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Archive for January, 2011

You can blame this blog and all the evil poison emanating from it on Victoria Park. Vicky Park was the reason I moved to Bow nine years ago: I was living in Crouch End before that and used to play football in VP every Saturday afternoon. They were, and probably still are, the best park pitches in London by a mile.

The park itself is the capital’s best as well, in my view. The light, particularly on days like today with sharp sunshine and long shadows, is fabulous there; the park’s atmosphere also strikes just the right balance between activity and nature at peace.

Overall, over the years, the council has looked after the East End’s gem brilliantly and when the airshots of the Olympic Park and its environs are beamed around the world next year, we will be proud, I’m sure.

However, also over those years, I’ve raised several concerns, many of which the council, to be fair, has listened to. In 2006, I wrote in the East London Advertiser about how it was simply wrong that several deer were being kept in a pen barely the size of a football pitch. Soon after, some of those deer were removed to a wildlife sanctuary in Scotland. The rest have also now left and are, according to council notices, currently living in another sanctuary near Stansted.

In 2008, I wrote about the two alcoves from the previous London Bridge that were placed in the park after it was demolished in 1831. Three years ago, they were filthy, covered in graffiti and almost completely unheralded to the passing walker.

Within weeks of that article, the council engaged a specialist cleaner and they were given some much-needed TLC.

Sadly, however, possibly because there are still no real signs are proper plaques describing their significance, they are again being treated with contempt. This is what they looked like today:

The council has promised to say when they will be cleaned.

However, there are a couple of other things that have been a bit of a worry. I’ve written before about the exploitation of the park for summer music festivals and I think that argument has now been won.

I’m now hearing that common sense has prevailed on another issue. Regular visitors will know that there is a massive building project currently underway in the park. It is all part of £12.5million Heritage Lottery Grant scheme that is due for completion for the Olympics.

The lake in the western park will be revamped over the next couple of months, while over on the eastern side, there will be a new complex for a park rangers’ office block, a community hall and a booze-free cafeteria.

 

There will also be a new skateboard park on the site of the children’s playground. But what was also being proposed was an “urban beach”, ie a giant sandpit that would have been a haven for not much more than urban dog excrement.

However, I was told by a park worker today that the element of the plan is to be dropped exactly because of those health and safety concerns. I’m awaiting confirmation from the council, but if true, then that’s another welcome move.

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Lutfur on the BBC

The Politics Show on BBC London yesterday featured two stars of the East End, George Galloway and Lutfur Rahman. While the former Respect MP was invited to talk about phone hacking at the News of the World (police have told him his number was on a list compiled by a private detective), the Tower Hamlets mayor appeared in a section about the Government’s transparency drive to make councils publish all payments of more than £500.

You can see it on the BBC iPlayer here until next Saturday. George’s bit starts at 39mins and 15secs; the segment with Lutfur begins its introduction at 48minutes in.

Lutfur is seen alongside Tory Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond, who is a non-ministerial aide to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. While Lutfur (or ‘Luther’, as Hammond calls him at one point) welcomes the transparency policy, he also moans that it is adding to his council’s workload. He says officers have already spent more than 100 hours preparing the data, to which my response is “boo hoo”. I’ve no doubt at all that while there could and should be some improvements to the quality of the data provided, the policy itself is a good one and it will force councils to spend money more wisely.

Judge his performance for yourself.

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Tower Hamlets Council has finally complied with the Government’s demands to publish details of all its payments of more than £500 in the current financial year. You can look for yourself here if you know how to convert raw data into Excel spreadsheets (predictably, the council has made it as difficult as possible by dumping the data in a fairly difficult format to read.)

I’ve not had a chance to have a proper look yet (I can’t wait…), but the Tories are definitely quick out of the traps. For example, group leader Peter Golds has already asked chief executive Kevan Collins why his office paid £900 to the Tower Hamlets Labour party on December 9 for “venue hire”.

And one of his new councillors, Zara Davis, who represents Millwall, has just issued a quiet extraordinary press release. Thanks to a brilliant Freedom of Information request, we learn that one of Britain’s poorest boroughs has been shelling out more than £40,000 booking celebrities to appear at various staff events, including pat-on-the-back award ceremonies.

The response to her request can be seen here.

Here’s the text of her press release:

The payments include £13,000 to Barbara Windsor for her appearance at the 2008 staff awards event, £8,050 to Shappi Khorsandi for attending the 2009 staff awards event, £7,500 to Tanni Grey-Thompson and £4,000 to Esther Rantzen.

After exposing these figures, Cllr Zara Davis commented:

“This is an absolute outrage. Taxpayers will be horrified that Tower Hamlets Council has blown tens of thousands of pounds on celebrities.

“What is even more distressing is that whilst the council fritters away money, Tower Hamlets remains one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. This area lags behind the rest of London, let alone the rest of England when it comes to education, health, employment and housing.  The very fact that the council would blow its money on celebrities rather than invest in vital services just beggars belief.

“The purpose of a council is to deliver the services that matter to residents, and to provide good value for money.  Tower Hamlets has failed miserably on both of these counts.”

