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Posts Tagged ‘peter golds’

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.

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andy erlam

Election court petitioner Andy Erlam

John Biggs is to be congratulated for winning the re-run Tower Hamlets mayoral election.  The result was a clear rejection of Rahmanism and of Rahman’s proxy candidate, Rabina Khan.

We now expect John Biggs to ruthlessly root out the rest of the corruption at the town hall within the three years left in his mandate. If he starts to do this, he can be sure of my and many others’ co-operation.  But he and the Labour Party must also now reflect on the fact that it was Labour that created the crisis in the first place.

That is why Labour was so hostile towards the Election Petition initially and made various attempts to sink it.  Biggs himself was a very reluctant witness who had to be coaxed for months to provide an adequate statement for the court. Almost all other local Labour “leaders” looked the other way.  One allegedly actively dissuaded people from giving evidence.  What is the point of leaders who lead from the back?

There remains a question hanging in the air.  Everyone knew that election corruption was rife in Tower Hamlets. It’s been going on for years, so why didn’t anyone, apart from Ted Jeory, Andrew Gilligan and Mark Baynes, do anything about it? Remember, Rahman was, and in many ways still is, a Labour man.  So the choice in the election was really between Labour and Labour. Return of the One Party State of Tower Hamlets.

Rahman claimed in the election court that senior Labour officials such as Keith Vaz, Ken Livingstone and Len McCluskey had met him and his deputy Alibor Chaodhury and that they had agreed a “pathway” with the party leadership for Rahman to get back into the Labour fold. The Labour leadership has never denied this dirty deal behind the backs of both the Labour Party membership and the electorate. In my view, the only thing that stopped it being implemented was a spanner in the works in the form of the Election Petition.  My reading of Biggs’ victory speech last Thursday was a hint at some form of reconciliation with Tower Hamlets First group councillors. Too eager, too much, too early.

John Biggs

Mayor John Biggs with Labour supporters

Last year Labour decided not to take an Election Petition itself against Rahman, even though it suspected that he had, once again, committed industrial-scale fraud in the mayoral and local elections.  Maybe it was because historically Labour has also been involved in similar tactics? Rahman learnt his skills from Labour.

It’s all very well to talk about “drawing a line”, as Biggs does, but the body will only stand a chance of recovery if all the cancer is cut from the ailing body and we now know that election corruption was and is only the tip of the iceberg as regards corruption within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.  The cancer of corruption is still there.

Intimidation and violence in local elections has not stopped in Tower Hamlets either. A few days before this election a Labour councillor was badly manhandled and bruised outside a mosque because he refused to support Khan.  In typical style, he appears not to be pressing charges “on advice from the elders”.  So supporters of Khan can get away with a potential crime?  And you want these people back in the Labour Party?

It’s my belief that numerous fraudulent and invalid votes were also cast again in Tower Hamlets and the police are investigating. If Khan is seriously considering her own Election Petition, who will it be directed at? My advice to her is: save other people’s money.  It will fail at the first hurdle and “be laughed out of court”.

The police have acceded to my request to extend their enquiries to include the local councillor elections and the courts have agreed that ballot papers must be preserved a further six months.  Complaints can be made direct to the Met at: SETelections@met.police.uk as soon as possible and before November at the very latest.  I hear that local Labour leaders are already advising disappointed 2014 Labour candidates to leave matters – i.e. not co-operate with the police.  And we wonder why so many local police enquiries run into the sand?

If people are now being discouraged from making formal complaints to the police about last year’s local councillor election fraud, they will live with the terrible consequences for years to come.  Incidentally, it has never been clear why Chris Weavers, Labour’s then election agent and local Party chair, failed to challenge any of the poll counts on May 22 2014 at the time. Looking back, was his inaction wise?

It will also be especially interesting to see whether Biggs will root out corruption connected with local land deals.  Scotland Yard is actively examining allegations of very serious fraud and misfeasance in public office on this aspect.  It will be interesting to see if the new mayor opens up all the books to a serious and robust police investigation or concentrates on “reputational” issues like a public affairs consultant for FIFA. There is also the small matter of the fraud issues coming out of the PriceWaterhouse Coopers’ investigation. Why is Scotland Yard turning a blind eye? There must be a reason.

The only aggravation I had on the streets was from a few self-styled Biggs aides who criticised me for ‘splitting the Labour vote’.  No vote belongs to Labour.  Like respect, every vote has to be earned.  Such arrogance has destroyed the ethical power of the Labour Party.  It is anti-democratic and indeed illegal to seek to pressurise voters and candidates. Don’t they know?  I take it as a badge of honour.  Remember Labour created Rahman.

