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Posts Tagged ‘alibor choudhury’

Given the heat and potential significance of the sale of Poplar Town Hall, it was a bit surprising to see just one member of the press at the specially convened Overview and Scrutiny committee meeting in Mulberry Place last Tuesday: me.

And yes, I got a seat.

And I also won a minor battle with the council’s communications department, who had initially told me I wasn’t allowed to film the proceedings. The committee’s chair, Cllr Josh Peck, agreed to my request, although because at least one (anonymous) senior officer objected, filming the officers’ contributions, including that of development director Aman Dalvi, was banned. A battle for another day.

I apologise in advance for my iPhone camerawork (you try holding one steady for an hour), and the discussion is just about audible with the sound turned up. I’ve had to compress the quality so it can go on YouTube.

I’ll introduce the characters in a bit, but first a bit of background.

You’ll remember that Poplar Town Hall on Woodstock Terrace, E14, was sold in November 2011 to Dreamstar Ltd, a company reported by the Telegraph to be part-owned by Mujib Islam. Mr Islam, the chief executive of Medialink, is the registered owner of Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s campaign website, lutfurmayor.com, and has admitted helping Lutfur to become mayor in 2010.

Dreamstar bought Grade II listed Poplar Town Hall after a rather unusual purchase process for £875,000. Within weeks Mujib applied for a change of use on the building from B1 (community/educational) to C1, which meant it could become a “boutique hotel”. It is thought this change of use, which he finally secured in 2013 (under planning officers’ delegated powers–no committee needed apparently), means the property is now worth millions.

Understandably, there have been allegations of cronyism, and worse.

Tory leader Peter Golds demanded an investigation in January 2014. Among the matters he asked for in the motion passed by full council was a valuation report to show what the building was worth in 2011, and what it would have been worth if it had been marketed as a hotel.

It is that last aspect which is troubling people.

Auditors from the Mazars accountancy firm produced a final report this month. Actually, unknown to opposition councillors, they did produce an interim report in February but somehow the council executive managed to kick that stick of dynamite to this side of the mayoral election. Funny that.

I wrote in detail about the Mazars report earlier this month, here. To say it raised a number of serious questions is an understatement. They found that key records on the bid process had either gone missing or didn’t exist at all; that a council lawyer predicted it would end in litigation; and that Dreamstar’s final bid was not only late (and therefore should not have been accepted, but also it was not even the highest. They also found evidence to suggest the mayor himself was involving himself in the actual sale process, which would be highly unusual. And much more.

The report was damning.

But when two of their senior managers appeared at the committee on Tuesday they provided what Lutfur will regard as a killer line to those accusing him or his administration of fraud.

They said:

“If we thought there’d been any dishonesty, we’d have reported to this to the police or external auditors. There’s a big difference between a few missing records and dishonesty.”

I apologise to Lutfur because as I was taking notes at that stage, I wasn’t actually holding the camera. So he’ll never be able to watch that moment.

However, I suspect more than a couple of the committee members weren’t convinced. And it was clear on Tuesday night that even non-political/lay members of the committee (who were actually the stars of the show) thought there had been at least some negligence, perhaps wilful

So here’s some more relevant background. Poplar Town Hall was first mooted for sale in March 2008 under Denise Jones’s leadership of the council. At a cabinet meeting in March 2008, one of the proposed options for sale and marketing was a small scale hotel.

However, nothing further happened until January 2011, three months into Lutfur’s mayoralty. In the intervening three years, the property was used as a temporary venue for the Ian Mikardo School. That use was coming to an end and Lutfur’s cabinet member for finance and resources, Alibor Choudhury, was concerned about the costs of securing a potentially empty building.

So in January 2011, Lutfur’s cabinet discussed the latest situation. Officers produced a report (as an update to that March 2008 decision) saying they estimated the value of the building at £1.5million. Officers were told to proceed for a quick sale.

Officers asked bankers from BNP Paribas to carry out a marketing exercise. Paribas valued the site at £750k-£950k. The offers that finally came in from bidders in June 2011 fell mostly within that range, although Mazars noted one officer remarking the narrow range of the bids looked “odd”.

Mazars also noted that none of the bidders, including Dreamstar or its shareholders, declared any interests with respect to the administration’s officers or elected representatives.

At Tuesday’s hearing, we were not, sadly, graced by the mayor’s presence. In fact, Josh told the committee he was still awaiting answers to a series of emailed questions.

Meic Sullivan-Gould, the interim monitoring officer, showed up and declared everything was fine. But he still got his knuckles rapped when he admitted he and other officers had “forgotten” to carry out the work demanded by Peter Golds’ January 2014 council motion. He said he and other senior officers had “overlooked” it, that they’d been unable to determine whose responsibility it was.

Sullivan-Gould also said the council would be able to claim a slice of the windfall profits Dreamstar will make from converting the building to a hotel, although no negotiations on that have yet taken place.

Aman Dalvi, the development director, also showed up and seemed to feel the pressure under some pretty intense questioning.

But the strangest exchanges came when Alibor Choudhury took centre stage. He does have an unfortunately bizarre manner when he’s performing in public, as this memorable “black cardigans” exchange showed earlier this year.

He may regard the committee’s motives on this subject as purely political, but he really should maintain the moral high ground and treat the body with a little more respect. Perhaps he’s copying his boss’s attitude.

His performance oozed contempt for almost every single person questioning him, so much so that he must have misheard or misunderstood the questions; otherwise, he seems to have told outright lies.

Several times he was asked if he knew any of the people who’d submitted bids for Poplar Town Hall. And repeatedly, he said No. “Absolutely, categorically not,” was his first answer. He then tried to explain he was unable to answer fully because Josh hadn’t put an actual name to him. Bafflingly, Josh was banned by the committee’s lawyer, David Galpin, from mentioning Mujib Islam by name, even though it’s a fact he was at least a director of Dreamstar, it’s a fact that Dreamstar owns Poplar Town Hall, it’s a fact he was named in the Sunday Telegraph, and all this is documented at Companies House and via other open sources.

Mr Galpin said he could only be named in a closed session of the committee, from which the press and public are banned.

