Brady Centre. That was also cancelled. I would normally stay clear of the often problematic politics of Bangladesh on this blog but this episode has broader implications and lessons for everyone to digest.

The row centres on an interview Gaffar Choudhury gave during a chat show on the British Bengali television station Channel i some weeks ago.

According to his enemies, Choudhury, regarded as a Dhaka intellectual, is supposed to have deeply insulted Sylhetis in London by implying they were illiterate and uneducated. He is supposed to have used the phrase “from langol to London”.

One councillor who had no axe to grind on either side told me: “A langol is what farmers use to cut the rice harvest, a knife-like object. So people interpreted his comments as him trying to say Sylhetis are uneducated rural peasant farmers who have suddenly been lifted from their rice fields and dropped into civilised London and don’t know how to behave.”

Gaffar Choudhury and his allies insist he meant no such thing. They say that throughout his life he’s been supportive of Sylhetis and they have always been there for him in times of trouble. They say he was actually praising Sylhetis by saying it was they  who have been upholding the traditions and heritage of Bangladeshis in Britain, and not the educated classes who should have done so.

I understand he was particularly critical of Lutfur (guilty electoral offences) and Mahee Jalil (twice convicted of insurance fraud and founder of Channel S TV) and one or two other self-described unelected “community leaders”. Which is possibly why a great fuss then made.

Even hardened Tower Hamlets politicos have been taken aback by the reaction. They have told me there is politics at play, not just the usual Swami League/Bangladesh National Party spats, but also among those seeking a mayoral power play in Tower Hamlets.

So out came the Tower Hamlets Activist Handbook and a long and angry rally was booked last month at the Water Lily to whip up the masses in Mile End. Former Labour councillor Motin Uz-Zaman was there, as was Ohid Ahmed, Oli Rahman, the latter two apparently appealing for a reasonable response. Others demanded boycotts of Gaffar Choudhury.

Then word got out that the council had invited their Freeman to the Whitechapel Idea Store for Language Day.

So the Greater Sylhet Council UK, one of Lutfur’s favourite rabble rousers, decided to tell Tower Hamlets council what a mistake they were making.

Here’s an email they sent to the council to warn of a violent reaction if the event went ahead.

Dear Judith,

I got an information from the authentic sources that you have organised a programme for the International Mother Language Day at the White Chapel Idea Store on Sunday 21st February.

You have invited Abdul Gaffar Choudhury as a panel member for this event. I would like to inform you that Mr Abdul Gaffar choudhury made a defamatory remarks about our Sylheti Bangladeshi community, founder of chanel S & other community leaders on live TV talk shaw on 12th December.

He also made anti religion remarks in Newyork. Few weeks ago 700 people attended to a protest meeting at the Water Lily,Mile End Road,London E1 against Abdul Gaffar Choudhury.

In this meeting Journalists,community leaders,religious leaders including ex councillor Matinuzzaman,Cllr oliur Rahman,cllr Ohid Ahmed delivered the speeches.

They have called to boycott Abdul Gaffar Choudhury from all events of the community.

we are going to take a legal action against him. Our community are so upset and furious against him. If you allow him to come at the Idea Store, there will be a public disorder, protest and could violence.

so our humble request to you please do not allow him to come at the Idea Store.

please let me know your decision regarding this matter.

Nurul Islam Mahbub,Chairperson,Greater Sylhet Council UK

Kalam M A T Choudhury,Secretary,Voice For Justice UK

I’m not quite clear what Gaffar Choudhury is supposed to have said in New York but apparently it was something scholarly to do with the literal derivation of the word Allah.

However, some people allowed themselves to get upset by it. The Jamaat-e-Islami party, which has links to Tower Hamlets of course, put out a press release at the time saying this.

..his comments and remarks have emanated question whether he is a Muslim or not. It is the duty and obligation of every Muslim to raise voice against his derogatory statement about Islam and religious features.

According to the Daily New Nation paper in Bangladesh, another fundamentalist organisation there went further by calling for his execution. Here:

The Secretary General of Hefazat-e-Islam Allama Zunaid Babunagari in a statement said: “Gaffar Chowdhury has turned out to be an atheist. He can’t bear the identity of Muslim anymore if he does not repent and accept Islam again.”