Furthermore, the spectre in the election campaign of both Peter Golds openly boasting in public meetings that he would “lend” second preference votes to Labour, and of Biggs “lending” Labour’s second preferences to the Tories beggars belief. Have these people learnt nothing?

The voters have decided and that decision must be respected. I would like to thank the 1,768 people who voted for me, the many others who (I am told) wanted to but didn’t and the many more who put me down as their second preference.  Many wish to keep in touch and can do so at: andy@redflagac.org

We will now see if Labour will clear up, or cover-up, the mess of its own making.

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petergoldsclara_2475094b

His Twitter handle is @Going4Golds and now he’s going for gongs.

Sorry.

Already a proud holder of an OBE – unlike some he rarely uses the initials but he does wear the medal in the presence of the Queen – Peter Golds is now being made a CBE, which is of an altogether higher rank.

He’s been awarded it for “services to local government” and undoubtedly his work in Tower Hamlets over the past decade, but particularly in the last five, has won it for him.

He’s the toast of the Isle of Dogs  – and further beyond.

Unlike some nonentities in Tower Hamlets politics, he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, but he does appear in Wikipedia…on Norma Major’s page. It was he who introduced her and John Major.

A true man of history!

Well done, and congratulations.

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IMG_0664John Biggs delivered a far more generous victory speech last night to the Tower Hamlets First brigade than they perhaps deserved.

It wasn’t what he said precisely but the tone he used. I suppose it’s easy and better to be magnanimous in victory than to be crowing and churlish but he congratulated Rabina Khan for her campaign (who, by the way, didn’t reciprocate in her speech – she forgot to say well done and instead focused on the ‘me, me’ parts) and he promised to recognise the fact she polled so many votes. She won almost 26,000 votes on the first round, 1,500, or less than 2 per cent, behind John.

He said we shouldn’t forget that “a lot of bad things have happened” but that we should now move on.

He said he would hold office as a Labour mayor but in also praising Peter Golds he hinted at possible cooperation to come.

Peter, in his speech, struck a more wary tone. He said John won by “borrowing” votes from the other parties. As he said this, John raised a somewhat surprised eyebrow, but given the comments on this blog and on Twitter during the past couple of days, as well as the feedback John’s opponents were getting on the doorstep, I think Peter was doing no more than stating the bleeding obvious.

Peter polled 5,940 votes, or 8.7 per cent of the first round total. This was almost the same as Chris Wilford achieved last year in percentage terms (he got 7,173 votes in total) but far below the 20 per cent the Tories achieved only last month in the general election for the borough’s two constituencies.

And in second preference votes, there were a huge number of Tories who put Labour second yesterday.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 13.59.56For sure, this was an election in which Labour found friends in other parties.

I know that had John won last year he’d been planning to create an administration reflective of the rainbow nature of his support. It would be very surprising were that not the case this time.

The Government commissioners (who like almost all senior council officers will have been relieved by the result) will surely leave once they see functional politics at play again.

This is why Peter was right in his speech at the ExCeL centre to warn about the consequences for THF of last night’s defeat. Where do their band of jokers go now? Labour and the Tories will need to watch their backs when it comes to future candidate selection for councillors. More about them in a future post.

But more immediately, John now has to create an administration. He has already appointed three deputy mayors in Rachael Saunders, Shiria Khatun and Sirajul Islam, but there will be others wanting some reward. It was noticeable that Abdal Ullah, no longer a councillor, was the man who escorted John into the count last night.

There’s now a cabinet and other appointments to be be made. Some in his Labour group will have to bide their time. Will John take a Sir Robin Wales approach and dish out special responsibility allowances like confetti?

And how will he thank the Tories and in particular Peter Golds? Not so long ago, I suggested he’d make an excellent council Speaker. I think he’d love wearing the civic chains and ensuing order in the council chamber. Offering that role to him for a year would seem a wise choice. After that, I’d put him in charge of transparency and anti-corruption: a mini-Eric Pickles.

And then there’s Rabina. Could John offer her something? Would he? Would she accept? A role to encourage more women into politics? It would certainly create a split in the group of 17 “independents”. Or would she prefer to lead their group as Opposition leader. If the latter, she will need to formally join them and then take on Oli Rahman who has assumed that role.

And there is some talk about Rabina’s team examining a possible election petition against John’s win but how serious that is and on what grounds, I’m not sure.

I took some videos of this morning’s speeches and I will publish them once they’ve finished uploading in two hours’ time…

Lastly, congratulations to Labour’s Sabina Akhtar for winning in Stepney and to Andy Erlam and the other petitioners. Andy polled 1,768 votes yesterday – less than 3%  – but his fans are of a far, far higher number than that.