The full details are as follows:

DATE CELEBRITY EVENT FEE
Jul-05 Athlete –  Kris Akabusi Support Staff Conference £3,000
Nov-06 Swimmer –  Sharron Davis Annual Staff Awards £6,000
Nov-07 Athlete – Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson Annual Staff Awards £7,500
Nov-08 Actor –  Barbara Windsor Annual Staff Awards £13,000
Jun-09 Businesswoman –  Camila Batmanghelidjh Workforce Development Conference £1,000
Nov-09 Comedian –  Shappi Khorsandi Annual Staff Awards £8,050
Jun-10 Esther Rantzen Children’s Workforce Development Conference £4,000

In my last post here on council spending, Labour questioned Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s proposal to plough an emergency transitional grant from Eric Pickles’s department into a “slush fund” reserve. I would imagine that when Big Eric hears how Tower Hamlets has been spending our cash, he’ll do a Big Daddy drop.

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I thought the looming budget debate in Tower Hamlets would be explosive – and I think I was right. It is in this area – the most important one there is – that we are going to see the serious problems of the split council set-up.

While Independent Lutfur Rahman may be the all-powerful mayor, it is the 51 councillors who have the decision when it comes to passing the budget. Lutfur and his cabinet will make their proposals, but they need a vote of the full council to have it approved. He therefore needs Labour, which has more than half of all councillors. Politically, therefore, Labour will want to make the budget their own. There are some interesting dynamics around this.

When I asked Labour’s Josh Peck, who spent the last four years in charge of budget-setting, what were the biggest concerns about the current proposals (as reported in my last post here), he said one was the amount Lutfur was hoping to set aside in the council’s reserves.

You’ll need to stay with me on this. In an attempt to dampen the effects of the spending cuts, the Coalition has provided transitional grants to those councils most in need. Tower Hamlets is one of them and has qualified for emergency funds of £3.7million for 2011/12 only (the details of the grant are explained here on p125 at paragraph 8.6).

Yet instead of using that to protect frontline services in 2011/12, Labour says Lutfur has effectively decided to pocket it by squirrelling £3million away in the council’s reserves to set up what Josh describes as a special mayoral “slush fund”. He suspects Lutfur will dip into that account during the next 12 months to hand out cash to the ‘third sector’ organisations (charities and the like) that will help take the Big Society strain of the Whitehall cuts.

Here are Josh’s own words:

“For the Mayor to pocket a £3million slush fund at precisely the time when he is abolishing 650 after-school childcare places and cutting services at Children’s Centres in one of London’s poorest boroughs beggars belief. It raises serious concerns about what he plans to do with this public money, or indeed who he intends to give it to.”

Here’s how the council describes the proposal in Lutfur’s budget document:

16.10.Having regard to the potential for volatility in the medium term financial outlook, the time-limited nature of the Collection Fund surplus (paragraph 17.3), and the strategic financial risks highlighted in this report, it is recommended that Cabinet seeks to maintain general reserves at between 5% and 7.5% of budget requirement. This broadly equates to a target range of £15.7m to £23.6m.

16.11. A projection of the level of general reserves anticipated as at 31st March 2011 is shown at Appendix G and indicates that reserves are currently expected to stand at £20.6m as at 31st March 2011, which is in the middle of the recommended range. However in view of the financial risks facing the Council over the next few years, in particular the need to identify further savings in 2012/13 and the delivery risk of achieving a £30m savings plan in 2011/12, it is recommended that the reserves need to be maintained at the upper end of the range. A contribution of £3.0m is therefore included as part of the budget strategy for 2011/12.

That’s just one area of disagreement and there are many others. For this reason, Josh and other Labour members have been trying to talk to senior council officers ahead of next month’s council meeting. Last Saturday, Josh published the following on his Twitter account:

“Mayor Rahman has banned council officers meeting Labour Cllrs to discuss the budget – what’s he got to hide? #RahmanFail

When I talked to him about this, he went further. He said that officers appeared to be willing to meet (they have in previous years with other opposition councillors, I understand), but that Lutfur apparently intervened. And not only that, he said chief executive Kevan Collins had agreed to Lutfur’s demands.

And this is where it gets explosive: Josh and his Labour friends are now furious with Kevan. They have all but accused him of being Lutfur’s poodle . There is some history here: when Kevan’s predecessor Martin Smith (who had a good working relationship with Josh) was forced out by Lutfur and Cllr Marc Francis two years ago, there was a strong suspicion that Kevan had played a good game. However, Josh’s broadside is astonishing. Here it is:

“There is a growing perception that Dr Collins is not prepared to say no to the Mayor, regardless of his legal duty to do so in certain circumstances. He runs a serious risk of losing the confidence of the Council if he does not act with greater care.”

And if I haven’t yet exhausted you, here’s another interesting development. Josh is among those most opposed to Lutfur’s re-admission into the Labour group, an ambition the Mayor still holds. Lutfur is lobbying hard for it and, I’m told, held a long meeting with Jim Fitzpatrick earlier this month when the two discussed how to be “in it all together” against the Coalition cuts.

According to the Left Futures blog, Labour’s NEC yesterday decided some of the allegations in Helal Abbas’s explosive dossier in September were, well, a bit dodgy. They have decided to look into other elements of the controversy, but Lutfur’s supporters, including Ken Livingstone, see this as the first step in the rehabilitation process. All those who thought that October 21 was a major turning point in the Tower Hamlets Labour party might well have been wrong.

Here’s the Left Futures account – it’s written by Jon Lansman, a Bennite Lutfur supporter now living on the Isle of Dogs.