He also demanded capital punishment of the expatriate Bangladeshi writer. He warned that a tougher movement would be launched against the government if it does not take punitive action against the atheists like ex-Minister Abdul Latif Siddique and columnist Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury.

I’m not sure if Tower Hamlets council was aware of these death threats hanging over him when it originally invited him to speak at the Idea Store for today’s event. I’d like to think they were: it would show they were championing free speech in the face of religious fascism.

But instead, after they received another threat of violence, they kicked their Freeman into touch. They told his supporters that his presence on a council property would not be conducive to community cohesion.

Here’s an email sent by new chief executive Will Tuckley to Ansar Ahmed Ullah, the organiser of yesterday’s cancelled Brady Centre event:

Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your request to book the Brady Centre on 20th February. I am writing to inform you that the council will not accept the booking for the proposed event.

The decision has been taken after careful consideration, and was guided by our terms and conditions of hire. This document makes clear that the council has complete discretion to determine whether to accept a booking and  includes a criterion that, “as a general rule, premises will not be available for public meetings with political, religious or any other content where the matters for discussion are…..controversial or sensitive in anyway or which may breach community cohesion”.

In making its decision, the council does not make a judgement on any individual.  The decision was informed by an assessment of risk that the proposed event, taking place in a council building, may have become controversial or impacted on community cohesion.

I would like to apologise for the way this matter has been managed.  In particular, I  am  aware that a staff member at the Brady Centre incorrectly advised you, prior to this booking request being considered in accordance with the council’s procedures.

I think Will Tuckley, who I’m told has been impressing everyone he deals with, was in more than a tricky position on this. But I don’t think he was well-advised or fully informed.

And once he’d taken that decision, it would have been difficult for Biggs (even if he had been so inclined) to overrule his new chief exec.

It’s quite likely they were advised by people with vested interests, politically and/or religiously. Perhaps the standing and credibility of those who whispered in their ears might now be lower as a result.

No chief exec or mayor wants to be known for banning free speech, especially after threats of violence.

Meanwhile, here’s Abdul Gaffar Choudhury’s song for Language Day.

This is a guess post by Independent councillor Shahed Ali

UnknownI attended John Biggs’s first Mayoral Assembly held at Swanlea School on January 21 2016.  Although a step in the right direction, it soon became obvious to me it was nothing more than a ‘talking shop’ which would achieve nothing more to deliver our greatest need – building affordable rented housing.

The Whitechapel Vision aspires to deliver 3,500 new homes over several sites identified for private development. Our local plan, which clearly dictates our planning policies, requires developers to provide a minimum of 35% affordable housing on-site, or 50% affordable housing off-site. Of this, a ratio split of 70/30 must be affordable rent/intermediate housing.  

The latest developer to submit plans for development is ‘Sainsbury’s Whitechapel Square’.  This proposes a mixed development including residential housing to provide 608 new homes including a now revised towering 28 storey building, originally pitched at 33 storeys in height.  

However, if approved, it will only delivery 60 affordable rented homes [Note: Sainsbury’s has sent me the following comment: We are proposing to bring forward 89 social rent units, not 60 affordable rent units as Cllr Ali states. As I’m sure you’re aware, socially rented units are rented out at a cheaper level than affordable rent units.] So if we apply the same calculation to the total new homes Whitechapel Vision seeks to deliver, residents will get only 345 affordable rented homes of the total of 3500 new homes.  If our local plan housing target of 35% was to be met, residents could get 1225 new affordable homes, of which 856 could be affordable rent.

Mayor John Biggs response to concerned residents’ questions about the Sainsbury’s site was: “Our hands are tied by planning policy, but we try our best to get a better deal.  For example we managed to negotiate a reduction in height of the tower block from 33 storeys, down to 28 storeys.”

This is my view is a weak and defeatist response. For me, it raises serious questions as to the entire planning process and Tower Hamlets Labour group’s inability to challenge and get a much better deal for our community.

The question from John Biggs should be: “Is a viable development able to be built on this site?” And not: “Is this specific scheme viable?”