And because we were banned from seeing those further exchanges, all we have to go on at the moment is Alibor denying in general terms that he knew Mujib, a man I thought he’d at times worked closely with in the 2010 election campaign.

Oh well, I’m sure that will come out in the wash..

Whether the committee will conclude there was any dishonesty or abuse of process is yet to be seen, but I think they’ll have an easier job saying value for money was not obtained on this historic property.

The two stars of last Tuesday night’s hearing were probably the two lay members: Nozrul Mustufa and the Rev James Olanipekun. They’re both parent governors in the borough. And they both asked the best questions of the night.

Nozrul was visibly incredulous and angry that neither the mayor nor any of his cabinet bothered to ask the obvious question at the outset of the sale; namely, what could the property have fetched if it was sold as a possibly hotel. He pointed out that this was in 2011, a year before the Olympics and when “hotels were popping up all over the place” in Tower Hamlets.

Nozrul said this is what we elect councillors and mayors to do: to ask these questions.

Alibor at first tried to argue his way out of that hole but then realised he couldn’t. So he blamed BNP Paribas. How responsible.

The full exchange lasts for 32 minutes; I think the best bits start just after 16 minutes with Josh and Alibor’s argument. However, the anoraks will want to view the whole lot.

I’ve also transcribed the exchanges from about 16 minutes onwards below. It all helps to give a full record.

As for the people you’ll see…by this point the two Mazars accountants had left, so their seats are empty; Meic is just to the left of the frame and he comes into shot towards the end. Straight ahead is Josh Peck, with David Galpin on Josh’s left. On Josh’s right are two other officers, the three Tower Hamlets First councillors, Maium Miah, Abjol Miah and Suluk Ahmed.

On the right as you look, you see the opposition councillors: Labour’s John Pierce, Denise Jones and Asma Begum; then Tory Cllr Craig Aston, the Rev James and Nozrul.

Alibor is right in front of the camera, with his back to us.

Here’s the video:


And here’s the selected transcript:

Josh Peck: Did you know any of the people who submitted bids for Poplar Town Hall?

Alibor Choudhury: Absolutely, categorically not.

JP: really?

AC: …give me an assertion.

JP: You don’t know any of the people who submitted bids for poplar town hall?

AC: Test me, throw me a name. I’ve told you no.

JP: I’m not going to bandy names around.

AC: That’s ok, I’ve told you no.

JP: Your evidence to us is that you knew no one who submitted bids for poplar town hall.

AC: Back in 2010, 2011..when the bids were being marketed and when the bids had come in, I did not have a clue

JP: That’s not the question I asked you.

AC: You were asking about the people and I’ve told you already, I didn’t know any of the people.

JP: You don’t know anyone who submitted…?

AC: Well name me a name, give me a name, it might jog my memory

JP: There’s a clear allegation in the media that someone pretty closely associated to the mayor [and..] his campaign ended up purchasing the Poplar Town Hall.

AC: You can’t use the media; in the media, they say that you cost the council £26,000 recently for rejecting Lovebox’s licence, which they got overturned in court. £26,000 of our money, taxpayers’ money. Now, if we go by the media, there’s a lot of things I can say to you, and you can say, so please be factual and stick to council records.

JP: I’m asking you a question; there’s an allegation in the media that names an individual and I’m not going to name that individual in open session..

AC: You have to, you have to; otherwise I can’t answer the question. Cllr Peck, it’s like sending me to a dark room and you know..

JP: Ok, we’ll go into closed session after this and we’ll go through some names.

AC: We don’t need to…this is public…Ted has every right to know. I think you should give us the name then test me. So I can then answer properly can’t I.

JP [turns to head of legal services David Galpin]: Mr Galpin, are you happy for us to name individual names?

David Galpin: I am concerned about it in open session, only because it concerns personal data from a third party; I don’t know who that third party is, so for that reason I’d be concerned about it.

AC: He’s concerned but it’s not illegal and I think journalists here have a right to know who this individual is. You don’t know how I will answer; it might be music to your ears, Cllr Peck. We don’t know.

JP: I’m asking you a general question about whether you knew, whether you know any of the people involved in the bids for Poplar Town Hall. You’ve said ‘no’ repeatedly, so that’s fine.. .

AC: Yeah.

JP: So we can take that answer from you.

AC: But you seem to know otherwise, you seem to be probing me thinking you might get a different response if you chuck a name at me, so why don’t you chuck a name at me.

JP: Given what I’ve read in the papers recently and given what I know, I am surprised..so we’ll leave it at that.

AC: What kind of interrogation is that?

JP: Do you know if the Mayor knew anyone who submitted bids for Poplar Town Hall?

AC: Give me a name and I’ll tell you..

JP: Did the Mayor know any of the people involved..?

AC: As far as I’m aware….No.

JP: As far as you’re aware, the Mayor knew no one who bid for Poplar Town Hall?

AC: Unless you give me a name, Cllr Peck, it’s very difficult for me to answer that question.

JP: We’ll go into closed session later. Did you declare any interest in the process?

AC: I wasn’t involved in the process apart from the decision-making part in cabinet

JP: Did the Mayor declare any interest in the process?

AC: I’m sure he would have if he’d had an interest….We’ll have to check our records

JP: Are you happy that a public building sold for £875,000 could now become a boutique hotel worth millions of pounds?

AC: I’m not sure I’ve got an opinion on that really.

JP: Any other questions?

Nozrul Mostafa: You’ve made reference that the £1.5million was an..estimate….at some point the value from BNP Paribas..was up to £950,000. When that was eventually founded (?), was there no question asked why the value was so low?…I know the officers made that decision; at some point cabinet, even the Mayor, I can’t believe the cabinet didn’t know that this building was going to be sold for X amount of pounds.. below even if it was an estimate and not a valuation..Ok, what is the reason why it was so much off the mark…even if the answer was that that was an estimate up in the air. Was that question ever asked: why are we selling it so cheap compared to the estimate? No one, not even the mayor or cabinet even raised it?

AC: It did come back to cabinet. We had the update report in January saying…that we needed to progress and officers would do that, and officers would report to the mayor at some point in time

NM: And in January, that valuation from Paribas would have been there?