Tower Hamlets: membership inquiry reveals no conspiracy

Labour’s national executive yesterday received a report into “alleged membership abuse” into Tower Hamlets which contained nothing that could be regarded as evidence of a conspiracy by anyone. Complaints made against Lutfur Rahman, then the candidate chosen by Labour’s members as their candidate for Mayor, then debarred pending an investigation and subsequently elected as an independent candidate for Mayor, included allegations of membership abuse. However, the investigation produced no evidence of any wrong-doing by him and made clear that, if there were any irregularities,  they made no difference to the outcome.

The report reveals that, of the 1,217 members to be eligible to take part in the selection process, 149 had been found not to live at the address on the membership list. This finding was presented by complainants against Mr Rahman, allegedly on the basis of a canvass of less than half of the membership. However London borough migration figures reveal that, in Tower Hamlets, 9.5% of the population move out of the borough each year and a further 5.3% move within the borough. We should therefore expect 180 out of 1217 members who had paid their relevant subs on average a year previously to no longer live at the same address. No doubt this warranted further investigation, but it does not necessarily imply anything significantly wrong.

Out of those 149 members no longer living at the address on the membership list, the report claims there is “no evidence that 75 of them were ever registered as an elector at the address where they claimed their Labour Party membership at the time of the selection.” According to the Electoral Commission, about 18% of those eligible to vote in inner London are not registered, often because they have relatively recently moved in or live with their parents. Tenants of private landlords are less likely to be registered, students may be registered elsewhere, some members may not be eligible to vote. Labour Party members may be expected to be more likely to register than those uninterested in politics, but people who are more transitory (as these members appear to be) are less likely than others.

However, that whole matter is of little relevance since only 12 of these people actually voted in the selection which Lutfur Rahman won the selection by 25 votes over both other candidates in the final round, 182 over his nearest rival.  It was acknowledged at the national executive that, even if there were irregularities, they could have made no difference to the outcome, a view that had also ben shared by the NEC disputes panel.

The report, which was poorly written and failed to adequately explain what had happened, nevertheless sought, without any supporting evidence, to conclude:

It is membership abuse to claim to be a member at any address where you do not live. The number of cases strongly suggest that this would not have come about through accident or through individuals acting alone to abuse the system. The evidence outlined above is sufficient to suggest a concentred effort to add people to the membership list in Tower Hamlets was being undertaken by one or more individuals.

This conclusion was not agreed by the executive which called for a further more comprehensive report, and for an investigation into other aspects of the complaints made against Lutfur Rahman, as had been promised previously. Whilst the report fails to provide any firm evidence of widespread  membership abuse, some irregularities cannot be ruled out. However, no evidence of any conspiracy by any candidate for the mayoral selection has been found.

It is clearly a “membership abuse” to misrepresent one’s address in order to be a member where one doesn’t live. It is surely not necessarily wrong for people to delay transferring their membership for a little while after moving.

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Budgets in Tower Hamlets

The Mayor’s cabinet will meet on February 9 to put forward its budget proposals for 2011/12. These will then be debated by the full council of Tower Hamlets on February 23 and by March 10 at the latest. Given the scale of the cuts forced on the borough by the Coalition, it’s going to be an excruciating few weeks.

We already know that about £70million in savings are needed over the next three years, meaning a loss of some 500 jobs. For years, I’ve been arguing that there is an incredible amount of fat in the system. That junior press officers are being paid almost £40,000 a year, more than twice the local newspaper reporters asking them the questions, is scandalous. The salaries of the top fat cats, including £100,000 for “head of communications” Takki Sulaiman is even worse.

So where and how that axe falls as the council quite rightly moves to make the town hall workforce more representative of the borough’s population will be interesting to watch.

In the past, these budgets have been overseen by some pretty able politicians. I know for a fact that former chief executive Martin Smith – a highly respected accountant – was extremely impressed with the way that Labour’s Josh Peck set about learning his finance brief from 2006 onwards. But I would imagine that same level of respect does not quite extend to the current cabinet (a couple of people excepted of course…). In fact, it is likely that officers may well have been able to rule the roost and provided Mayor Lutfur’s overwhelmed aides with a fait accompli set of savings proposals.

The full set of proposed savings can be viewed from p117 on this document from the January 12 cabinet. Interestingly, East End Life does not warrant a single specific mention. I presume that means nothing has yet been finalised in that area, possibly because of trade union pressure. The only reference to Takki’s department is on p316, where there is a broad outline of £1.3m in savings over the next three years, including the loss of 15 out of 45 posts.

The budget document is a mine of information, some of which I’m still exploring. For the moment, I’ll highlight two things: on p129, you’ll see that as a result of the credit crunch, the council’s independent actuary has told the town hall that it must cough up an extra £3.4billion million to ensure that staff receive their gold-plated pensions.

The other interesting section is on p187, where savings to the council’s “democratic services and member support” department are outlined. These are the people who for years have had to put up, courteously, with the often arrogant and snotty attitudes of some councillors who see them as their slaves. Deputy Mayor Ohid Ahmed, I know for one, has upset a few of these officers who do the donkey work to help with constituents’ problems. With the advent of the new Mayor’s Office, it is reckoned that most queries will be directed that way rather than through councillors, hence potential for savings. Reading the savings proposal, however, it seems as if the departing members of staff have had the last laugh. “If you’re going to cut us,” they seem to have said, “you’re sure as hell going to have to work for yourselves in future.” Except, of course, many of them won’t: they’re too lazy, and constituents will just suffer as a result.