Meanwhile, here are some photos of last night’s fun.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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UPDATE May 1: I’m taking a break from blogging for a few days. Have fun.

The walls continue to cave in. Everyone knows by now of the three major developments today. In chronological order:

1. Rabina Khan was being offered the chance to stand as the Tower Hamlets First candidate, causing a row within the ‘party’ about how Lutfur Rahman took that decision.

2. Eric Pickles announced a full takeover of Tower Hamlets council via his Commissioners, of whom there are now four. [Today, Chris Allison, a former senior Scotland Yard policeman (profile of him here), and Alan Wood, a former children’s service director at Hackney (profiled here), were also appointed. Their backgrounds raise the question of whether more serious alarm bells have started to sound about aspects of the council.]

3. The Electoral Commission, following the Mawrey judgement, have banned Tower Hamlets First as a political party. Whether the existing THF councillors can still call themselves the THF group is another question. Certainly they’re still listed as such on the council website.

So Rabina Kahn, if she accepts Lutfur’s offer, will have to stand under another banner or as in independent. It’s inevitable that the police will take a keener than usual interest in how any campaign is funded.

As for who she might face, I’m asking all major candidates to write for this blog to outline the reasons why they’re standing and to give some flavour of their manifestos.

Cllr Peter Golds, who has applied to stand for the Tories and who by far has been the main figure scrutinising Lutfur all these years, was the first to reply.

Here’s his piece:

Peter-GoldsBy Peter Golds

Tower Hamlets has become an authority immersed in secrecy and damaged by corruption.

One way to stop corruption is to ensure that the council is transparent. If I were Mayor then the two-way mirrors surrounding the Mayoral offices would go. I have no fear of the taxpayer knowing who I meet and when.

East End Life, with its endless propaganda, will go.

Cabinet will be reduced in size; it can be ten members but that is not a necessity. I will invite all the party leaders and the chair of Overview and Scrutiny to attend as ex-officio members, with full access to papers and the right to contribute at meetings.

Cabinet will meet around the borough and public participation will be encouraged. Only the most confidential material will be heard in secret and for that a good reason will need to be given.

As Mayor I will answer all questions from councillors and the public over matters for which I have direction. Reports from Overview and Scrutiny will be referred to council and I will respond to those. The “human rights” excuse for silence will never be repeated.

Over the next three years I will hold a question and answer session in every ward of the borough. Unlke Lutfur Rahman, I have no fear of the electorate and would relish meeting the voters.

The Mayoral “Town Hall parking space” will also go. I have my own small car and an oyster card – they are sufficient for me to get around the borough for meetings, at my own expense.

  • The Mayor’s office staff will be drastically reduced and you, the taxpayer will know who they are and what they do.
  •  The Chief Officer will be responsible for managing staff, who will be expected to deliver policy. It will not be my job to manage staff. Devising and promoting policy will be the job of the Mayor. The Chief Officer will be responsible for directing and managing staff.
  • On Day One I will examine the detailed financial outlook for the next three years. I will then be able to decide where resources should be directed.
  • I will revisit the Local development Framework. Tower Hamlets has too much overdevelopment and a lack of joined up thinking.
  • New development requires new schools, medical facilities and improved transport, and this will be an integral matter in planning policy.
  • I support the proposed Planning Forum for the Isle of Dogs and will promote these elsewhere in the borough.
  • Tower Hamlets Homes needs to be restructured and the first stage will be for an Independent Board, to be run arms length from the council and not an extension of Tower Hamlets First.
  • I will meet regularly with the other RSLs and expect them to join me for open meetings with their tenants and leaseholders.
  • The Rahman regime has seen the borough isolated from our neighbours and statutory service deliverers. Tower Hamlets is a proud part of London and any administration led by me will be outward looking and fully engaged with our neighbours.
  • Our schools have seen marked improvement over recent years. I will ensure that this continues and that there is a full range of varied school provision for future generations.
  • The recent situation of parents attending the council over nursery closures whilst the Mayor carried on squandering money on his personal vanity projects was a scandal. This will not happen under any administration that I lead.
  • The Rahman administration’s treatment of our elderly and vulnerable has been wrong and I will ensure that this changes with adequate provision where necessary.
  • Island Gardens, Victoria Park and Bethnal Green Gardens, are just three of our open spaces that have been neglected by Tower Hamlets First. They are part of our heritage; all our open spaces will be audited and a scheme of improvement will be devised. Local people love their parks and they will be consulted and involved in the improvements.
  • Just as we saved Bancroft Library, Old Flo, another icon of the East End, will not be sold to an oligarch. I will make every possible effort to bring Old Flo back home.