AC: With all due respect, I think I’ve answered this already. We were satisfied that the decision made by officers on the basis they made those decisions, that decision was good enough for us. We were satisfied; therefore we did not question it.

Rev James Olanipekun: How closely does Resource and Development work together, given the fact they should be working in tandem?

AC: There is a relationship, Reverend. Resources and asset management work very closely together especially when it comes to disposals because disposals yield money and money comes into our coffers, which then forms our budget or the financial activity of the council..so there is clearly a hand in glove relationship.

JO: Given your submission, isn’t there the necessity to ensure true value for money?

AC: There has to be a degree of trust; these are our officers, they are experts in their profession; we rely on their advice and guidance. We have our political knowledge; we have the grassroots intelligence that we bring to the table. But ultimately, it’s about working together with these officers about coming to an understanding. And I believe we got there. Our job is to challenge officers as well, don’t get me wrong, we’re elected to advocate and represent our communities and challenge officers when the need arises but I felt it was robust enough and it got us where we needed to be. Otherwise the building could be empty still now, bleeding us hundreds of thousands.

NM: That’s the reason why I was asking. As an elected member, I find it quite disheartening that any councillor wouldn’t challenge their officers with reference to the price that they were selling it or marketing it for. This £1.5m was an estimate, but it was out there. That’s what the cabinet decision was based on to sell it. Now when it came, as the Cabinet lead member for resources, it was £1.5million and there’s a discrepancy there..why were no questions asked?

AC: There’s a simple answer to that.

NM: But was the question asked?

AC: There was a guestimate of £1.5million; at the time, the market determined we weren’t going to get that, you’ve got your eight hundred or whatever it was thousand pounds. That wasn’t because officers didn’t try, or the process was flawed, or anything else. Everything was there to ensure we would get the maximum. Clearly we didn’t achieve the £1.5m guestimate..

NM: Was the question asked? You keep saying guestimate? Was the question asked: it was at cabinet for £1.5million; I could understand if the answer came back that that was a guestimate, and that’s the answer, that’s fair enough..

AC: Let me put it another way…

NM: You keep saying the question wasn’t asked and you didn’t know.

AC: ..Say wed said this wasn’t enough and put it on the market again, and re-market it and revalue it, it doesn’t really help our situation does it? Given that officers clearly demonstrated they’d tried to get us the maximum value for that property, and the circumstances were what we foudn ourselves in at the time, we felt that would suffice. You keep asking me about questions, we could question…

NM: With all due respect, with 2012 coming up..in 2008, we had this policy of this being a hotel. This was marketed as an educational as a B1 use, which wasn’t a hotel use. I can’t believe there wasn’t anyone who asked for a valuation if this is being changed to a hotel, what would the valuation would be? I’m not sure if Paribas did that…

AC: ..that was after the fact though..

NM: ..they valued it at £850-£950k ..

AC:…that’s ‘as is’ though..

NM:…yes, as is…with a B1 use. With the Olympics around the corner, that we were having, did no one ask whether there was an element of this from 2008 when it was marketed as a hotel bid, what would the cost be as a hotel use?

AC: Fist of all, I’m not sure whether officers pre-empted it would be a boutique hotel at that time. It was marketed as a former town hall that had a range of uses, for education and community as one, and given that they followed their noses when it came to getting that valuation. If they’d have pre-empted it was going to be a hotel then who knows? But correct me if I’m wrong, the hotel proposal came after the sale.

NM: I’m saying with the various criteria that were there, I’m trying to understand why weren’t different scenarios put out there. If this happens at C1 use, if this has a B1 use, if this has a D1 use, these are the price valuations we get can get for this town hall. I know the planning application came in afterwards and it was agreed by whoever made that decision…My point is when Paribas gave the valuation why was it just valued at a B1 use and educational use? Why weren’t whatever permuations there could be, this is what it should be marketed as?

AC: We used highly skilled professionals to give us the best value for that property and to do whatever necessary to achieve that. Clearly, if you’ve found a weakness in that, we should take that to BNP Parnabus, Barnabus, Paribas, or whatever they’re called. I can’t sit here and preempt the future and assume things. We had to work with what we had; we had to work with an asset as is. And our job is to make that asset didn’t become a burden or a liability for the council. And that’s my job.

NM: Well, personally, we vote for councillors and cabinet members to ask these questions of their officers, so ultimately..it’s up to you to ask these questions and like I say, the bottom line is…it’s relevant it went to a hotel use afterwards, there was a hotel element when it first went to cabinet for disposal in 2008. I can’t understand why – given there were hotels popping up all over the place, in Commercial Road, on Cambridge Heath Road, Holiday Inns, hotels were coming everywhere–that we didn’t have an element where Paribas..well, I’m just going over it again.

AC: I think you’ve got a valid point. It’s a learning curve. Next time, we might not use BNP Barnabus, Paribas, because if they’re that useless and made oversights of that nature, maybe a recommendation that comes from this is that we strike them off and not use them again.

JP: One of the questions we asked of BNP Paribas is whether they’d been passed a planning brief that included a possible hotel use and they didn’t think they had.

AC: I can’t answer that, I’m not aware of that at all.

 

 

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UPDATED AT 5PM, APRIL 25 WITH MICHAEL KEITH’S COMMENTS AT BOTTOM

Mayor Lutfur Rahman issued this press release yesterday:

Labour Mayoral hopeful John Biggs was facing mounting criticism today on his questionable record on race issues as a leaked internal memo from the Labour Party revealed that concerns had been raised regarding Mr Biggs’s apparent prejudice as early as 1995.

Professor Michael Keith, now Director of the Centre for Migration Policy and Society at Oxford University and a former Labour council leader in the borough, wrote to Labour Councillors and MPs saying:

“In short, I would accuse John Biggs of racism” after Biggs was apparently involved in the production of an inflammatory election leaflet.

This is not the first time Biggs has been mired in a race row. In 1998 he campaigned against the creation of Banglatown to be added to Spitalfields Ward, and in 2013 his Labour Group made false claims that housing allocations were being targeted to Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s supporters – claims that were gleefully used as propaganda by the EDL.

Recently, Biggs caused controversy with irresponsible remarks on the Sunday Politics show claiming Mayor Rahman was only serving the Bangladeshi community, at a time when the EDL were planning to march through Tower Hamlets.

