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biggs2One of the reasons given for the disastrous move to a directly elected mayoral system of governance in Tower Hamlets in 2010 was it would end the inherent instability of the ‘leader and cabinet’ model.

The latter entailed the ruling party group, ie Labour councillors, voting each April for their leader. This led to endless faction fights that eventually resulted in the rise of Lutfur Rahman.

It turns out these were the halcyon days of Tower Hamlets politics. As I write, the party is again at war with itself in a tragic case of history repeating.

In most councils, I think I’m right in saying that what most people care about is the efficient running of frontline services: bins, schools, street lights, housing etc etc. In Tower Hamlets, the discussions among many politicos at least (but more widely as well) centre more on race and Islamophobia….and when will there be another Bengali mayor. Of course, these are then wrapped up as one.

So the smear tactics that eventually led to the ousting by a court of Lutfur Rahman are once again being deployed against Mayor John Biggs. On a Bengali TV political chat show tonight (‘Straight Dialogue’), the topics due for discussion were “police brutality, harassment, racism, hate crime, Islamophobia and any other issues of concern”.

Panel members due to appear included former Labour and Respect councillor Gulam Mortuza, ex-Labour councillor Abdal Ullah and, lo and behold, Shiraj Haque, who everyone knows as ‘Curry King’ and who used to boast he was Lutfur’s main financial backer until people started to realise that accolade actually resided with the taxpayer’s grants pot.

Mr Haque is a Labour member although for how long is another question. He is currently in league with former (Labour) council leader Helal Abbas and a number of others to “stand up for democracy” and ensure there is no stitch up over who is chosen as the party’s mayoral candidate in 2018.

One of the consequences of the Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum show at Westminster has been a significant increase in party membership in Tower Hamlets. [I am also told that influential activists have been busy buying up party memberships for people. One informed source told me this “has long been the custom in Tower Hamlets” so that you have people who can turn up to branch meetings and vote as puppets. Some convince themselves this is democracy in action but the reality is that it is fraud and if anyone has any information on this please do get in touch – confidentiality guaranteed.]

Possibly because the “wrong” kind of members may have joined (legitimately and otherwise), Labour has decided to very quickly settle the important issue of who will be its candidate for 2018.

A series of trigger ballots among all the borough party’s wards and affiliates has just got underway. The intention of the party leadership is to affirm there is no need for an open election process for the 2018 candidate and that the incumbent is automatically chosen, ie John Biggs.

It’s my understanding that John has genuinely impressed the Government appointed commissioners and senior officers who oversee and run the council. The council is regaining respect in Whitehall.

But for a great many people, and not just loons, this doesn’t really matter. For them, partly because of his character (dry and sometimes blunt), but more because he is not Bengali, it’s time for another Bengali mayor.

So they are seeing this decision to “impose” him as candidate for 2018 as an undemocratic stitch up. The rallying calls have gone out. These trigger ballots must be completed by November 16. Only those who were registered Labour members before April 16 are entitled to vote.

If he loses the trigger ballot (he has to win a majority of wards and affiliates), there will be new selection process. And that will mean new hats into the ring. What is probable if that happens is that John will not win.

Who those new hats may belong to is a fascinating question in itself. I am told Helal Abbas has not ruled himself out, although he also fancies himself to take over Jim Fitzpatrick’s seat in whatever becomes Poplar and Limehouse in 2020.

But the really wild card hat is Rabina Khan, who, with her husband Aminur Khan, yesterday quit the Tower Hamlets Independent Group. This was as I predicted last month when THING and Lutfur chose Ohid Ahmed as their 2018 candidate for mayor. I am told she was subjected to a certain degree of misogyny by some of her former group colleagues, which does not surprise me. So good on her.

 

img_3718So here’s the interesting scenario. Remember she is a former Labour councillor who defected to Lutfur in 2010. She and others would like to return. Senior local figures like Abbas have made it known that the party should be “reaching out” to her and others (to Ohid Ahmed, even), to draw a line and readmit them to the fold. Some regard this as breathtakingly cynical.

But I would not bet against it happening. And if she is readmitted, there is a very good chance that the woman who lost to Biggs in 2015 could defeat him in an internal selection process next year. Even if Biggs wins the Labour trigger ballot this month, she could take him on outside the Labour tent as an independent.

Oh, the machinations, eh… . Well, they’ve only just begun. Last night, the first of the affiliates to hold the trigger ballot, the Women’s Forum, descended into farce and acrimony — and resulted in an official complaint by Shiraj Haque to Labour’s general secretary Iain McNicol about the way it was conducted.

I have been sent a copy of that letter, which was copied to Jeremy Corbyn, Len McLuskey, Shami Chakrabarti, loads of others, and Christine Shawcroft. I’ve copied it below.