The full text of the proposal is copied below for ease of reference. You’ll get a feel for what work councillors will now have to do: no biscuits and grand buffets, fewer business cards, book meetings themselves, pay for damaged mobile phones etc etc etc…

A. Re-organisation of Democratic Services (Members Support, Committee and Administrative Support Teams):

The Democratic Services Team provides support to elected Members and to the Council’s decision making and constitutional processes. The three teams to be reviewed currently comprise of 28 posts (27.13 FTE).

The total budgeted expenditure for the teams in 2010/11 is £2,773k. This is broken down as follows:-

- – -

Employee costs = £1,221k

Non-staffing costs = £609k (of which £425k represents recharges) Members’ Allowances and Member Learning & Development = £943k

Benchmarking data shows that the level of support provided to Councillors in Tower Hamlets is generally higher than in many neighbouring and peer authorities.

In addition the number of Members Enquiries processed has increased year on year from 5,666 in 2005/06 to 8,655 in 2009/10.

The section was last fully reorganised in 2007 and a further review is now required to respond to changes since then including the introduction of the elected mayoral system from October 2010.

Savings of £400k p.a. are required to be achieved by this service. This represents about 28% of the total budget excluding Members’ allowances and recharges.

The reorganisation, which was launched for consultation on 17th December, will aim to:-

x       Rationalise the support provided to Members both from within CE’s Directorate and across the Council services;

x       Achieve the savings required;

x       Deliver the most suitable support arrangements for the Mayor & Councillors and the decision-making process, reflecting changing roles under the new mayoral system;

x       Address changes in work demands and gaps in provision that have been identified since the last reorganisation in 2007;

x       Ensure that staffing structures and job descriptions reflect the roles that will be required going forward;

x       Simplify job descriptions, improve flexibility and provide development and learning opportunities for staff; and

x       Maximise the use of ICT by both Members and officers, increase efficiency and eliminate waste.

Subject to consultation under the Council’s agreed procedures it is projected that the reorganisation could result in the deletion of up to 6 existing posts in 2011/12 (2 posts in the committee team, 2 posts in Members services and 2 posts in the Admin support team).

This will lead to budget savings of £158k in 2011/12 (excluding funding for new posts in the Mayor’s Office).

2B. Reduction in non-staffing budgets

Alongside the reorganisation of the team, a range of savings are proposed in non-staffing expenditure in order to achieve the savings required. These non-staffing savings total over £160k p.a..

In the main the non-staffing savings relate to printing; stationery and other office expenses; and support services to Members.

There are also proposals for reductions in expenditure on Member Learning and Development (by reduced use of external events, more on-line training and restrictions on conference attendance); and in the level of Members’ Allowances, by at least 5% (i.e. extending the cut already agreed in respect of Special Responsibility Allowances to the Basic Allowance as well).

The full breakdown of proposed non-staffing savings is as follows:-

Reduction in stationery budget (Committee & Members Support): £7.7k

Reduced staff transport costs: £3.0k

Deletion of Agency Staff budget: £10k

Deletion of Interview Expenses budget: £2k

Refreshments: £22k (90% already implemented) Reduction in Chair of Council’s expenses: at least £15k

Reduction in Member Learning & Development budget: £15.6k

Reduction in printing (committee agendas etc): £22.5k

Review of Members’ Allowances: at least £40.8k

Reduction in non-staffing support to Members: at least £22k

Further details and service implications of these reductions are set out below.

2. Service implications of saving:

Mayor’s Office

The reorganisation of the Democratic Services Teams will establish a Mayor’s Office to undertake the necessary support services for the Mayor and Deputy Mayor including policy, strategy and communications advice, research and briefing, community liaison, diary management, PA, executive and casework support.

The structure will reflect the fact that more enquiries will go to the Mayor as a focus for Executive decisions.

New policy will be lead by the Mayor and Mayor represents to the Borough to local Regional and National Stakeholders.

In relation to support for non-executive Councillors, the service review and associated budget reductions will give rise to a number of changes in the level of support provided:-

Members Enquiries and direct support

x       Processing of Members’ Enquiries (MEs) for all Councillors, including the Scrutiny Lead Members, will transfer to the Members’ Services Team.

x       However, the range of tasks undertaken in relation to MEs will reduce. Staff will continue to receive MEs and process them to the relevant department but will not send an acknowledgement, nor a copy of the response, to the resident concerned.

All communications or correspondence between the Councillor and his/her constituent will be the responsibility of the Councillor him/herself.

x       Members’ Enquiries will not be accepted where the information requested can be easily obtained by other means such as referring to the Council’s website or Members’ Intranet. All ‘Streetline’ enquiries will be directed to the telephone hotline. Other categories of enquires may be identified that will not be accepted in the ME system including (subject to further discussion on the detail) enquires to external organisations including the Police and RSLs. A bank of previous responses (anonymised) will be available on the Intranet for reference to avoid repeat enquiries.

x       The aim is to move towards a situation where a formal ME is increasingly seen as a last resort. It is expected that the above measures will result in a reduction in the number of MEs of up to 35% which it will be possible for a reduced number of staff in the new Councillor Support Team to handle. In addition, experience in neighbouring boroughs with a Mayoral system suggests that an increasing number and proportion of enquiries will flow directly to the Mayor’s Office.

x       Work will also commence on the development of a web-based enquiry form that will, alongside a dedicated contact centre hotline, enable the Members’ Enquiry system to move onto a fully automated, self-service basis within one year.

x       PA support for the Scrutiny Lead Members will be withdrawn. PA support for the Chair of Overview and Scrutiny Committee will be provided by the clerk to the committee.

x       The Councillors’ timesheet system will be put on-line for Members to complete themselves without officer assistance.