Cllr. Alibor Choudhury of Tower Hamlets First, who reported Biggs to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for the remarks said:

“John Biggs’ 20 year record of dubious racially-charged remarks is there for anyone to see. This latest revelation shows that he doesn’t have the cultural sensitivity to run a diverse borough like Tower Hamlets.”

I’ve asked Lutfur’s camp to produce the leaflet that was at the centre of the row between Michael and John, but they say they don’t have it.

Context is everything, so let me try and give some. If you thought politics in Tower Hamlets was poisonous now, it was a different matter in the Nineties. The characters now act like dim kids in a playground; back then it was proper adult hooliganism.

Race and racism was genuinely the major issue then. Derek Beackon had been elected as BNP councillor in Millwall in 1993 and was kicked out a year later. The Lib Dems were at the centre of an inquiry by their own party leader, Paddy Ashdown, who was deeply concerned that activists had been engaged in racist campaigning.

Pretty much everything was evaluated in terms of race. As now, back then it was also used as a political stick.

We don’t have the leaflet, so we can’t evaluate it, but my understanding is that Michael Keith is appalled that something taken completely out of context 20 years ago is being used now as a smear. I’m sure we could all look back at things we’ve said 20 years ago and wish we’d phrased differently. I’m also sure Alibor will look back at his own behaviour now in 20 years and feel disgust with himself.

I understand Michael Keith might be issuing a statement on this today. My understanding is there was no way he thought John racist, either then or now. In fact, he is one of the people who has signed John’s nomination papers.

As for Alibor’s complaint to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission…well, what he doesn’t disclose is that they’ve told him it’s not one for them. The EHCR has in fact written to him twice to warn him against using misconstruing any of their replies to him on the matter.

If he feels so strongly about John’s words on the BBC Politics programme (when he pointed out that Lutfur’s cabinet was exclusively Bengali and appeared to be focusing too much on one section of the community – a statement of fact and fair comment, actually), then he has the option of going to the police. But he won’t because even he would know that’d be wasting police time.

After all, the police have drug dealers and gang members to catch on Alibor’s Ocean estate, don’t they.

However, back to Lutfur’s press release. I asked John for his thoughts. There are two camps on how to react to these attacks. One wants him to ignore them, the other wants him to punch back.

His statement to me below is measured and dignified in my view and straddles both camps.

This endless mud slinging and negative messaging demeans the mayor and shows both a desperation and that he has given up trying to reach across the borough and is working a ‘core vote ‘ strategy in which he clearly hopes that most people will stay at home and that his supporters, galvanised by repeated spurious  allegations against me will get them back into the town hall.

There is of course a danger it will work but it shows that their cupboard is pretty bare. 

The repeated use of the racism smear both insults real victims and diminishes them. I am proud of my record attacking  intolerance. Ironically they are defining themselves as the next obstacle to the sort of tolerant community we need. It helps me to understand quite how important it is to defeat them. 

I hear they are announcing their manifesto today. It will be interesting to see how many of our policies they will steal!

UPDATE:

Tower Hamlets Labour have issued the following statement from Michael Keith:

To dredge up out of context comments that were made almost twenty years ago to smear someone’s character scrapes the gutter. I’ve known John Biggs for decades and, while we have had our differences at times, there is no doubt in my mind that he works for the benefit of the whole community in Tower Hamlets. To try to paint him as a racist is a cynical act of electoral dirty politics.

He is the best candidate to represent all the communities of the borough in these difficult times and I am happy to support him.

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Where to start with updates on the events of last week?

Yesterday, Mayor Lutfur Rahman staged a mini-rally/call for canvassers outside Sir John Cass School in Stepney. I’d been helping out with some spring cleaning at St Dunstan’s Church across the road so I thought I’d pop by to see what was going on.

Here’s the male heavy crowd.

lutfur crowd

Thanks to Cllr Gulam Robbani‘s Facebook page we can see the moment I arrived.

This is a photo he took of me offering a handshake as he walked towards me.

Handshake

 

He wasn’t interested in the handshake; he just continued walking towards me, pointing his camera in my face. It was weird.

So I took a couple of him instead.

But he just carried on snapping. I’m not sure what he thought he was doing (and if you look carefully in the background, you can see Lutfur looking a little concerned about his friend’s erratic behaviour as well) so I gave him the thumb’s up.

thumb up

Someone suggested later I sign an autograph book for him.

Like little sheep following one of their more misguided leaders, a few more brave Lutfurites rushed forward to copy him. Cllr Alibor Choudhury also joined in and asked people to take pictures of us together.

Here are a couple more of my secret fan club.

Don’t you think they do look sheepish?

Standing in the background of the ‘thumbs up’ photo is Sebastian Payne, the online editor of the Spectator magazine. He thought it one of the strangest scenes he’d scene at a political rally. I mean, what kind of politician would try and intimidate a journalist? Bit sinister.

Seb, in a piece he wrote last night, also said there were a number of other more professional photographers taking photos with long lenses from the park across the way and from the end of the street.

Whether these photographers were paid by Lutfur I don’t know, but one or two were jumping to his orders.

For example, a couple of minutes after the Great Man himself arrived, one of his men (for they were pretty much all men), spotted a couple of white girls walking past. They pointed this out to Lutfur, so the mayor pounced. Smiling, he rushed over to them. They looked a bit bemused.

Lutfur and the girls

But he stood there chatting to them for a couple of minutes, just long enough for his cameraman to take enough shots to tick his “diversity” box.

lutfur girls and cameras

And then he walked back to the embraces of his 75 or so committed fans.

For the next half hour I was there, he never once more ventured beyond that crowd.

While I was watching all this, I did have a pleasant chat with his main man, Cllr Alibor Choudhury. We discussed all manner of things and I repeated an offer for Lutfur to write for this blog. He thought it a lovely idea. He also repeated a statement put out on the council’s website disputing the calculations made by BBC Panorama about the awarding of grants.

The BBC said Lutfur had diverted more than £2million of grants towards Bangladeshi or Somali groups to shore up his vote.