Anything can be made to look unviable, but it does not mean viable alternatives are not possible. Developers come with the attitude of: “How much could we get out of this site? How much profit are we losing as a result of following planning policies?”

So they start with packing as much as possible on to any given site and work back from there, instead of starting off with the local plan in the first place! Developers can still make a perfectly respectable profit by following the plan – because the plans themselves are viability tested.

I believe if developers feel they cannot do it according to our local plan, then they should not buy the land in the first place. Let someone else develop the site who will respect and follow the rules.

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Whitechapel Vision

So how do developers get away with it? Developers claim their schemes are not commercially viable, and must submit a financial viability assessment explaining why the figures do not stack up. In simple terms, this assessment takes the total costs of a project, and subtracts them from the total projected revenue from sales, based on current property values.

What’s left over is called the “residual land value”.  The value of the site once development has completed, must be high enough to represent a decent return to the landowner. It is therefore in the developer’s interest to maximise its projected costs and minimise the projected sales values to make its plans appear less profitable.

With figures that generate a residual value not much higher than the building’s current value, the developer can wave “evidence” before the council that the project cannot be delivered if it has to meet our affordable housing targets.

A crucial failure of Tower Hamlets council is that developers’ viability assessments are hidden even from councillors and protected from public scrutiny on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality”.

Developers argue revealing the figures would compromise sensitive trade secrets. But I believe these reports do not tend to be scrutinised effectively by our planning officers either, and the confidentiality argument makes no sense because build costs are well-established in the public domain via the BCIS database, the industry standard tool everyone relies on.

Sales values are easily obtainable yet developers and local councils spend huge resources fighting to keep the figures in these viability assessments secret. I have requested viability assessment reports from the council myself, and it makes me wonder exactly what they are trying to hide?

Consultants know how to fiddle the figures in their client’s interest and planning departments are simply not resourced to scrutinise against the likes of specialist consultants such as BNP Paribas who have dedicated full-time teams working upon specific developments.

Many consultants are now paid bonuses for successfully reducing the number of affordable housing units on a scheme.

Local councils have lost the plot on this. All the things that are supposed to determine the best use of land – mix of uses, massing, density, social mix – have been trumped by finance.  It’s a form of financial modelling that’s hidden from view, entirely determined by the developers themselves.

Southwark and Greenwich councils were recently forced to disclose viability assessments after the determination of local residents’ battle that ended in tribunals awarding landmark decisions in favour of releasing the documents for public scrutiny.

Greenwich council, to its credit, has recently proposed introducing a policy that would require all viability assessments to be open to public scrutiny following calls for transparency.

It is a step in the right direction but simply making the information public so people know why the council is conceding its policy on affordable housing levels is not good enough. The fundamental basis of viability itself has to be challenged effectively. It is not simply an issue of transparency.

Braeburn Estates is a consortium led by Canary Wharf Group and Qatari Diar, developing a scheme known as the Shell Centre. That council’s planning policy aims for 50% affordable housing, but the Shell Centre will provide just 20%. It is the result of another viability assessment that pleads poverty to the council, while trumpeting the scheme as a lucrative opportunity to potential investors in the same breath?

This viability assessment was only disclosed when the project went to public inquiry.  To the council, flats were listed with an average sales value of £1,330 per sq ft, while a presentation aimed at investors suggested they would sell at an average of £1,641 per sq ft, representing a disparity of £234m across the scheme!

I was gobsmacked to sit and watch as Tower Hamlets incumbent planning committee gave approval for the huge Wood Wharf site neighbouring the Canary Wharf estate, outline planning consent with a requirement to provide only 25% affordable housing, for a development which will only come to completion in several years’ time, if not at least a decade away?

Surely house prices will have increased significantly, especially with the arrival of Crossrail at Canary Wharf?

These viability assessments conclusively prove that we cannot rely on developers to build affordable housing, and they are standing in the way of other groups who want to build it – the community land trusts, housing associations, co-housing groups – by preventing them from getting access to the land.

Instead the industry is wilfully inflating land values and forcing ill-resourced local council planning officers to recommend permission for schemes that fail to meet our local plan.

