Brown paper envelopes, Islamophobia and a hot chocolate - politics in Tower Hamlets
Slightly long read but I hope you will find interesting about some of the problems with politics in Tower Hamlets.
I was elected in May 2014 and part of my job is to hold the administration of Tower Hamlets Council to account since in 2010 voters in TH decided in a referendum to give all power to an Executive Mayor instead of Councillors. But I quickly realised that Council officers had a different view of my job and routinely did not tell me what was happening in my ward, one reason why I always read notices on lampposts and talk to developers to try and find out what is going on.
The perfect example was the South Quay Masterplan consultation process in autumn 2014. On the Saturday I read a small advert in the back of East End Life saying that there would be a public consultation on a new plan for South Quay (I read it in a library as my building like many others did not receive the paper). I had missed the 1st event on Thursday (1 person had turned up after seeing a sign outside). You could only find the notice on the Council website by searching for the words ‘South Quay Masterplan’ and that notice was only posted 90 minutes before the 1st meeting. Nobody told me about what was going on. I told people about the 2nd event and over 20 people turned up. It was the one of the main drivers for setting up the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Planning Forum and for my spending so much time on social media. The Council are still very poor on communication and in involving residents.
After Lutfur Rahman was removed things have improved. John Biggs has been a very hard working and diligent Mayor and while I might disagree with him on priorities and some decisions I have always respected his abilities. I probably do not spend enough time highlighting the improvements but the Council has 21 Comm’s staff and the whole of the Labour party (as a reminder the GLA assembly member, 2 MP’s, the Mayor and 23 Councillors in TH are Labour) to trumpet their achievements. They should not need my help as well.
But I believe strongly that progress must be quicker and there are still huge issues within the Council. We are the fastest growing Borough in the country and need to be much better at some things like construction management and infrastructure delivery. Many of my Labour colleagues agree as they also talk about resistance to change within the Council and that the culture needs to change. Ironically one of the biggest issues we face next May is that too many good Labour Councillors are standing down depriving the ruling party of experienced Cllrs (& Labour is the ruling party in TH)
Unfortunately, things have become complicated recently and not as much progress has been made as I would like and we have gone backwards this year. In particular, there have been serious issues with;
• Children’s Services badly failing OFSTED
• Repeated attempts to build on the gardens at Salmon Lane
• Rushing through £119 million to spend on affordable homes (see below)
• Tower Hamlets schools not improving as quickly as other London schools so our schools are now average for London rather than being the best as is often claimed
• Alpha Square bribery (see below)
This creates serious issues for me. My involvement with the Neighbourhood Planning Forum means that I need to be strictly non-party political in that role and it does include Labour party members, Greens, Liberal Democrats, Marxists etc. who all make important contributions. But I was also elected to hold the administration to account and for the first time there is a conflict between my two roles. I would have preferred for that conflict not to exist as I need to have good relations with the Mayor if I want stuff done for my residents. But I cannot ignore the issues listed above either. The Council should have called the Police to investigate the bribery allegations as soon as they heard rather than wait to be told, it is not their job to decide whether something is criminal or not. For the same reason, they should have clearly informed the Commissioners (one of whom was a former police officers), they are now saying they told them broadly but the Commissioners are saying they did not know.
I think politics in Tower Hamlets (UK as well) is too tribal and that one reason why TH has not improved as much as it should is due to the dis-functional nature of politics in TH.
The £119 million affordable homes decision was issued at 7.31pm on a Friday night as an Executive decision. It did not go through the normal Cabinet process despite being the biggest single decision made in recent years. Then in the following Council meeting Labour keep bringing forward non-urgent motions so that we have less then 2 minutes at 10.15pm to discuss it before voting on it. My group call it in and it gets debated at 9.30pm the following day (I did agree it should go later on the agenda). But we only had thirty minutes to discuss and the Cabinet members spoke for so long that we miss the opportunity to ask the three senior Council officers present any detailed questions.
The issue is that we should be spending more than £119 million on affordable homes, that none of this is creating any brand-new homes only buying old homes or homes already with planning permission. Tower Hamlets Council urgently need to find some big schemes to invest in rather than trying to build on small green sites if we are to build the new affordable homes we need (I have said the same to central government). But rather then celebrating this important investment it is rushed through with no debate and almost no scrutiny.
Now the Alpha Square bribery case is embarrassing for me as well. I have spoken against many planning applications and on the Council website there are many examples of this. But I am not a NIMBY, I am not against all development and sometimes I feel I need to prove that, as it would be easy as a politician to simply say I hate it all. I have spoken in favour of two applications. One was to complete the half-built building by the Hilton hotel. The other was that I spoke in favour of the new primary school, community space, GP offices and the preservation of the North Pole pub at Alpha Square at the Council and GLA. I was not happy with the height and density. But so many planning applications had been approved nearby with no infrastructure attached i.e. Wardian, South Quay Plaza, 2 Millharbour, The Spire, Landmark Pinnacle etc. etc. that I was worried that I would only end up with the one primary school at 3 Millharbour, no extra GP space and would lose one of the few historic buildings left. You can read exactly what I said on page 18 of this link
Fortunately, I now know that in this case the developer did not pay any bribes but I am sure people will say that the final decision was still corrupt. But does this mean that no Councillor can now speak in favour of a planning application in case we are considered corrupt? This is what is so damaging about the Alpha Square bribery is that we cannot be sure anymore that bribery is not there especially as the Police have failed to investigate.
But I met somebody once at a coffee shop in Canary Wharf to talk about local issues, he used to be involved in Tower Hamlets politics and he bought me a hot chocolate, cost about £3.50. But later he was involved in the Alpha Square development. Since then when I meet people I either do not drink, pay for drinks myself or where I cannot avoid it i.e. Canary Wharf Group events make a donation to Mudchute Farm for the value of food and drink received. But to find out what is going on I still need to speak to people and that is best done at coffee shops.
Separately another person running against me next May has started calling me Islamophobic although she has deleted her most recent Tweet. It is typical of TH politics that you use lies to smear your opponents. But in 2010 Phil Woolas, a former Labour minister lost his seat after a court agreed that he had lied in an election. There are rules about lying in the Representation of the People Act 1983.
She said I was Islamophobic because I said that a publicly owned building built on public land should not have separate male and female entrances. This is because I believe that government and religion should be separate. I did tell her that separate entrances in a mosque were acceptable if privately built but that increasingly in Europe there are Muslim prayer groups where men and women pray together which I think is the right solution. There is a lot of online material proving that I am not Islamophobic and I have many Muslim friends willing to testify in Court that I am not Islamophobic in case she wants to lie again. As an example, I am on record at the GLA asking to ensure that new community space is also appropriate for Muslim prayer as well as other community wide uses. I am an atheist who believes in freedom of religion.
Top of page 8 https://www.london.gov.uk/…/gla_-_former_westferry_printwor…
But with elections approaching on the 3rd May 2018 we will see more of this. I will be standing to be elected again as the Councillor for Canary Wharf ward in May. If people think I have done a good job I hope they will vote for me but if I am not elected I can go on a proper holiday for the first time in 4 years :)
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