In contrast, the council had stated: 

In fact, in the latest grants round, £1.6million of a £9.7million programme was awarded to organisations with a Bengali or Somali chair, CEO or applicant – or 16.5 per cent to a community that makes up just under 36 per cent of the population.

I told Alibor surely the way to settle this is for the council to provide a breakdown of its figures by group. No problem, he said. So I said that’s odd because when I’d asked Takki Sulaiman, the council’s head of communications, for that spreadsheet on Thursday, he’d refused to send it. Takki said if I wanted that breakdown, I’d have to submit a FoI request. How transparent.

Alibor said Takki was “wrong”, that I should have been given it. So would Alibor send me it instead? Oh no, said the cabinet member for finance, we’ll have to let Eric Pickles’s inspectors now do their job.

He then asked me for my opinion on how last week’s events will affect the May election. I told him I didn’t really know. I said Labour seem buoyed by it and that many Bengalis had expressed deep embarrassment about the antics of Lutfur bhai and co.

Alibor said he was surprised at that and pointed to the favourable coverage the Mayor had received in the hard-hitting, ever-so-scrutinising Bengali media.

Here’s a selection of front pages from Thursday’s editions.

Bengali papers

Some of the headlines read ‘Brave Lutfur’, ‘BBC apologises over Panorama’, etc etc. It’s a free press, I suppose, but they do let themselves and their readers down sometimes with their gullibility.

A number of the papers, including the once prestigious Surma, also ran headlines declaring that Jack Straw was now backing Lutfur. “Lutfur is rolling out the sort of progressive programme that I’m in favour of Labour councils initiating,” the former Foreign Secretary was quoted as saying.

Really?

In fact, these quotes were taken from a rather feeble April Fool gag on Michael Meacher’s blog, Left Futures, published here the morning after Panorama on April 1. There were so many clues this was fake, I won’t bother going into them, but the biggest one of all was the line inserted at the top of the article on Tuesday evening.

Left futures

If I were Labour, I’d be getting Jack Straw to demand an apology and the right of reply in all those papers for the next edition. Labour needs to do better getting its message out to the media.

The Bengali community deserves better journalism than this.

But Lutfur, partly due to the council cash that’s been lobbed their way, has the Bengali press sewn up.

Late on Friday afternoon, his two council-paid media advisers, Numan Hussain and Mohammed Jubair (the £50k a year adviser who also works for Channel S) sent out invites for an “emergency press conference” in the town hall. These two, remember, have been behind allegations the BBC was racist.

I wasn’t invited, and nor was the East London Advertiser. I’m not aware of any other non-Bengali hacks who were asked to come. In fact, the ELA’s Adam Barnett received a tip-off from another source and made his way to Mulberry Place. Only after he was in the building did the Mayor’s Office ring him and ask if he’d like to come!

Here’s Lutfur’s photo of the meeting.

press conference

That’s Stuart Madewell to Lutfur’s left. Many of the others in camera shot are councillors or Tower Hamlets First activists. I’m told the “press conference” wasn’t the most biting of affairs, that it was more like a campaign strategy meeting.

I’m told the first question was something like: “We’ve heard there were SAS here and you’ve been arrested. Is this all propaganda?”

Who dares wins, eh.

There have been a couple of other developments, which I’ll report on later, but in the meantime, here are a couple more photos (courtesy of Labour’s @dave___smith):

Today’s edition of East End Life:

East End Life

 

Can anyone spot what’s missing??

And a someone removing Lutfur’s name from Poplar Baths.

Screen shot 2014-04-06 at 16.33.11

Not quite the Baghdad Saddam statue, but…

 

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[Watch the video of the racist row in the council chamber here].

Eric Pickles should be congratulated for insisting council meetings should be filmed. Remember that Tower Hamlets council tried to block this idea: they knew there was dirty linen to hide.

I hope he watches the web cast of last week’s full council meeting which was picked up in this edition’s of Private Eye.

Alibor Choudhury, the man in charge of the borough’s £1.2billion budget thought he had a good gag when he wanted to accuse Labour’s Bow West councillor Ann Jackson of being a racist and a fascist. Heck, she was wearing a black cardigan, so, er, wow, like Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts she must be part of John Biggs’s “black cardigan brigade”.

How tasteful.

The problem was she was wearing a black cardigan because she was in mourning for her ex-husband, whose funeral she had attended the day before.

All this is recorded in glorious Tower Hamlets Technicolor by those Pickles webcams.

As was a quite twisted rant by a rather hysterical Anwar Khan, who I once praised on this blog but who has since lived up (or down, rather) to the descriptions others gave me of him: a slightly disingenuous hissy-fitter, with an anger management problem. According to his register of interests, he works for Lloyds Bank. Good luck to them. Since his deselection from Labour he’s been accusing Labour of institutional racism. They don’t want incredibly talented Bengalis like incredibly talented he to speak out, you see.

No, they want thickos like his own sister-in-law to stand in his place instead, he believes.

Today, he quit Labour and announced he would stand as an independent in Bow West against his own sister-in-law – and in doing so won praise from the man he now himself praises, Mayor Lutfur Rahman. This is the same Lutfur about whom Anwar was until late last year scathing at every opportunity.

You can read all about that meeting and, more importantly, watch the videos of the race row on the Express website, where I and my Tower Hamlets dwelling colleague Owen Bennett wrote this piece today.

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One of the features of Lutfur Rahman’s divisive administration has been the readiness of his low-grade lieutenants to chuck around the word ‘racist’. I’ve documented this far too many times on this blog to list them again now.

It’s also been clear the past few months that this would be their strategy in the lead up to May’s mayoral election. And having grown up in the swamp, they know that mud can stick.

They’ll probably find some way to label me racist for even saying that, but I’m not.

You see, my wife and her family sometimes call themselves Bangladeshis; more frequently it’ll be Bengalis. All the time, of course, they also say they’re British. And at other times, when they’re describing someone who’s white, they’ll say they’re ‘English’.

All terms of common parlance. And they’re the most lovely, open-minded family I know (and yes, I would say that, but it’s true.)

Unlike the dimwitted muck-rakers who pretend they’re campaigning for a One Tower Hamlets, ie Lutfur’s Tower Hamlets First crew.