I get astonished by either the absolute silence, or silly questions that some of the committee members come up with at planning meetings.

It is obvious some do not bother reading the committee reports, nor has the knowledge or experience of being in a position to make such important decisions which will affect our generations to come.

It is a complete mockery.

These failures are actively contributing to the pace of ‘social cleansing’ being accelerated to the point of no return.  As a parent of two young girls, I am seriously worried about their future inability to remain living in Tower Hamlets.  However instead of allowing opposition members to actively contribute to these committees, the Labour group pitifully chooses to use its majority to effectively reduce and ‘take-out’ members who challenge such planning applications. I myself have become such a victim.

Coming back to the Sainsbury’s scheme, it seems likely that Barrett’s will be the development partner as they have worked in partnership with Sainsbury’s on other schemes.

The Mayor has set-up what he calls the ‘Housing Policy and Affordability Commission’.  Opposition councillors are excluded from this forum. However developers are most welcome, including Barrett’s’ Regional Managing Director, Alastair Baird.

Clearly this is a conflict of interest as I cannot imagine Barrett’s would be pro-active in championing the demonstrated flaws contained within viability assessments?

The Mayor needs to seriously take immediate action and engage the expertise required to comb through the viability assessment figures in detail when developers argue they cannot meet our policy requirement on affordable housing provision.

Viability is completely destroying the ability to build mixed communities, all on the grounds of spurious financial models, a legalised practice of fiddling figures that represents “a wholesale fraud on the public purse”.

It is critical that Tower Hamlets council develop the expertise in-house to tackle it now.

(I am now an excluded member of the Strategic Development Committee.  Due to changes to the political composition of group members, the council’s proportionality reduced a committee member.  However instead of affording the Independent Group the (good practice) opportunity to choose and decide which committee they would like to reduce a member within, the Labour group leader decided that the SDC committee should lose a IG member, which now gives Labour members an increased two-member majority on the SDC.  Never has the SDC had a political group with a 2 member majority on the SDC.)

Ahead of Wednesday’s full council meeting, this is a guest post by Cllr Oliur Rahman, leader of the 12-strong Tower Hamlets Independent Group (formerly known as Tower Hamlets First). Discuss…

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Much has been made of the dawn of a new kind of politics.

With the bitterness of last year behind us, it is our hope that we can work constructively across parties to put Tower Hamlets first.

Our group would be the first to admit that Mayor Biggs’ administration has had some successes, based on the Mayor’s ability to look beyond party politics and continue to implement much of former Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s progressive agenda. Mayor Biggs is not the only one to admit that Tower Hamlets was generally a “well-run borough”, as he put it, under his opponent.

The Municipal Journal, the National Association of Care Catering, Keep Britain Tidy and a range of professional bodies have celebrated the former Mayor’s legacy – while figures across the spectrum as diverse as an Anglican canon, the Conservative former political editor of the Spectator and centre-left Guardian writer Zoe Williams have cast doubt on the merit of the court judgment that saw Lutfur barred from office.

We must now move forward and this new age of conciliation has seen some big wins for the people of Tower Hamlets. Mayor Biggs has defended our administration’s landmark education grants for young people. After some regrettably costly delays, he has gone ahead with our plans for the regeneration of Whitechapel, the creation of a new civic centre and a multi-faith burial ground that between them will create 3,500 new homes and 5,000 jobs while preserving dedicated space for culture and small business.

Biggs is pushing ahead with plans for landlord licensing, school places and new social and affordable housing developed by our previous administration, along with our proposed policy of mayoral question times. The current administration have developed our plans with an Affordability Commission to investigate what kind of genuinely affordable housing we should provide – which we welcome, but believe should not have property developers and social landlords with poor service records sitting on it while no opposition spokespeople are invited onto the panel.

Mayor Biggs’ drive for transparency is also an important one, which can now progress freely in a less contentious environment. His Transparency Protocol and whistleblowing procedure will facilitate a more open culture at senior management level – but he would be well advised to go further. The lack of transparency over a grant to the Rich Mix of nearly a million pounds, made by executive order behind closed doors with little real rationale rings dangerously of patronage politics.

