At tonight’s Tower Hamlets council cabinet, Mayor Lutfur Rahman overruled the concerns of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee and confirmed his decision to sell the bronze.
Of course, he made the oh-so-sincere noises about it wrenching his heart – but that the Coalition cuts gave him no choice.
There are two aspects to this.
During his mayoral election campaign of 2010, Lutfur produced leaflets saying he was the Great Saviour of East End Heritage. In reality, these leaflets, detailing his apparent one man campaign to save Bancroft History Library in 2008, were aimed at the white working class voters (as they are termed in the divisive world of Tower Hamlets politics); they were a direct counter to the accusations that he cared only about the Bengali community or the East London Mosque influenced vote. (I wrote about the history revisionism here.)
So his love of heritage stretches only so far, it seems. Those who applauded his boasts about Bancroft might now want to engage in their own revisionism.
However, that’s not really the main point. Lutfur’s love of heritage is nothing compared with his love of power. In May 2014, he will be seeking four more years.
As an independent, that’s a tricky proposition, especially as financial backers such as the millionaire housing association tenant Shiraj Haque are apparently now unhappy with their man.
However, when you’re in power you have access to far larger funds than those offered by the likes of Haque: our tax money.
You see, away from most prying eyes, Lutfur has recently embarked on a massive vote-buying programme with hundreds of small community groups and mosques as his targets. At October’s cabinet some £6million was set aside for the mainstream grants programme, which he almost alone controls, until 2015. I warned about his takeover of this grants programme last June, here.
At the October meeting, the cabinet tried to discuss the final grant allocations. However, because so many of the councillors were personally linked to the winning groups, half of the cabinet was ordered to leave the room.
I and a few others are going through the allocations and quite frankly it stinks. More will be published on this in due course (feel free to email or leave comments on the blog if you have further information by the way).
And one other important issue was discussed at that October meeting: Lutfur proposed to set aside another £2million for a three-year “Community Faith Building Support Scheme”. What this, you may ask? Well, it’s a lot of money that he wants to spend refurbishing the borough’s “faith buildings”.
Every faith building will be eligible to apply, but the big heritage churches needn’t bother; they have access to funds from elsewhere. No, the bulk of it is for the small mosques and community centres that occupy former shops all over the borough.
I’m extremely wary of state money being used for these purposes, but I can also see the potential for good if the funds are used to broaden the appeal of these community centres. Far too often they are inward looking and male dominated.
However, that’s for a separate discussion.
The point is that these two grants programmes are designed politically to secure support for Lutfur. If he generates 500 votes from from say 50 community centres/groups, that’s 25,000 votes in total. That will deliver him Mulberry Place once more.
So, it’s easy to understand why he is so keen to sell off Old Flo. He needs the money.
[By the way, for what it's worth, here are my thoughts on Old Flo. I've never seen it, I have no emotional attachment to it at all. It's been up in Yorkshire since 1997 and as long as some people actually do see it, then fine.
Personally, if some solution could be found to bring it to Tower Hamlets, I think that would be great. I know that Morpeth School in Bethnal Green offered it a home. I think that would have been wonderful.
However, I have little sympathy with the demands of Danny Boyle and others to place it for free in the Olympic Park. If the Olympic Park wants it, let them pay us for it. They took the Olympic marathon away from us, remember... .
If there are no covenants attached to the sculpture, then I don't see why the council should not sell and raise some money. I just hope the money is spent wisely.]
And if anyone is wondering what the heck all this Old Flo business is, I recommend reading this piece in last Sunday’s Observer by Stepney’s brilliant architecture critic Rowan Moore.
Here’s a sample:
The work is Henry Moore‘s Draped Seated Woman, and the proposal is to sell it to the highest bidder, to fill some of the gap, they say, made by government spending cuts. Councillor Shahed Ali, one of Rahman’s cabinet members, told the BBC that “we’d love to keep it in the borough”, but it is “uninsurable”, at a time when large bronzes like this are sometimes stolen for their scrap value.
The proposal has aroused the fury of, among others, Henry Moore’s daughter Mary, the local MP Rushanara Ali, and Danny Boyle, hero of the Olympic opening ceremony. In a letter to the Observer today, they write that it “goes against the spirit” of Henry Moore, who sold it to London County Council at a price – £6,000 – far below its then market value. It demonstrated the “belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality”.
Moore, they say, was “delighted” that it was installed as the centrepiece of the Stifford estate, a group of tower blocks in Stepney. Boyle says that “it represents everything I believe in”. He and his fellow objectors are right: Draped Seated Woman fulfils an ideal that nothing was too good for ordinary people, an ideal that modern local politicians are in danger of losing. To sell the sculpture as if it were a piece of real estate would be, according to Rushanara Ali, “a betrayal of working class heritage”. It would also betray Moore’s generosity. It would raise the question why anyone should ever want to offer anything to a local authority again.
The piece itself, which acquired the nickname Old Flo, is noble and touching. It is 3 metres high and weighs 1.6 tonnes, but there is still a lightness with which the figure of the woman sits on a low plinth, delicacy in the fall of drapery on her body, and a springy alertness in her pose. It is beautifully made. Placed amid tower blocks, it was a rare moment of quality, a sign that someone cared. It was also accessible – children could play on and around it, and residents could see it from their kitchens. No doubt it was inscrutable to some, and uninteresting to others, but as long as it was there it created the possibility that some might be inspired, intrigued, or provoked into seeing the world in a different way.
It sat on the Stifford until 1997, when the estate was demolished and the sculpture was moved to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, allegedly temporarily. It has remained there ever since, while plans have come and gone to, for example, relocate it to Canary Wharf. Lutfur Rahman has tried to sell it once before, when he was leader of the council, but was stopped. Now, with the greater powers of an elected mayor, he is trying again.