Lutfur was always described to me by those who knew him better as an empty vessel. It seems that vessel now poureth over with poison.

How so?

See this press release from Lutfur’s campaign manager Cllr Alibor Choudhury.

John Biggs: Dividing the East End

Labour Mayoral hopeful reported to Equalities and Human Rights Commission over inflammatory and divisive comments

Pressure was today mounting on Tower Hamlets Labour Mayoral hopeful John Biggs after he was referred to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for remarks made on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme

The complaint, by Cllr. Alibor Choudhury of Tower Hamlets First, refers to a statement made by Biggs on 22 September 2013.

Attempting to refute claims of institutional racism in the Labour Party, Mr Biggs said: “All of the Mayor’s Cabinet are Bangladeshi and his primary policy focus has been the concerns of one community, the Bangladeshi community.”

Cllr. Choudhury said: “First off, the makeup of the Mayor’s cabinet is a result of Labour’s policy of non-cooperation. Secondly, John might want to think of me as a foreigner, but I was born here and am as British as he is. Thirdly, policies like free homecare, bringing back EMA and building the most affordable homes in the UK benefit everyone. John’s remarks are untrue and inflammatory and are doing lasting damage to community cohesion in the East End.”

The comments reported to the Commission are the latest in a long line of racially charged comments by the Labour Mayoral hopeful. In 1998, he campaigned against the creation of Banglatown and in 2013 his dog-whistle claims on housing were picked up and gleefully used as propaganda by the EDL who marched on the borough just a couple of months later. More recently, one of his Labour colleagues accused him of having a problem with outspoken Bangladeshis.

Cllr. Choudhury added: “Biggs’ slogan is ‘Uniting the East End’ but with far-right ‘patrols’ on our streets and bomb threats to the Town Hall and East London Mosque, his remarks are doing the opposite. Residents have tried to get him to explain his comments and have been ignored, so there’s no other option but to report him to the EHRC.”

Very kindly, Alibor also sent us the letter he’s written to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Dear Commissioners,

I have been an elected councillor in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets since 2006, and currently serve as the council’s Cabinet Member for Resources, serving alongside the directly-elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman.

I’m proud that in Lutfur, Tower Hamlets has elected Britain’s, and Europe’s, first BAME directly-elected mayor. He is standing for re-election this coming May. Sadly, however, the local Labour Party, who are currently in opposition on the council, appear to be centring their campaign to unseat Lutfur on racial grounds.

Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show on 22 September 2013, the Labour mayoral candidate said, “all of the mayor’s cabinet are Bangladeshi and primary policy focus has been the concerns of one community, the Bangladeshi community.”

This is worrying on a number of levels. First, I am one of those cabinet members. I may be ethnic-Bangladeshi but I was born and brought up in Britain, I have always lived here, and I am as British as Mr Biggs is.

Second, there is a clear appeal to racial prejudice, which is deeply irresponsible, particularly given the backdrop of tensions around the EDL march that had taken place weeks before the programme, and constant negative press coverage around the local Bangladeshi community and Muslims.

On 25 September, three days after the broadcast, the East London Mosque was the subject of a bomb threat and police were called. On 26 September, a suspicious package arrived at the Town Hall. It is very possible that these sinister incidents were the work of extremists whipped up by Mr Biggs’s outburst.

Even if there is no direct link, Mr Biggs should know that his position as a London Assembly member gives him a prominent and influential public platform and that as such, he should choose his words responsibly.

Third, that there are no white members of the mayor’s cabinet is not of his own choosing. When Lutfur stood as an independent candidate following the Labour Party’s suspension of his candidacy – on the basis of allegations that were never put to him and later proved to be false – a large number of Labour councillors supported him. Those who were ethnic-Bengali were expelled from the Labour Party, whereas those who were not were permitted to remain.

On winning the mayoral election, Lutfur wrote to all Labour councillors – white and non-white – inviting them to apply for cabinet positions. But Mr Biggs’s party colleagues ordered all Labour councillors to refuse the offer or be expelled from the Labour Party. This is the reason why there are no non BAME cabinet members.

Apart from anything else, I was hoping that Mr Biggs would have something more constructive to observe about me and my fellow cabinet members, rather than crass complaints about the colour of our skin.

I truly believe that the reason for such messaging is that the Labour Party feels it has lost the ethnic minority vote to Lutfur and therefore needs to appeal to a section of the electorate who resent Bangladeshis and Muslims’ involvement in local democracy and civil society, and who do not normally vote.

Such sentiments are fuelled by hysterical newspaper articles branding this multicultural borough ‘Taliban Tower Hamlets’ and ‘Sharia Zone’, and of course the false allegations famously made by Labour Party figures that Lutfur had been ‘brainwashed by Islamic fundamentalists’.

It would not be the first time such a strategy has been adopted: you will be all too familiar with Phil Woolas MP’s racial smears against the Liberal Democrats after he lost much of his ethnic-minority support base to that party following the Iraq war.

I trust that you will share my grave concern over these deeply unappetising and irresponsible election tactics. I write to you now because my analysis of the opposition’s approach has been reaffirmed by further developments in recent days, which have seen a Far-Right racist party, British First, mount intimidating vigilante patrols outside the East London Mosque, a serving opposition councillor accuse his party leaders and Mr Biggs of racial prejudice, and the party’s election organiser telling the public that the way to remove the mayor from office is to get more non-Bangladeshis to vote. I am happy to release the evidence of these incidents to you as you require.

My foremost concern is the community cohesion in this borough. Its sure destruction should not be a price any legitimate party is willing to pay in return for winning an election.

I very much hope that you will look into this situation carefully, and I look forward to a prompt and thorough response.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor Alibor Choudhury

Cabinet Member for Resources
Shadwell Ward

CC: The Labour Party National Executive Committee Chair Angela Eagle
The Labour Party BAME National Executive Committee Chair Kamaljeet Jandu
Greater London Authority Monitoring Officer

Well, this is a bit thick really. And remember, Alibor is the cabinet member for finance. And not only does he in private call himself Bengali/Bangladeshi (he has to me many times and never British Bangladeshi, because that goes without saying), but he also signs off grants galore for groups whose names suggest Bangladeshi-only.