The facts are that 67 people signed in to vote, but somehow 80 ballots were cast (so the usual story, really). The organisers, Victoria Obaze and Catherine Overton, who are John Biggs supporters, say they had no choice but to declare the vote null and void. It is claimed by John’s opponents that the vote would have gone against him.

Over the next few days, there will be many more such ballots.

Oh, we also have the matter of the Whitechapel by election on December 1 after the demise of jailbird Shahed Ali who is serving time for housing tenancy fraud.

Labour is selecting its candidate tomorrow night. John I think favours ex-councillor Motin uz-Zaman, but Abbas, Khales Uddin and Shiraj Haque are said to be lobbying hard for Tarik Khan. (Update: Tarik denies this; at the shortlisting session on Wednesday night, Motin, Asma Islam (Wais’s wife) and Victoria Obaze were chosen: the full selection is Thursday night. This is also being viewed as a stitch up.) 

Oddly, THING is not putting up a candidate. A certain Shafi Ahmed is believed to be standing on behalf of something called the ‘Residents’ Alliance’ and THING are standing aside for him. Any more details on Mr Ahmed gratefully received.

Here’s the letter sent by Shiraj Haque and friends to Labour’s general secretary. One person who was at the meeting has told me the letter is “bollocks”.

 

Dear Mr McNicol,

Affirmative ballot for the mayoral candidate in Tower Hamlets

We write to formally inform you on behalf of a number of distressed members the Tower Hamlets Labour Party whom have been victims of intimidation, bullying, harassment and blackmailing by members of John Biggs’ campaign team; some of whom are senior and leading figures of the local Labour Party including Jim Fitzpatrick MP.

These allegations include threats of being blocked on shortlists of future councillor selections in Tower Hamlets, being expelled from the Labour Party and threatening to refuse and withhold support for community events.

Additionally, there are also serious concern of data protection violation whereby members of John Biggs’ campaign team have been seen with membership data when approaching members for support and it is unclear how such data was obtained and with which permissions.

It is quite clear that Mr Biggs’ team are clearly lobbying support for the trigger in every ward in Tower Hamlets which of course they are entitled to do, however in the process there are clear violations of due process taking place. We shall be following up this letter with evidence and affidavits which shall be sent to you shortly.

As you will be aware the first trigger ballots of Tower Hamlets Labour Party was from the Women’s Forum organised trigger ballot this evening, 1 November 2016 at 7pm at St Margaret’s Hall.

There was a large turnout of members. Many have complained about a lack of organisation, transparency and being denied access to the hall, being asked for photographic ID is which was not communicated beforehand and a new requirement for these types of meetings. Many members did have identity cards in their possession in form of student photo card, driving licence and so on, but due to not presenting their Labour Party membership cards they were asked to stand to a side of the hall, treated like outsiders and entryists and made to suffer humiliation in front of other members.

Finally when members demanded the production of Labour Party rulebook evidence stating that the only acceptable identity cards has to be Labour Party membership cards, they were allowed entry. The vast majority of the members did not receive notice of the meeting to attend this women forum ballot in the first place disenfranchise many eligible to attend and vote.

Members attended the meeting after hearing this via word of mouth and as a result the attendance was high, demonstrating that this is a vote members want to participate in and be heard on.

Many will be relatively new to the Party therefore unaware of the process and some of them did not carry their Labour Party membership cards. Those that did receive notice were not informed in that notice that they needed to bring proof of identification. It has come to our attention that a member and organiser known as Catherine Overton arrived at least half hour after the closing of the door. She was allowed to canvass for Mayor Biggs, take part in the voting process and become a teller while other women who arrived at the same time were turned away. A clear example of discrimination. Members were individually counted numerous times and had to sit through three registration and verification processes before the release of the ballot papers which was done by two people running through the attendee list and yet again verifying each member present individually before issuing them a single ballot paper. The public announcement by Victoria Obaze which announced the opening of the meeting during which she categorically stated that she was delighted that at least 80 members had turned up for the meeting.

The members explains their frustration and intimidation that they had suffered from some of the women councillors during this process. They were strongly advised by some of these women councillors and the organisers to support the trigger ballot in favour of Mayor John Biggs. These members state that upon the first counting of the ballot papers most of the councillors and organisers gathered around the counting table and started gossiping. They then announced to re-count the ballot papers again, but did not explain the reasons. They finally re-counted these papers up to four times before declaring the ballot to be invalid and gave their reasoning as receiving 80 completed ballot papers when they had only 67 members registered and the “discrepancy” in numbers was too large. One councillor went as far as to say publically that perhaps the ballots were tampered with while unattended and extra ballots added to the pile sending a message to members that their presence was unwelcome or some way underhand.