Meetings support

x       The Committee team will reduce in size and its management structure will be rationalised. The team will prioritise clerking and other support for the formal Constitutional meetings only (i.e. Council, Cabinet, formal Committees and Panels) and associated meetings including the Mayor’s Advisory Board, although it is intended that the latter meeting will become more informal in nature and will not require detailed minuting, except in its Cabinet pre-agenda role.

x       The Team will no longer provide support for CMT, MABG, nor for Social Services Complaints Review, Secure Accommodation Panel, Corporate Parenting Steering Group or other officer-led or non-constitutional meetings to be determined.

x       Hard copy agendas will provided only on request and only to Members of the Committee concerned (for Cabinet meetings, Cabinet Members plus O&S Committee members) plus one per relevant Directorate. All other agenda distribution will be electronic.

x       The deletion of all refreshments at meetings will be continued and will be extended to any meetings not already covered.

x       The team will also support the new statutory petitions and e-petitions scheme, the programme of Members seminars and Members’ IT provision

x       The Democratic Services team will no longer provide any support for the Education Appeals function (subject to further discussion on possible funding from Children, Schools and Families)

Councillor support/facilities

x       Financial support for Members’ Surgeries venue hire will be capped at £15 per member per month.

x       ‘Free’ business cards will be limited to 250 per Councillor per year. Any additional printing required will be charged to the Councillor.

x       Members will no longer be issued with free diaries x         There is currently no budget for the provision of members IT equipment and this will need to be addressed in 2013/14. In the meantime all IT or phone replacement costs caused by damage or loss of equipment issued by the Council will be recharged to the Councillor

x       Responsibility for purchasing IT consumables including printer cartridges will transfer to the individual Councillors.

x       The courier delivery to Councillors will be reduced from three times to once a week.

x       The proposed reduction to the Member Learning and Development budget will require less use of external training and restrictions on conference attendance alongside increased use of on-line and other self-directed learning programmes).

Civic/Ceremonial functions

x       The total ‘Chair of Council’ budgeted expenditure in 2010/11 is £82.7k.

x       It is proposed that the annual Chair of Council’s Reception (traditionally held immediately after the Annual Council Meeting in May) and the Civic Awards ceremony will be discontinued.

x       The Chair’s Charity Ball will be held on a strictly self-financing basis.

x       Other Civic/Ceremonial engagements and attendance at events will be subject to a new protocol and an annual cash-limited budget

x       Chair of Council’s crests will be restricted to 12 per year.

x       We will cancel the lease car and instead contract with a vehicle hire company to provide suitable transport as required by the Chair of Council and the Mayor

3. Actions required to achieve saving:

Consultation (with staff and members) and subsequent implementation of staffing reorganisation.

Communication of changes to Member support arrangements. Develop IT-based solution for self-service Members’ Enquiries. Development of specification and tendering of car hire contract.

In relation to any proposal to change the level of Members’ Allowances the agreement of the Council Meeting will be required.

4. Potential implications for staff, contractors, partners, assets and other

Directorates:

Some service directorates may need to make alternative arrangements to clerk meetings currently supported by the Democratic Services Committee Team (CE’s office in the case of CMT meetings).

Councillors will receive reduced allowances, will have reduced access to some (external) Learning and Development activities and will be required to undertake (and pay for) more of their support services.

The Children, Schools and Families directorate will need to make alternative arrangements for support to the Education Appeals process (unless funding can be made available to provide the service, or a client-side function, within Democratic Services).

The Chair of Council will undertake fewer community engagements.

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The following article by Mayor Lutfur Rahman has just appeared on the website of Operation Black Vote. I’m reproducing it below:

Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman

How the mild man of Tower Hamlets made political history

Lutfur Rahman, Britain’s and perhaps Europe’s first Black elected Mayor talks about his election and the future for minority communities in British Politics.

This week we celebrate Martin Luther King day. It has been more than 40 years since the great man gave his life for the cause of equality. With a black President in the White House and the Jim Crow laws a distant memory, a lot has changed in that time, but there should be no doubt that racial and religious prejudice are still holding back people from ethnic minorities, both in the US and here in Britain.

As you may know if you’ve followed the fractious world of Tower Hamlets politics, I’ve experienced some of that discrimination first hand. In the months leading up to my election, certain right-wing journalists and unscrupulous politicians pushed the idea that I was a Muslim supremacist who had been “brainwashed” into infiltrating mainstream politics with the aim of setting up an “Islamic republic” in east London. Thankfully, the electorate in Tower Hamlets rejected these ludicrous narratives, but it is clear racial and religious bias is still a big issue in this society.

Most examples of it are not as overt as the wild-eyed claims made against me, and they are certainly not enshrined in law as they were in the US, but the barriers do exist.

For me and many others of my generation, fighting racism has meant direct action -I cut my teeth in politics marching against the National Front in Brick Lane in the ’80s – but the next generation are facing more subtle and ingrained forms of bias

In today’s tough economic climate, and in the context of the government’s overzealous cuts, I think the next fight for ethnic minorities will be for social mobility. Of course, the cuts hit everyone, regardless of race, but ethnic minorities are proportionately poorer than the general population and that gap will tell in the years to come.