Only last week, for example, he and the Mayor handed out a ‘Third Sector Award’ to the Bangladesh Football Association, which has also received tens of thousands of pounds in council funding under Lutfur and Alibor.

The Bangladeshi Youth Movement, seen in this document here, also received grants aplenty. There are many other examples.

Hey, and what’s this we see in the Tower Hamlets Strategic Plan for 2013/14, authored by the Mayor himself: an action point for the Deputy Mayor, Ohid Ahmed…”Implement action plan for improving drug and alcohol treatment recovery rates across the borough, including for younger adults, Bangladeshi women, people with disabilities and LGBT residents. (March 2014)

Well, perhaps Alibor has referred himself to the EHRC.

As for suggesting John Biggs has somehow sinisterly prompted bombs to arrive in Tower Hamlets…well, Alibor is no stranger to violence. Perhaps it’s time he can explain how he got that six inch scar on his neck.

Every time I’ve asked John Biggs about Alibor’s past experiences with the gang-ridden Ocean estate, John has always declined to say anything. You see, Alibor was once John’s protege: John mentored him onto a straighter path and helped him see the potential power of politics as a force for good.

Perhaps he’s forgotten those lessons.

Actually, I think he needs a bit of love, a nice big cuddle. When you see him knocking on your door next, give him a squeeze.

Alibor

In the meantime, here’s John Biggs’s response:

Lutfur Rahman’s smears are an insult to true victims of racism

Labour have today responded to a disgraceful press release which was issued by Lutfur Rahman supporter Cllr Alibor Choudhury unfoundedly accusing Labour’s candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets of racism. The press release made sweeping and baseless accusations and stoking racial fear amongst voters.

At the same time another Rahman supporting councillor took to twitter falsely claiming that if elected John Biggs planned to use his powers to scrap the “Banglatown” ward name which is a point of significant pride in the Bangladeshi community. Cllr Choudhury was also promoting his statement on Facebook openly referring to John Biggs as John Bigot.

The attack was described by Labour as a “desperate tactic” and said that “baseless cries of racism for political gain are an insult to anyone who has actually suffered true racial abuse.”

Labour drew attention to positive nature of Biggs’ campaign including the cross community support it enjoys. They highlighted that whilst Rahman’s supporters were intent on spreading baseless smears and character attacks Biggs was focused on speaking with local people and announcing policies which will help all residents such as free school meals for all primary school pupils. Over the last two weeks Labour councillors and John Biggs have announced a multitude of policies including:

– Free school meals for all primary school children
– A 24h out of hours noise service at weekends
– Working towards building 1,000 new council homes after the current administration built only 15.
– New measures to tackle drug dealing on estates
– Creating a new private lettings agency to cut out rip off charges for private renters
– Bringing the popular borough fireworks display back to Victoria Park

Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Sirajul Islam, said: “Let’s be clear about this, John Biggs is no racist. John Biggs has devoted his life to serving all the people of East London. This vicious character attack is nothing more than a desperate tactic from a party who know they are losing the battle of ideas.

“Whilst John Biggs is pledging to provide free school meals for all the borough’s primary school children, all Lutfur Rahman and his supporters can do is cry wolf. Their shameful and baseless cries of racism for political gain are an insult to anyone who has actually suffered true racial abuse.”

John Biggs, Labour candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets said: “I am extremely disappointed by this misleading, divisive, and inflammatory outburst from supporters of the current Mayor. I’m going to run the type of campaign Tower Hamlets deserves – one about ideas for how to make life in our borough better.”

In a joint statement MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali, MP and MP for Poplar and Limehouse Jim Fitzpatrick MP said: “We are utterly appalled by this behaviour. Tower Hamlets is, and deserves, better than these bullyboy politicians who resort to lies and character attacks. Labour have been clear from day one that we want this election to be about uniting Tower Hamlets, the policies that will improve peoples lives and the best person to serve all communities. Instead with over two months to go Lutfur Rahman is resorting to baseless, divisive smears and attacks.

“If Lutfur Rahman thinks Labour is standing against him because of his race then he needs to get real. The reason John Biggs is standing is because he passionately believes in uniting all communities in Tower Hamlets and with a strong unified Labour team he can bring the change the borough needs. The current Mayor just isn’t up to the job and is clearly more interested in his own self-promotion and wasting public money than helping the people of Tower Hamlets who will see through these inflammatory accusations for what they are: a desperate attempt to divide based on the politics of fear.”

“For over 30 John Biggs has worked tirelessly, fighting the fascist BNP and EDL and uniting communities across the borough. The diversity that runs through our party is represented by the fantastic slate of council candidates that will be standing side by side with John, as we will be, throughout the campaign and onward.”

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I’v now heard of several cases of when Lutfurite canvassers (it’s alleged they’re being paid to knock on doors) have introduced themselves at people’s homes without clearly stating who they are. One contact said they were paid a visit by Cllr Alibor Choudhury recently and claimed even he failed to clarify his status; instead he apparently said “Hello, we’re from Tower Hamlets council and we believe in bringing the council to you” before asking whether there were any problems he could solve.

Mark Baynes, who runs the LoveWapping blog has detailed at some length the problems he’s witnessed, eg here, here and here. Channel 4 have also been examining the issue.

Peter Golds raised it at full council last week. I asked him to write a piece for this blog.

By Cllr Peter Golds

Three weeks ago a Labour candidate in Cubitt Town was calling on voters in Galbraith Street. How do I know? Easy, because a voter told me the next day.

The voter knew this was a Labour candidate because she had material identifying her party and herself as a candidate and indeed said so.  A week later I was with a team canvassing in Stewart Street and I have no doubt that the Labour party heard about this.

Why? Because we also identified ourselves and had leaflets and stickers indicating exactly who we were.

Once the local elections get fully under way candidates and helpers will be easily identified as they will be wearing coloured rosettes when calling on voters.

The stories circulating regarding canvassers supporting Lutfur Rahman and his team of candidates–and they are canvassers–are increasingly disturbing.

These people are not identifying themselves either as canvassers or immediately as supporters of the Rahman administration. In one case a resident on Manchester Road, questioned the two young men who called on him asking what it was about. He was told that this was their job. In which case who is paying?

