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Archive for February, 2011

Away a while

Apparently there was a bit of a bust up at the council meeting last night when my old mate and Lutfur’s biggest fan did a bit of an ambassadorial role for the borough by boorishly leading the cheers from the public gallery.

There was also some homophobic and anti-Semitic abuse thrown in from some sitting nearby, it has been alleged.

The police are now investigating. If I were Lutfur, I’d tell Mr Haque to stay away in future. I saw his behaviour first hand in December and it was not only ugly, it was intimidating.

And if I were Shiraj and after lucrative contracts to supply the Olympics with his curries, I’d also stay away…

Anyway, I wasn’t there and I’ve not been able to comment on it because I’ve been away on the other side of the world. And I don’t mean Newham.

Back next week.

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Bancroft history rewrite

It takes a certain quality of brass neck to rewrite history in a history library. But that’s precisely what happened at the re-opening launch of the Tower Hamlets Archives and History Library in Bancroft Road last Monday night.

In front of several dozen guests, first Mayor Lutfur Rahman and then one of the council officers responsible for jeopardising the future of the former Mile End Vestry Hall almost three years ago spun a yarn that would have made our story-telling camp-fire forebears purr with delight.

A fairly accurate account of the events that saved Bancroft can be read here, a website that has input from Tower Hamlets’ most formidable historian Tom Ridge. I say ‘fairly accurate’ because it also fails to tell the whole story.

During the spring and early summer of 2008, I was studying on a history course at Birkbeck College. While undertaking some research at Bancroft, I was told that plans were being advanced to sell the building to Queen Mary College.

The plans included breaking up the collections, which included all back copies of the East London Advertiser, between two sites at the Museum of Docklands and the archive at the Royal London Hospital. If the hospital archives were unable to take any records, locations outside the borough were to be considered.

I went back to the office and advised my editor. I said this decision would cause local and national outrage. He agreed and we were right. Our decision to launch a campaign to save the building was, as one senior figure in the Bancroft hierarchy said to me on Monday night, “the absolute key” in its ultimate survival. He said prior to that there were a number of other groups lobbying behind the scenes, but it was the weight we threw behind it that made them all “coalesce” .

Over the next few weeks, we assembled a series of star names to back us, launched an important petition on the Downing Street website (helped, it has to be said, by East End Life editor Laraine Clay’s generous decision to publicise it in the council freesheet), informed a shocked and angry Stan Newens (the former Bethnal Green Epping MP) and held meetings with various groups.

But it was the conversations behind the scenes that were also important. Labour councillor Marc Francis was then (possibly still is…) Lutfur’s right-hand man. This was June 2008 and Lutfur had become leader only a few weeks before. When I raised Bancroft as an issue, Marc couldn’t understand the fuss.

He said the building was under-used, no one knew about it, that it was inaccessible by public transport and that surely it was better to contain the records and the service in a more modern and appropriate building. He said he and Lutfur were adamant that the decision would go ahead. We had a long row on the telephone about it. I said his argument about accessibility didn’t wash: Bancroft was a five minute walk from Stepney Green Tube. I said that if it was under-used, then wasn’t that perhaps because the council under-used it, that it didn’t realise what a gem it was sitting on. Why not improve the sign-posting towards it in the area, why not create a museum/history information room there, why not stage more events there?

All these points were met with intransigence. I told him everyone knew there were serious concerns about Lutfur and that he had here a major opportunity to show everyone his attitude towards the heritage of the borough. Marc scoffed at the suggestion, calling it ridiculous. I told him that if Bancroft was sold off and the collections disbursed, that would be Lutfur’s tainted legacy and that’s the way our readers would see it.

And so the penny began to drop. As the campaign gathered momentum and attracted national attention, Tom Ridge’s meetings with Marc and Lutfur became more productive. And eventually we all won. The ELA later won the regional newspaper industry’s campaign of the year award for our efforts.

On Monday night, however, a slightly different version was told. The East London Advertiser’s contribution was completely whitewashed from the record. Shamefully, neither Stan Newens nor Lutfur nor Judith St John, the head of the council’s library service and one of those most responsible for putting the library at risk in the first place, mentioned the paper’s campaign.

The omission was also noted by many of the historians and campaigners who stood listening to the speech. Many refused to applaud. In particular, they were disgusted by the back-slapping congratulations of the council officers who were forced by the library’s many fans into action.

