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Fury at Tower Hamlets over knock-down sale of old Poplar Town Hall

PUBLISHED: 09:23 22 January 2014 | UPDATED: 09:23 22 January 2014

Old Poplar Town Hall today

Old Poplar Town Hall today

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An inquiry is being called tonight over the sale of an historic town hall in London’s East End which slipped through the planning net and may have lost council taxpayers a fortune.

Minnie Lansbury, one of 19 councilors being led off to jail in 1921 Poplar Rates strikeMinnie Lansbury, one of 19 councilors being led off to jail in 1921 Poplar Rates strike

The old Poplar Town Hall—steeped in East End social history with the 1921 rates rebellion—was sold in 2011 at a knock-down price of £867,000 to be used for offices.

But Opposition councillors at Tower Hamlets are furious at revelations in a national newspaper on Sunday that the listed building in Poplar High Street, within walking distance of Canary Wharf, has a ‘change of use’ permit and is to be turned into a luxury hotel.

The switch was recommended in July by council officers behind closed doors, instead of being aired by the authority’s legally-constituted planning committee, it has emerged.

An emergency resolution at tonight’s council meeting calls for an inquiry to find out why the committee was bypassed.

“It was not a couple of houses being sold off,” said Tory Group leader Peter Golds. “This was a purpose-built municipal building with a council chamber, public gallery and lots of offices.

“It would have been worth millions to council taxpayers sold as a hotel, but was marketed as offices when the commercial market was depressed.

“I will be calling for a full enquiry. Tower Hamlets and not developers should have been the beneficiaries to several million pounds.”

He added: “This is a test about whether democracy can be bought.”

Planning decisions are made by the council’s Development and Strategic Development committees, not the Mayor. The rules give officers the authority to make decisions with the exception of matters reserved to the committees.

Planning and listed building consent for Poplar Town Hall was granted by officers “as these exceptions did not apply,” said a council spokesman.

But critics insist “a major change of use” which also increased its value several fold should have been debated in public—not behind closed doors.

The price tag for the 150-year-old architectural gem, with its distinctive domed tower, was less than the cost of two terraced houses—a five-bedroom house in Woodstock Terrace nearby is currently on the market for £750,000.

The old Town Hall was built in the 1850s as the Poplar Board of Works and later secured its place in British political history when radical Labour councillors led by George Lansbury staged a rates rebellion more than 90 years ago against collecting tolls for the London County Council that put them in prison.

Refusal to collect the LCC precept triggered reform of a rates system that had discriminated against poor areas like Poplar paying the same as Westminster.

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