 

His decision to scrap East End Life, again by a secretive executive order and in spite of overwhelming support from members of the public for the paper, is also questionable. There seems little other way currently for Tower Hamlets to communicate with vulnerable and digitally excluded residents about the services they should be aware of. Setting up a Transparency Commission chaired by his own aide John Pierce was also questionable.

In the Mayor’s defence, he, like all politicians, has powerful interests pressuring him – in his own party, in Town Hall politics, and in the form of Eric Pickles’ commissioners who were recently accused of a complete lack of transparency by a leading voluntary sector organisation. We hope that in spite of all that he is able to stick to the pledges he was elected on: getting tough on waste, creating a more open council, delivering decent housing and strengthening our communities. There are many things we disagree on, but those aims we can get behind.

Looking ahead, the first budget by Mayor John Biggs is imminent. The Independent Group has consistently opposed cuts to the most vulnerable, particularly those which affect frontline services and increase charges for critical services or to succumb to “false” savings just to balance the books without considering the overall impact and wider picture.

Mayor’s budget proposals include cuts in funding for incontinence laundry service for the most vulnerable and elderly, youth services, free home care for the elderly, voluntary sector grants, children’s school history trips to Gorsefield, bursaries for university students and PGCE training for BAME teachers, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), East End Life, introducing new charges for adult care and deleting the posts of 10 THEOs (environment/waste cleaning), as part of the Mayor’s £18m of cuts now, with £63m cuts over three years. We feel this approach lacks a vision and is simply managerial.

Independent Group highlighted this, by way of just one example, at the Scrutiny meeting on January 4, that to get rid of 10 THEOs would not contribute to the cleaner streets that were among the Mayor’s top priorities. The large volume of food outlets, small businesses and markets that are a core part of the local economy generate a considerable deal of waste, which coupled with fly-tipping, graffiti and other associated issues present a considerable challenge to delivering cleaner and greener streets.

If the Mayor and his colleagues decide to cut Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMH) services, alongside cuts to youth services, it is likely to both exacerbate the situation and create issues. Deprivation is often linked to poor mental health, and in Tower Hamlets, one in two children live in poverty, so it is vital to provide safety and therefore continuity with CAMH services. Speaking to people who work in youth services we know they provide support and safe spaces, which contribute to a young person’s sense of wellbeing and provides the opportunity to have the life-skills needed to prosper.

Unemployment is another burgeoning problem in Tower Hamlets. Canary Wharf provides thousands of jobs but predominantly filled by finance specialists from outside the borough. Therefore we believe that any cuts to the current system of paying wages to those on internships and bursaries for teacher training courses from BAME groups is following the Tory government suit by forcing the poor to disproportionally shoulder the cuts. Public sector jobs, such as teaching, provides a sixth of the borough’s jobs and therefore a system that provides opportunities for citizens to be a part of the workforce is worth protecting.

It is well documented that cuts to youth services, as proposed by Mayor Biggs, coincides with a rise in crime and antisocial behaviour – coupled with this administration’s proposal to remove the safety net for the police budget – will undoubtedly create disastrous results. Safety in the community is not a privilege but a necessity, and a child lost to the criminal justice system is both costly and tragic.

miliband-2.jpgIt would be remiss of me not to talk about the proverbial elephant in the room. Many have speculated we are simply looking for a route back into a renewed Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn. This is nothing new: most of our group were Labour people exiled from the party either by the disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq, or by the rigging of a mayoral selection in Labour that even election judge Richard Mawrey agreed was indefensible. We were drawn from all ranks of Labour – Lutfur was a Progress member and David Miliband supporter at the time of his expulsion!

But we are here first and foremost to serve the people of this borough – and when the current administration is considering weathering austerity with cuts to teaching bursaries, library closures and the sacking of council staff who keep our streets clean (following a pledge to get tough on waste), it is our duty to stand up for residents’ interests. We have a crippling housing crisis, severe pockets of poverty and a range of social problems that we have a responsibility to help fix. That’s what we were elected for – and in 2016, we hope to be able to perform that duty constructively and positively across civil society organisations, political parties and communities.

May I take this opportunity to wish your readers and residents a peaceful, prosperous and happy 2016.

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