My biggest concern is for young people. Not only will social mobility issues hit them hardest, but there is a real fear they might disengage from politics altogether. This is the result of Increasing frustration with a political discourse that doesn’t speak for them; repeated knocks to the credibility of politics and politicians and the point blank failure of successive generations of politicians – most recently the Lib Dems to live up to their promises.

But it is to our young people we entrust the future of our democracy. And we need to do about more to engage the increasing number of young people from ethnic minorities. It is inspirational, even for old hands like me, to see the energy and belief they bring to important issues.

But few things are more dispiriting than a young person who doesn’t feel like they can change things. And that’s why nearly half a century after Dr King changed politics in the US, the work of Operation Black vote is still important.

I owe Simon Woolley and the others at OBV my personal thanks for bringing some scrutiny to the recent murky politics in Tower Hamlets; but as Britain’s first ethnic minority Mayor I want to thank them for helping to open the way for many politicians who otherwise might well have been judged by colour of their skin rather than the content of their character.

Within the next few months, Operation Black Vote and its director Simon Woolley will hit the headlines in relation to a trial of alleged racial harassment of him and the organisation by Terry Fitzpatrick.

Terry, as is generally known in Tower Hamlets politics, is close to Lutfur’s enemy Helal Abbas. For that reason, I shall be monitoring comments closely. I will delete anything that touches on that trial. Please keep comments general and within the policy laid out at the top of this blog.

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Lutfur’s Diary

Been wondering what Lutfur Rahman’s been up to since becoming Mayor at the end of October? Well, here’s your chance to have a look for yourselves.

I’ve just been sent a response to a Freedom of Information request I lodged with Tower Hamlets council last month. Intrigued by Lutfur’s absence from the important Remembrance Sunday service at Tower Hill on November 14 (and by the refusal of £100,000 a year Takki Sulaiman’s to answer questions about it), I asked the town hall for a copy of all the Mayor’s diary engagements between his election and Christmas.

And what fascinating reading it makes! In fact, Takki seems to be his favourite officer, holding more meetings with him than almost everybody else. When I was at the East London Advertiser, we were always told that the council’s controversial freesheet, East End Life, was free of political independence. Somehow that didn’t ring true. And now that hunch seems to have been right. For every Tuesday now, Lutfur and Takki spend an hour together to “look at the proposed news list for East End Life”. The paper goes to print on Fridays. I’d imagine that the ELA might have something to say about that. I’m sure the council ensures it complies with the Local Government Act on publicity, however. Very sure.

Takki’s also been lending his considerable intellect in other ways, including on November 8 a discussion with Lutfur about how to “brand” the Mayor’s office. I’m sure the hundreds of council staff about to lose their jobs will most grateful about that.

On December 10, his diary has him spending three hours “media training” at 23 Gosfield Street, W1W. That’s the studios of the Sound Company, a voice-over and audio production studios just off Oxford Street. Yes, I shall be asking how much this training cost and, er, why the studios at the struggling Rich Mix studios in Bethnal Green Road weren’t used.

There’s plenty of other material in there as well. His date at Tower Hill on November 14 was marked as “attendance confirmed”, yet he was a no-show. We still don’t know why. As you’d expect from a Mayor, he attends an awful lot of community events, including on November 28 the “Darul Ummah Ceremony” (where, sadly, earlier this month people felt it necessary to hold a debate on whether Islam is compatible with football), and a “Clifton Awards ceremony” at his friend Siraj Haque’s restaurant in Osborn Street on December 14. there have also been plenty of mosques wanting to bend his ear, probably about help improving their often ramshackle facilities.

Others that caught my eye include an entry for December 19, when he had an appointment to visit the Ebrahim Community College in Whitechapel. This is a fee-paying Islamic sixth form college where fees are £2,500 a year. It is run as a charity and its accounts can be seen here. You’ll see that it is in a bit of financial bother and that it currently receives no grants from the council. In its latest accounts, its trustees state:

We are actively seeking funding to sustain our projects and to be able to continue providing subsidised courses to our members.

Its trustees are listed at the Charity Commission as MR M M UDDIN, SHAMS UDDIN and ZAFRAN MALIK. I don’t know any of them.

On the political front, deputy mayor Ohid Ahmed and Alibor Choudhary seem to be his favourite councillors, if his diary is anything to go by, but he also has time for some of his former Labour colleagues as well. On November 15, he had an hour meeting planned with Cllr Abdul Asad, while a week later he met Cllr Shafiqul Haque for an hour. I wonder what was discussed there…

As ever, dear readers, I’d value your own insights, intelligence, evidence and observations. You can read the full unexpurgated diary here.

Or, here are the other pages as jpegs.

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Docklands visionary dies

The next time you take a DLR or perhaps curse as a plane takes off from the increasingly busy City Airport, spare a moment’s thought for Reg Ward. For when the history of post-1980s east London is written in full, it is likely that his name will feature more prominently than most others.

He was the first chief executive of the London Docklands Development Corporation, the controversial but incredibly powerful and visionary quango set up by Michael Heseltine in Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1981.

Many played a part in the transformation of the former docks into what is now some of the world’s most lucrative office space, but it is widely accepted that Ward was the major on-the-ground driving force. The DLR and City Airport were both his ideas.

He died last Thursday, aged 82. He leaves two children, John and Sarah. David Donoghue, the director of information at the LDDC and now a serious player in preserving the heritage of Spitalfields, has written the following:

Reg Ward, Chief Executive of the London Docklands Development Corporation from 1981 to 1987, who developed and saw through the plans for the DLR, London City Airport, the Royal Docks, Surrey Quays and Canary Wharf,  died in hospital on Thursday 6th Jamuary 2011. He had many fans, not least amongst the community and his staff, who still hold regular meetings to celebrate his regime.