Tower Hamlets has a vast budget, provided entirely by the taxpayer. Much of this is ring fenced, however managing this brings responsibility. An outward transparent administration, unafraid to face critics and learn from mistakes will help restore the battered reputation of this authority.

This is my manifesto to bring this transparency to fruition with a fresh start which will wipe the slate clean and restore good governance to our great borough.

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It seems to be buried on the website for “Mayor Lutfur Rahman” (home page here) but it is there. This:

Lutfur appeal

Full text here:

Lutfur Rahman will be appealing the judgment made against him at last Thursday’s election court. He continues to reject all claims of wrongdoing and we hold that the integrity of the court system was marred by the bias, slurs and factual inaccuracies in the election judgment. There is a petition in his defence available here for those who wish to sign and a rally will be held on Thursday.

Tower Hamlets First councillors reject the election court’s claims that we are nothing more than a ‘one man band.’ We support Lutfur Rahman as a party because he has led in delivering record numbers of social and affordable homes, investing in our young people with maintenance allowances and university grants and standing up to Tory and Labour austerity. We support former Councillor Alibor Choudhury because of his record as Cabinet Member for Resources of doing the hard work needed to make these policies happen.

As such we will continue to serve residents. Whilst Lutfur Rahman appeals, Councillor Oli Rahman has stepped in as acting mayor and will be working to ensure that top quality Council services continue to be accessible to all residents. While other parties obsess over the politics of the past, securing decent jobs, fair housing and excellent support services for our borough will continue to remain our top priority.

We will also be deciding this week on a candidate to endorse in the forthcoming mayoral election and election for Stepney Ward, and we will make that decision based on who we believe is best placed to deliver stronger communities and a fairer future in Tower Hamlets.

At least they describe Alibor as a “former councillor”.

The grounds for his judicial review are not yet known. I’m not a lawyer but those who are say Richard Mawrey’s judgment looks “appeal proof”. For example, here is the view of legal expert David Allen Green who tweets as Jack of Kent:

More of this to come. At some point we will also no doubt find out who has been paying Lutfur’s hefty bills.

In the meantime, a quick update on the politics of Tower Hamlets First. Acting mayor Oli Rahman and Rabina Khan appear to be the frontrunners.

And it is Lutfur himself who will decide. He is, according to sources, “taking soundings from leaders of community groups”. Which groups these are have not been specified, but one will certainly be the Islamic Forum Europe. Anyone who underestimates the influence the IFE has on these things is mistaken.

Oli is not IFE. And neither actually is Rabina. However, she is helped in this respect by the position of her husband, Cllr Aminur Khan, who is. She is known to disagree with the IFE on many things and I’d be surprised if this hasn’t created lively conversations around the Khans’ dining table.

Rabina is seen by a section of younger Bengalis as bright, articulate and refreshing. She apparently knows how to charm on the doorstep, how to enter people’s homes and “have a cup of tea in the kitchen”, as someone put it to me last night. I suspect that were she to be selected there would be many in Labour’s camp who would say they were supporting John Biggs but who would not cast their vote for him.

But would she be the puppet that Lutfur would want while he fights to clear his name, or even after he fails in that task? What real experience does she have in running a large organisation? I’ve always thought her quite good in the council chamber when reading a prepared script. However, I’ve not seen too much evidence that she’s good at thinking on her feet. But I may be wrong.

As for Oli, he’s apparently loving his new role. He’s been having regular meetings with the two Government Commissioners and promising to work closely with them. I’m told they’ve respected him for that. It’s not something that Lutfur did. In fact, he would be a change from Lutfur in other respects. He’d scrap the mayoral car and chauffeur for a start and take public transport (and not cabs as he used to do…). He would also only hire mayoral advisers where “absolutely necessary”.

But while he’s enjoying the role, it’s not clear for how much longer he can carry on doing it. The executive mayoral role is full time and I’m told that Whitehall rules forbid civil servants from carrying out that job. Oli, of course, is a civil servant with the DWP. And the DWP has apparently written to him to say that Eric Pickles’s DCLG has highlighted this little headache.

Oli is enlisting the help of Unison, so watch this space, but it is possible that Oli may have to vacate his acting mayor role before the mayoral by election in which case someone else may have to step up.

Dropping like flies.

Meanwhile, as you all know, Andy Erlam has decided to stand. If the Tories choose Peter Golds, among the main contenders it will be one British Bangladeshi versus three or four white men. The divisions will no doubt continue.

I wish they’d all just hammer out a rainbow coalition deal.

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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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