It would follow that if at the start of the meeting Victoria announced the number in attendance having completed the registration was 80 members, you would expect that same number of votes to be cast as was the case. How was there suddenly a 30 vote discrepancy which allowed the vote to be nullified?

For a women’s meeting late on a cold night to have a high turnout is something to be celebrated and encouraged. The above examples show a lack of respect for the wider membership by officers and councillors and makes a mockery of the efforts many women made to attend the meeting despite work, childcare and other commitments. It is unacceptable to Labour Party values of fairness, democracy and transparency to treat members this way. The Tower Hamlets membership list is perhaps one of the most scrutinised in the country and having undergone rigorous due diligence in recent years has been confirmed as robust and on the whole accurate. To treat members this way is appalling.

It is with regret the members wish to know from you whether the process applied tonight by the organisers and some of the councillors was the process held under the Labour Party rulebook.

In addition, we seek the Labour Party to immediately suspend the trigger ballot process in Tower Hamlets with immediate effect pending an independent investigation into our concerns raised above in order to ensure a fair and just process is adhered to. In the absence of any action we shall seek legal advice on this matter.

Yours faithfully,

Apsana Begum

Shiraj Haque

Sabina Akther

CC:

Jeremy Corbyn

Chris Weavers

Tarik Khan

Ali Craft

Dan Simpson

Ann Black

Claudia Webbe

Christine Shawcroft

Darren Williams

Rhea Wolfson

Peter Willsman

Francis Prideaus

Shami Chakrabarti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the proposed table of pay:

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 11.13.49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMLDay-2016 copy

But when we arrived, visitors were met by this:

IMG_2266

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

People could sing his song but not hear his words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Judith,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

please let me know your decision regarding this matter.

Nurul Islam Mahbub,Chairperson,Greater Sylhet Council UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is a guess post by Independent councillor Shahed Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

view-1-whitechapel-high-street

Whitechapel Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a complete mockery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As has been mentioned in the comments thread to the last post on this blog, Lutfur Rahman has now lodged his application for a judicial review of the April 23 Election Court verdict.

To recap, he was found guilty on seven of nine counts in the petitioners’ case. His JR seeks to have three overturned.

These relate to the findings of bribery in respect of grants and payments to the media, the payment of canvassers, and of undue spiritual influence.

He is not challenging (and in effect accepts) the finding of false statement (S106 of the Representation of the Peoples Act) against John Biggs (an offence for which he was found personally liable), and various findings of corrupt practices and electoral fraud (fraudulent votes and false registration etc) via his agents.

He is currently banned for five years from holding office because he was found personally guilty of a corrupt practice (bribery). If he overturns this finding his ban will automatically fall to three years, that being the penalty for the other lesser offences.

His ban would then expire April 23, 2018. That would prevent him from standing for mayor that year as the close of nominations for candidates would be a few weeks earlier. However, he would be free to stand as a councillor in a by-election after that date or indeed for Parliament in May 2020.

Ifs, ifs…

As for his hopes of succeeding in the JR, I’m by no means and expert and will leave that to other people to judge or guess. The grounds for his case are outlined in this document: Grounds for JR.

A useful summary is provided on p2 of that document, here:

p2 JR

So he is arguing there are findings of fact by Commissioner Mawrey for which there was no evidential basis in law. His JR also has a human rights flavour to it.

Ben_Emmerson_at_Chatham_House_2013For this, he has hired an extremely heavyweight QC, Ben Emmerson, pictured left, (who I don’t think has much experience of local government or election law, if that matters). Emmerson is the counsel for the current and controversial Child Sex Abuse inquiry.

How much will that cost Lutfur, has been the cry in the comments section on that blog. Well, the answer to that lies in Lutfur’s other ongoing and related predicament: the outstanding cost order against him. You’ll recall that Mawrey ordered Lutfur to pay £250,000 of costs incurred during the Election Court trial. Not a penny of this Judgment Debt has yet been paid.

In court documents prepared for a recent freezing order on his assets (we’ll come to those later), it emerged that he expects his full costs of a judicial review that proceeds to a hearing will be about £160,000. Of that Ben Emmerson QC would collect about £61,000. Lutfur’s solicitors K&L Gates would earn around £55,000, while the junior counsel in the case would pocket about £34,000.

No wonder lawyers love Lutfur. One day, I’ll try and calculate how much his profession has earned from his since the day he took Labour to court in the 2010 mayoral selection process.

Saghir HussainHe has also engaged another lawyer of (a slightly different) note to help him fight the cost and freezing order: Saghir Hussain (right). He’s also a lawyer specialising in human rights and is based in Whitechapel. He’s also listed as a board member of Cage (formerly Cage Prisoners) and among his former clients was a certain Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”.

