Campaign launched for auditors to take over Tower Hamlets planning after ‘bribery’ claims
PUBLISHED: 16:52 13 December 2017 | UPDATED: 00:24 14 December 2017
An opposition cross-party campaign is calling on the Secretary of State to take over strategic planning applications away from Tower Hamlets Council in the light of an alleged £2 million bribery attempt to get plans passed for a skyscraper.
The Opposition People’s Alliance group has joined forces with Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on the council in calling for government-appointed audit commissioners to return to the town hall after their departure earlier this year.
They want commissioners to take over the local authority’s quasi-legal planning powers following a Sunday newspaper report of a Whitechapel businessman claiming he could swing a deal to get the 63-storey Alpha Square tower on the Isle of Dogs approved with under-the-counter payments.
But the overseas developers blew the whistle when they sent a recording of an alleged conversation to the town hall in 2015 which led to an independent audit the following year.
Yet the move to bring in the Serious Fraud Squad took another five moths and was kept under wraps by the Labour administration altogether for two years—until the scandal broke at the weekend in a Sunday newspaper.
“I’ve written to the Secretary of State urging him to take planning out of the council’s hands until the police investigation is concluded,”Alliance group leader Rabina Khan told the East London Advertiser.
“Labour was quick to report the ‘missing’ £1m from council youth services under the previous administration.
“But they delayed reporting this attempted bribery allegation during their administration to police for a year.
“The mayor signed up to a protocol on transparency a month after the allegations—he needs to be consistent.”
Cllr Khan shared today’s news-conference with Tory group deputy leader Andrew Wood, whose constituency ward on the Isle of Dogs includes the Alpha Square scheme, and Lib Dem campaigner Elaine Bagshaw who ran for mayor against Labour’s John Biggs in the 2015 re-run election.
Cllr Wood spoke of being “deeply worried” by the police lack of action a year after evidence was passed to them.
“Allegations of bribery are serious crime,” he pointed out. “So why wait months before informing the police?”
It was outside auditors who recommended calling in the Met’s serious fraud squad, but added that took months to call in police when the trail went cold.
“A letter to the Home Secretary is also on our ‘to do’ list,” Cllr Wood added.
Lib Dem’s Loraine Bagshaw, a parliamentary candidate for Poplar & Limehouse, is demanding to know why it was auditors who said to bring in the police and why it took several months before passing it on to them.
She said: “It makes me sad that we’re constantly in the press for all the wrong reasons, dragged through the mud because of stories like this. When do we finally get to move on from all of the bad headlines?
The opposition councillors also want to hold the Labour administration to account over the mayor’s executive decision last month to spend £119m revenue from ‘Right to Buy’ sales to fund more housing without reporting to the cabinet or to the ‘best value’ procurement board and without going through the authority’s strict scrutiny procedure.
The commissioners left the town hall in March having been parachuted in by the Secretary of State in 2014 to oversee grants that the previous Lutfur Rahman administration was handing out to dubious organisations.
But they were not told of the alleged bribery attempt while they were there, it has been claimed.
The Mayor’s Office told the Advertiser that an informal conversation about the allegations had taken place with Commissioner Sir Ken Knight, but no action was taken as planning was “outside the commissioner’s brief”.
The allegations were not made public because of police investigations, the Mayor’s Office said. But opposition councillors point out that police have taken no action or interviewed anyone in 12 months since evidence was passed to them.
They draw a parallel with the lack of police action raised at City Hall in March over fraud in the 2014 election which returned Rahman to office, until he was barred by the High Court in 2015 on evidence of election fraud and malpractice. There have still been no criminal proceedings from the now-void 2014 election.