A tribute to him on the LDDC veteran’s website says: “So much of what the London Docklands are today is a direct result of Reg’s huge vision for the area. He was much loved by all who worked for him in those heady days and he will be greatly missed.”

“Reg was the Corporation’s first Chief Executive (1981-87) from whose vision flowed so much of what you see in Docklands today. Indeed, the Olympics bid could never have been successful without Reg’s work to create infrastructure and put East London on the map.”

Born in the Forest of Dean, Reg started his career in the Inland Revenue and later filled posts with a northern firm of architects and Irvine New Town.  Before joining LDDC in the “shadow period” in 1980 he had been Chief Executive first of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and then of the County of Hereford and Worcester. After he left LDDC he spent many years working on major regeneration projects around the world, the most recent being in St Kitts in the West Indies.

In his last years Reg took life little easier at his home near his daughter at Broadwell Manor. In April 2004 Reg and and his wife Betty celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary with a lunchtime party at Stow-in-the Wold attended by many of the LDDC’s original staff. Betty died early in 2010.

Some early staff comments:

“What a pity we couldn’t have got some sort of recognition for all he did.  Still we who knew him well knew that he was the force behind LDDC and there is a lasting memorial of him in all the development in Docklands”.

“it was an honour to have known him”

“He was truly a great man and he will be sorely missed by those of us with whom he worked at the LDDC in its early years.”

“The 30th Anniversary  of the incorporation of LDDC is on 2nd July 2011. Reg would have played a key part in such a celebration and quite what we will do about this now is uncertain!”

” He was a true inspiration: a genius who achieved an enormous amount, whilst remaining ever polite, calm and helpful. An absolute original”.

The next full Tower Hamlets council meeting is on February 2. It would be good to see some mark of respect for him then.

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Of course, amid all the sleaze in Tower Hamlets, life goes on and there is a multitude of people doing good work for our community. It was fabulous to write about a few of them in today’s Sunday Express. Here’s a tale about The Geezers, a pensioners’ club run by my friend and neighbour, Ray Gipson, the former Lib Dem councillor for Bow.

Research from Age UK reveals that more than a million men aged over 65 say they feel lonely. Whitehall Editor Ted Jeory meets a group of men who decided to battle the demon hands-on.

IN THE heart of London’s famous East End, a group of retired butchers, truckers, builders, undertakers and boxers are redefining what it is to be men growing old.
They have seized life by the horns and confronted the spectre of loneliness head on.
Meet The Geezers, a club of can-do pensioners whose inspirational work with local schools and universities has just won a string of awards and curiosity about their success nationwide.
Their aim is that sometime somewhere, an energetic Geezers Club will be opening near you.
When David Cameron set out his idea of Britain’s Big Society last year, his words were largely met with the big shrug. Few knew what he really meant.
If he’s still trying to illustrate the vision, he would do well to look the Geezers’ way.
The club was set up five years ago after research from Age Concern in the east London borough Tower Hamlets showed few men were turning up to their day centres.
While women were being catered for with classes in dressmaking, line dancing and how to be a grandmother, none of the activities interested men.
Yes, there were worthy talks about men’s health and eating well, but they hardly pumped adrenaline through the veins.
Instead, retirees and widowers were hanging around in pubs and betting shops; even sadder, many were seen simply leaning against roadside railings watching the traffic go by.
So a few old friends took matters into their own hands and decided to recapture the things that made them laugh.
They formed their own club, asked for £1 a week subscriptions and sought out public funding.
They even helped form a women’s group called The Bow Belles (club rules allow the occasional mingling) and five years on, the local phenomenon they have created is, they hope, set to spread across Britain.
They play indoor bowls once a week — an activity so popular that many cancel their hospital appointments rather than miss out – and have regular outings and social gatherings.
However, those are the bread-and-butter ingredients: what makes The Geezers extra-special is their other work.
They have now won £20,000 in awards and grants, while their industry and creative energy has attracted the attention of artists and academics.
Their latest accolade was a cheque for £5,000, handed to them personally late last year by Attorney General Dominic Grieve for a unique project they undertook with the local Bow Boys comprehensive school.
The prize was from the Awards for Bridging Cultures organisation for a touching and fascinating short film chronicling called Bow: Now and Then, which chronicles the reflections of two generations growing up in the iconic East End.
For nowhere else in Britain has there been such dramatic change in terms of demographics and urban development.
Decimated by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, what was once the engine room of London’s river-borne trade and a centre of stereotypical Cockney life is now a skyline of City skyscrapers and a defining picture of multiculturalism.
A combination of City expansion from the west, Canary Wharf growth from the south and a wave of mass immigration from Bangladesh has contributed heavily to what social researchers have termed the “white flight” of traditional inhabitants to the suburbs of metropolitan Essex.
In short, older and whiter generations feel alienated in what they see as their own manor.
The younger ones, meanwhile look towards their elders as if they are occupiers from a foreign land.
The Geezers’ film was an attempt to address that. They teamed up with Andy Porter from media charity Hi8tus and produced a montage of talking heads and sights and sounds from today and yesteryear.
Over 15 minutes, the film is a collection of themes about growing up: playing, fashion and wooing girls are all explored.
Each scene juxtaposes tales from life then with teenage thoughts from today.
While Geezers talk about playing in bomb craters, with footballs made out of paper in traffic-free side streets and courting by taking sweethearts to Epping Forest, today’s youth buzz about computer games, hanging around with friends on densely packed housing estates and chatting up girls on mobile phones.
With so much concern about gang culture in modern Britain and especially inner city London, the discussion about “territory” was perhaps the most illuminating.
Today’s “post-code” gangs are merely modern names for what’s always happened, it seems.
Innocent Johan Campo Marin, 16, recounts in the film how he and his cousin were asked “what end”, or what post-code, they were from as they walked through the Elephant and Castle district in south-east London.
When they replied “Tower Hamlets”, they were chased by a gang.
To the older generation, that was nothing new: even venturing on to the other side of a railway bridge in their day risked trouble.
However, 81-year-old Ted Lewis, a former Billingsgate fish market porter, amateur featherweight boxer and uncle of acerbic TV critic Victor Lewis-Smith, said there was an honour to their day’s toughness.
He tells the camera: “We would have gang fights. A neighbourhood would bring their champion and we’d have our champion and the two would fight each other. If you kicked someone, you were a coward. You had to stand up and fight properly.”
Mr Lewis, a former Lib Dem councillor, is one of the stars of the film and when The Geezers met the boys again at their school last month, he was still showing off his strength and boxing skills.
Reflecting on the film, he said: “It’s been wonderful getting involved with them. I found that we can talk to these young children and they can also talk to us. They accept us so easily.
The pupils agreed there had been mutual respect.
“We thought they would be really boring, but after talking to them we just thought they were really just the same as us,” Johan said. “It’s made us think and learn more.”
Jim Morris, the head of the pupils’ year group at school, said he had been fascinated by the project.
He said: “The great thing is that it broke down the barriers and the stereotypes that both groups came with.
“They came with an idea of how they’re going to interact with each other and then their relationships developed with each other.
“They found they were different to each other. They couldn’t understand the world in which The Geezers used to live as children, when there was so much more space to play and where they were free to roam.
“That’s a different place to where these boys are growing up.
“Yet there are some things that they found to be a constant, particularly fashion.
“They were able to sit down easily with each other and ask questions about what it’s like being young in the different times.”
So what next for The Geezers? Chief Geezer Ray Gipson, 70, an ex-lorry driver, football referee and another former Lib Dem councillor, says they have already worked with the University of East London on renewable energy projects.
They even made a wind turbine that lit a sign over Tower Hamlets boasted “Geezer Power”.
He wants more men from around Britain to follow their example.
“People just seem to let men grow old and senile,” he says.
“We just didn’t want to have a talking club. We wanted to be talking about doing something and then actually doing something.”
Geezer Power is on its way.