He represented Emwazi from 2009 and before he became one of the world’s most wanted. The full details are here. You’ll remember from the controversy earlier this year that Cage claimed that MI5’s hounding of Emwazi was a catalyst in him becoming Islamic State’s poster boy executioner.

Hussain tweeted during the Election Court trial in March that the case against Lutfur was about the Establishment wanting to crush “all uppity Muslims”.

Saghir Hussain tweet

If Lutfur wins his JR, it’s likely the Judgment Debt of £250k will be reduced from its original penalty. In addition (and a lawyer can correct me on this if I’m wrong) the petitioners would also become liable for all or some of his JR costs; I’d imagine they would be offset against the new Judgment Debt.

If he loses the JR his liability to the petitioners increases of course by any money they have to spend on the JR.

So that brings us back to the question of how he’s going to pay for it all. The petitioners lawyers say that he has yet to disclose how much has been donated to the fighting fund set up at the Water Lilly rally in April, a fund being chaired by the suspended Labour NEC member Christine Shawcroft.

There is also a running argument over the Lutfur’s property interests and these have been detailed well by Love Wapping here. Lutfur lives in a six-bedroom family home in Old Montague Street with nine other adults and one child and the petitioners argue that his outgoings towards bills in that house (owned by his father and brother) must be low.

During his time in office his register of interests disclosed he owned two investment properties bought 10 years ago. These are 30 Deal Street in Whitechapel (bought for £272k) and 3 Grace Street, a small terraced house he bought for £230k in Bromley-by-Bow. But his wife now claims she owns all of 30 Deal Street and 74 per cent of 3 Grace Street, so she argues they can’t be used to pay her husband’s debt. She also owns the neighbouring property at 5 Grace Street; Lutfur has not disclosed whether he has any interest in that.

According to Zoopla, 30 Deal Street is now worth about £572k, while 3 Grace St is estimated at about £420k.

Apparently both are rented out. Again according to Zoopla, the estimated annual rents are £26,400 (£2200 per month) and £22,992 (£1916 per month).

The petitioners’ lawyers have alleged Lutfur is trying to hide his assets and are seeking more information about any other large assets he might own. Lutfur has denied this.

It was also alleged in the Election Court that Lutfur owns a stake in the Bangla City Cash and Carry, off Brick Lane in Spitalfields. This stake is estimated at £100k. But Lutfur denies any such stake.

[As an aside, is there an argument for councillors to disclose all properties they own (both in the UK and abroad), not just in the borough in which they serve? How many own properties abroad, e.g. Dubai, I wonder.]

Two weeks ago, High Court judge Mr Justice Edis ordered Lutfur to disclose income and expenditure going back five years. He also froze assets worth £350,000 and required him to disclose tax returns going back seven years. A review of the situation will take place in the near future.

The saga continues.

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Thanks to ‘Working Mum’ for highlighting this video on the comments section of this blog yesterday. I think it’s worthy of its own post.

It’s a video of Rabina Khan’s campaign launch featuring among others Lindsey German, of the Stop the War Coalition and former member of the SWP’s ‘Central Committee’.

They all get very excited and praise Lutfur Rahman’s “integrity” before the Great Man himself makes the late entrance of a Grand Dame from stage right to express righteous indignation at the consequences of the legal process: he singles out disqualified Alibor Choudhury, apparently standing at the back of the room, for a special shout-out.

The audience are all very excited by this stage but when it comes to Rabina’s speech, they look a bit bored: Lindsey German can be seen picking imaginary fluff from her jumper in the way people do when they’re irritated and distracted.

Meanwhile, you can also see Oli Rahman and Shahed Ali – the former speaks and the latter claps – and I wonder what those two now feel about having joined in the political charade.

At the time of the PwC report and as soon as the Election Court verdict came through they and one or two others had the chance to choose wisely and break away from the Tower Hamlets First Muppet Show.

Instead, they chose…..poorly.

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As I’ve done in previous years, I’ll make this post yours: an open thread. Please add sensible, detailed and accurate comments about what you’ve seen at polling stations, e.g. turnout, atmosphere etc etc. Please don’t libel anyone.

In the meantime, below are the latest returns for postal votes:

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So of the 29,581 postal votes issued to households for the mayoral election, 15,956 had been returned as of yesterday. That’s 54%. Of those returned 1,114, or 7%, have been rejected for various reasons, e.g. an incorrect signature, or too many crosses. So 14,806 will count. More will come in today.

I can’t find the full/actual figures for last year’s election so if anyone has them please send them to me. (And if anyone does have knowledge of how people have voted in the samples of ballots opened, please keep that to yourself: it’s an offence to disclose them.)

I’ve only been able to find these percentages from the Electoral Commission

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Over to you..

…and here’s the first pic showing a canvassing exclusion zone outside Ben Jonson Primary School polling station. This is what it’s come to..  

 

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