Ministers have been urged to review a number of major recent planning decisions by Tower Hamlets council in the wake of recent allegations of a £2 million corruption scandal involving an Isle of Dogs development.
A cross-party alliance of representatives from the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets, claimed that one decision, over a £119 million affordable housing development, was made by Mayor John Biggs without having been through the normal process of approval.
Conservative councillor Andrew Wood told East London Lines that his party has also submitted at least three other planning applications to the Department of Communities and Local Government, asking for a review by the secretary of state Sajid Javid.
Councillors from the People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets and the Conservative Party have also asked the DCLG to take the planning process in Tower Hamlets out of the council’s hands.
Councillor Rabina Khan, leader of the People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets, said the decision to approve the £119m affordable housing development by-passed ordinary council procedures: “Normally, the decision to spend this much money would at least go to Cabinet and Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Why not this one?”
Councillor Wood said councillors were given less than two minutes to consider the decision at the full council meeting on November 22 at the very end of the meeting after the Labour party brought forward a number of “decisions not as interesting or as important as this one.”
Councillors have also questioned why the police were not immediately notified about the bribery allegations, involving a multi-million pound development called Alpha Square on the Isle of Dogs, which were referred to the council 18 months ago. Khan said: “When the youth service went through the same process, they went to the police [immediately]. So what’s the difference here?” Wood added: “The only difference is that this involved the Labour party.”
A spokesperson for the Council said: “The council passed the evidence to the Serious Fraud Office as soon as the independent investigators had gathered sufficient evidence. Some of this evidence, such as the recording, was not handed over by the developer until summer 2016. This was passed over to the Serious Fraud Office with other evidence in August 2016.
“Like other local authorities, the council receives many allegations and has its own internal processes to look into them to see whether they are supported by evidence. It was only when the external, independent investigators obtained further evidence over the course of 2016 that there was sufficient evidence to notify the Serious Fraud Office. The advice of a leading QC in the area of fraud was that the council should not investigate further, nor notify anyone as to not prejudice a criminal investigation.”
Biggs added:“Our planning process was not compromised in any way by the Alpha Square planning application. It was rejected by our Strategic Development Committee in February 2016 with six councillors voting to reject it and two abstaining. Council officers recommended it for refusal. While there is always more work to do because of the historic issues with the council, in this case our processes worked.”
Referring to affordable housing developement, Biggs responded: “The council had to take a decision in relation to funding allocated to us from the Government from Right to Buy receipts. We risked having to return this money, with interest, to the government if we had not started to spend it by the end of this calendar year.
At the press conference, the opposition councillors criticised Biggs, who was elected on a manifesto of transparency. Khan said: “He had known about this situation for two years, why is it coming to light now? What does he have to hide?”
Parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats, Elaine Bagshaw added: “Biggs has done well at the easy bit of presentational transparency, taking questions at council, having public meetings that the previous Mayor didn’t. But actually this is the real heart of what’s going wrong in our borough, and we need to take this opportunity now to make sure it’s addressed.”
The recent allegations come after commissioners were sent in to Tower Hamlets council, to take over some of the council’s key functions after leaders of the previous administration were found guilty of electoral fraud. The commissioners handed back powers to the council just 10 months ago.
Bagshaw said residents could no longer trust the council with the planning process. She said: “It makes me very sad that we are back in this position, Tower Hamlets is constantly in the press for all of the wrong reasons.”