Here is the text of an email sent this week to the police and the Returning Officer from a block on a Cubitt Town estate:

 I am receiving complaints from neighbours that two young men are knocking on doors with official papers in their hand and leaflets from the Mayor, when challenged concerning official ID they have fled saying contact the Mayor’s Office.

I am concerned at anyone going round knocking on doors without any kind of ID saying who they are and particularly where vulnerable people are concerned.

They have just knocked on my door and I can confirm they do not display any form of ID.

Perhaps you could kindly look into this and ask the Mayor to arrange for anyone canvassing for him to display appropriate and suitable Identity.

Note that once again when challenged they referred to the Mayor’s office.

There is also concern as to the huge numbers of letters, sent out at taxpayer’s expense by the council, supposedly as a response to enquiries.

A worried voter met me to say that she had received one of these visits from two young men (they always appear to work in pairs); again they were evasive as to who they represented, mentioning “the council”. 

A little later she received a letter from a councillor from another ward, whom she had never met, and would not in any case have contacted. This claimed to be a response from an “enquiry” that the resident had raised. As the lady said to me, she knows her local councillors by name. Why, so soon after the visit of the two young men had she received this letter when she was adamant that she not raised an enquiry.

 

Worryingly, these unsolicited letters are now logged on the council’s computer system. There is evidence that the number is very high. Will these people receive another unsolicited letter at the start of the election campaign?    

What data protection is there about his? The council is a public body, often holding sensitive information about residents, what is or could be fed into these letters and indeed visits?

Political parties contact voters, and we often contact them by leaflet or letter. However, we use our own resources and voters are made aware of our affiliation. We are also subject to strict rules on data collection.

This below the radar campaigning is part of the problem of the Rahman administration. They themselves are all but personally invisible to the electorate at large. Yes, the Mayor enjoys going to organisations who are the beneficiaries of his grants programme, and who naturally are delighted to have him unveil a plaque thanking him for his generosity.

This is not to use a campaign term, “pumping the flesh”. Nobody sees him on an actual doorstep or handing out leaflets on a street corner.

As for his candidates, there was a classic example this week.

The Mayor attended the new site of the traffic light tree sculpture close to Billingsgate Market. Naturally, he arrived in the taxpayer funded car, which promptly parked in the McDonald’s customer car park, using up a customer parking space.

From where Lutfur Rahman posed for a photograph, in front of Billingsgate Market, the town hall can easily be seen. It is a walk of three four minutes at the most. Had he walked it, he would have passed actual voters.

With him, in the car, was his media guru Mohammed Jubair and former councillor, Mohammed Shahid Ali, who was deselected by the Labour Party in 2010 and is apparently the Mayor’s chosen candidate for Mile End, some way from his home on the Isle of Dogs.

Perhaps Mohammed Shahid Ali needs a ride at taxpayers expense to find the ward he has been allocated? Certainly, whilst a councillor his main claim to fame was to fall asleep during a planning meeting and then vote on the matter in hand, which somewhat annoyed residents.

In conclusion, there are serious questions to be answered about these canvassers and council resources. Bluster, abuse and threats from the so called cabinet is not the way forward on this matter. It is time for others to look into the situation.

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Apologies for the lack of posts recently; I have a funny feeling I’ll be making up for it over the next few months.

Lutfur’s finance man Cllr Alibor Choudhury has always been a man to watch. He has a colourful past and in his younger, (even) more fiery days he had a battle or two with gangs on Stepney’s Ocean estate.

He then saw the light and channelled his considerable energies (and passion) into community politics and became a prominent figure with the Ocean New Deal Communities multimillion pound funding well.

All this brought him to the attention of Labour’s John Biggs, who took the little cherub under his wing and prepared him for councillor stardom. Everyone knew Alibor was John’s protege and during Labour’s selection contest for the parliamentary seat of Bethnal Green and Bow in 2007 (eventually won by Rushanara Ali), Alibor was John’s biggest cheerleader. (Well, that’s what he told me at least.)

How times have changed. At full council meetings now, Alibor positively hisses hatred towards his former mentor sitting in the public gallery.

Politics is such a nasty business and I’d have thought it wiser not to upset those who know where the bodies (and current skeletons) lie.

That said, I’ve always quite liked him and I wish him luck in his new quest: to get elected in the newly drawn ward of Stepney Green. He’s deserted his current patch in Shadwell to return to his homeland where he’ll be standing for Tower Hamlets First alongside Oliur Rahman.

Here’s their leaflet:

Alibor has also been getting out and about, knocking on people’s doors telling them “We’re bringing the council to you”. It’s extremely thoughtful and let’s hope he’s been making it clear he’s a councillor and not a council officer doing the rounds.

Because I’m sure he knows the distinction and I’m sure he knows how things are done properly.

Or does he?

Two months ago, Tower Hamlets Homes had something of a crisis moment when its chairman Barry Simons–a highly respected housing expert who had been director of housing at Newham, Redbridge and Hammersmith before his THH appointment in 2012–suddenly quit.

And in his bombshell resignation letter to the Mayor (whom he described as “an exceptional man”), he put the blame squarely at Alibor’s door.

He said Alibor had “made it impossible for the Board to function properly” and that “trust has broken down between Cllr Choudhury (and possibly other council nominees) and some other non-council Board members”.

The row centred on plans for a massive review of caretaking services by Tower Hamlets Homes. At the moment, they are too expensive and they fail satisfaction surveys. The way these costs are then allocated to leaseholders and tenants is a hugely controversial issue and it seems Lutfur has told THH to stop penalising leaseholders so heavily….and that’s fair enough.

But when Mr Simons wanted to stick to best corporate practice and discuss a report on the matter, Alibor threw his toys out of the pram and walked out. Maybe he had a more satisfying engagement elsewhere, I don’t know.

Trouble at Tower Hamlets Homes is becoming a traditional New Year message for this blog. The title of my first post in 2012 was “Lutfur’s putsch at Tower Hamlets Homes” when I warned that his takeover of the board with his own councillors was bound to cause trouble.

This is the trouble with Lutfur’s administration: they just seem like a bunch of cowboys.

Here’s Barry Simons’ resignation letter:

barry simons

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