That said, the library has survived and that’s a quite brilliant thing. As Tom Ridge said to me, “It’s great that when so many libraries are being threatened with closure, that Tower Hamlets is bucking the trend. As a former teacher, I now hope that the building can be used for schoolchildren as a first class education centre.”

The campaign was a fantastic example of the potential influence that a local paper can have when it works with and mobilises its community. Sadly, too many of them no longer do that.

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Tower Hamlets Council has been rightly praised by the likes of Stonewall for its gay-friendly workplace policies. However, the council is not the borough.

The area around Spitalfields and the Shoreditch boundary is home to a growing and vibrant gay scene, but there is also a dark side. According to figures from the Met Police, a homophobic crime is committed in Tower Hamlets at the rate of more than five a month. I suspect the true level is much higher.

The gay community around Brick Lane frequently worry about being abused or attacked. Some of that abuse comes from idiots handing out leaflets outside the Whitechapel Idea Store or the East London Mosque (the mosque itself condemns such actions).

And today, this poster has just sprouted around the Hanbury Street area of Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

A friend spotted one on the entrance to the Brady Centre and several more on lampposts and other street furniture along Hanbury Street. One was also on the door of Davenant House on the Chicksand estate.

The posters say “Arise and Warn” at the top and declare the neighborhood a “gay free zone”.

Sinisterly, they say if not, “fear Allah” and risk punishment.

He removed most of them and is reporting them to the police.

He’s also worried; he didn’t want me to publish his name for obvious reasons, but said: “It’s very serious and really worrying for us. There are lot of gay men and women who live around here.

“It’s another sign that extremism has not gone away.”

If anybody sees any more of these posters, do please let me know.

UPDATE: Sunday, Feb 13. 3pm

I’m being told that more of these posters appeared this morning outside Swanlea School in Brady Street, Whitechapel. They’ve also now been removed.

UPDATE: Monday, Feb 14th – 8.30pm

The Association of British Muslims has now condemned these leaflets and has asked Peter Tatchell to intervene.

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First Labour (via Josh Peck) and now the Tories. Tower Hamlets Opposition leader Peter Golds has raised his concerns about Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s plan to divert £3m of a £3.7m emergency Whitehall grant to the council’s reserves.

He has written to Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, calling on him to withhold the grant if Lutfur presses ahed with his policy. No doubt, Peter would have consulted Eric’s office before penning his letter, so the reply will be interesting.

(To put in the boot, Peter also highlights in his letter the council’s previous decisions to spend £42,000 hiring celebrities for staff award ceremonies – as broken here on Saturday.)

 

Dear Secretary of State

Re: Government Settlement for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets

Obviously the reduced grant to local authorities will cause difficulties for administrations. My group has worked hard to identify savings that can be made in this borough and that will not impact on front line services to residents.

My group is impressed that your department, having assessed the very special needs of an authority like Tower Hamlets, has awarded a “Special Transition Grant” of £3.7 million. We would be surprised if the Mayor or his administration were to publicise this fact, or reign in vanity expenditure such as the council’s weekly newspaper.

In fact the Mayor amazingly on a brief provided by officers stated that certain local authorities were receiving increased grants, he named West Oxfordshire and Tunbridge Wells, for partisan purposes. I have checked the public information and intend to correct him on this subject.

However, buried within his budget proposals to be agreed by council is the interesting plan to divert £3 million to reserves. Our current reserves are within the “prudent range” and therefore existing reserves are more than sufficient and certainly do not need to be increased.

It is generally thought that the transitional grant will be mainly saved, and probably used, if the current year is an example, to make grants to certain favoured “third sector organisations”

We believe that this grant is to maintain front line services such as children’s centres and care for the elderly, which are threatened with reduction of funds.

Thanks to Freedom of Information we have uncovered extraordinary expenditure by a “cash strapped” and “poor” authority. Namely the hiring at considerable expense for personalities at internal council events as can be seen from the chart below.

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

If the Mayor persists in this misguided policy of using the Transitional Grant to bolster reserves then we would request the Grant be withheld until the Mayor confirms that it will be used for the purpose intended

Yours sincerely

Councillor Peter Golds

Blackwall and Cubitt Town Ward

No public funds have been used in the postage of this communication

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