 

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Housing list questions

We ran this story in the Sunday Express today. For legal reasons, I’m going to pre-approve all comments for this thread. Please keep comments generalised, eg you can talk about general policy and internal controls of housing list allocation, but nothing specific will be allowed on this particular case. Other examples will be allowed so long as no names or full addresses are mentioned.

If anyone has any more information about Mohammed Chowdhury, both in regard to his arrest and his background, as well as how he came to live in Stanliff House, can you please email me via this blog. Thanks.

By Ted Jeory

A ROW has erupted over how a man accused of plotting to blow up Big Ben was able to live in a luxury London flat, courtesy of his local council.

Mohammed Chowdhury, 20, mingled with some of Britain’s wealthiest bankers while living in his £250,000 home near Canary Wharf in Docklands.

The one-bedroom flat, in the Stanliff House apartment block on the Isle of Dogs, is owned by the Toynbee Housing Association .

The flats are reserved for people on the lengthy housing queue of the East London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Chowdhury is believed to have lived there on a special “social tenant” rent for about a year.

During his time there records show he voted twice by postal ballot, once in the General Election in May and again in a controversial poll to elect a mayor for Tower Hamlets in October, when the turnout was just 26 per cent.

Last night, however, local councillors expressed concerns about how a young single man was able to get to the front of the borough’s housing list.

Tower Hamlets Borough Council declined to comment on the matter, but the housing association said that when the authority had allocated properties, it had merely checked a prospective tenant’s ability to pay the rent.

Fears have also been voiced that flats doled out to allegedly needy individuals have then been sub-let as part of a social housing property scam.

Conservative councillor Peter Golds said: “This property is in one of the most sought-after developments of the borough. If he is the legal tenant, how did he rise up the housing list when I am told many applicants are expected to sleep in living rooms or share rooms with siblings of a different gender?”

Neighbours said Chowdhury was a “polite and friendly” student. Last Wednesday, just two days after he was charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism, his bicycle remained locked in the communal corridor and his flip-flops were on the mat outside his door.

Only the large dent in his front door showed that police had battered their way in just before 5am on December 20.

A neighbour said: “I didn’t know him, but he was friendly. He used his bike a lot. I think his sister used to come and visit him and they would go for prayers.”

She said she did not know where he went to pray but the large East London Mosque – outside of which supporters of hate cleric Anjem Choudary and Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir regularly distribute anti-Western leaflets – is only a few minutes’ bicycle ride away.

A little further away is the railway arch storage depot in Bethnal Green, which was exposed in last week’s Sunday Express as the HQ for Anjem Choudary’s pro-Caliphate campaigns.

Chowdhury and eight other men accused of plotting to commit terrorist attacks are due to appear at the Old Bailey on January 14.

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