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Call for audit commissioners to check Tower Hamlets planning applications over £2m “bribery” allegations

PUBLISHED: 23:31 10 December 2017 | UPDATED: 17:37 12 December 2017

Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs... under pressure over delay reporting planning 'bribery' allegation. Picture: Mike Brooke

Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs... under pressure over delay reporting planning 'bribery' allegation. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs has tonight defended the handling of a planning application for 65-storey skyscraper amid claims of a £2m bribery attempt.

Tower Hamlets Council. Picture: Mike BrookeTower Hamlets Council. Picture: Mike Brooke

Audit commissioners had only just left in March after three years, having been sent in by the Secretary of State in 2014 to sift through planning deals and council grants to dubious organisations by the previous Lutfur Rahman administration.

But the Labour mayor was reported in a Sunday newspaper as having delayed passing on the corruption allegations to police and not telling the commissioners who were working in the building.

It suggested a businessman contacted councillors to get a consortium’s £500m Alpha Square skyscraper on the Isle of Dogs through the planning process, claiming councillors could be bribed.

Allegations surfaced six months after John Biggs took over in 2015, with government commissioners led by Sir Ken Knight already in the town hall for almost a year to oversee council spending after previous scandals of the Rahman administration.

John Biggs... faces criticism of delay reporting bribery allegations to police concerning skyscraper planning application at  Isle of Dogs (background) when he was still at City Hall. Picture source: City Hall Labour GroupJohn Biggs... faces criticism of delay reporting bribery allegations to police concerning skyscraper planning application at Isle of Dogs (background) when he was still at City Hall. Picture source: City Hall Labour Group

They were passed onto the Serious Fraud Squad in 2016, but Sir Ken was not formally told about them or that they had eventually been sent to the National Crime Agency. The mayor, however, had an informal conversation with Sir Ken about the allegations, who could not take it up as the planning and development process was not part of his audit brief, the East London Advertiser has learned.

“This story maybe one of a businessman trying his luck,” Conservative Group deputy leader Andrew Wood who represents part of the Isle of Dogs said.

“But we believe the delay in reporting this to the appropriate authorities and the secrecy is extremely damaging at a time when the council was trying to emerge from the cloud left by Lutfur Rahman.

“We find it astonishing that this was all kept secret and that the mayor didn’t report this immediately to the police in 2015, months after his election.”

Cllr Andrew Wood... call for government audit commissioners to return to Tower Hamlets over planning 'bribery' allegations. Picture: Mike BrookeCllr Andrew Wood... call for government audit commissioners to return to Tower Hamlets over planning 'bribery' allegations. Picture: Mike Brooke

The council insists its planning process was “not compromised in any way” by the Alpha Square allegations.

The mayor said in a statement: “I immediately made the chief executive and the council’s monitoring officer aware when these allegations were raised with me and passed over the material I was given for them to act on.

“We commissioned an external investigation to gather evidence which was subsequently referred to the Serious Fraud Office.”

But the delay going public brought criticism from politicians outside Labour.

Cllr Rabina Khan, pictured early 2017 at a Whitechapel rally about knife crime, now calling for government audit commiissioners to be brought back into town hall to oversee Tower Hamlets planning decisions. Picture: Mike BrookeCllr Rabina Khan, pictured early 2017 at a Whitechapel rally about knife crime, now calling for government audit commiissioners to be brought back into town hall to oversee Tower Hamlets planning decisions. Picture: Mike Brooke

The opposition People’s Alliance leader Rabina Khan joined cross-party calls for the Secretary of State to transfer planning applications to commissioners.

She said: “I have asked for strategic planning to be taken out of the council’s hands until the police investigation is concluded. The public will not trust that the planning process is not being fiddled.”

She is also writing to the Secretary of State urging commissioners be brought back into the town hall.

Elaine Bagshaw, Lib Dems’ Poplar and Limehouse Parliamentary constituency spokesperson, said: “Tower Hamlets is once again mired in scandal. I’m concerned that it took so long for the external investigators to be called in, and why it was auditors rather than immediately going to the police.”

The council, in the event, rejected the skyscraper plan—but this was later over-ruled by the-then London mayor Boris Johnson before he left office last year.

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