District Auditor urged to probe Tower Hamlets sale of old Poplar Town Hall

Old Poplar Town Hall today

Old Poplar Town Hall today - Credit: archive

The sale of the historic old Poplar town hall in London’s East End is being referred to the District Auditor.

The deal has led to controversy over how a change of use from offices to a luxury hotel slipped through the planning net which may have lost Tower Hamlets council taxpayers a fortune.

An investigation in conjunction with the District Auditor was overwhelmingly voted for in an emergency resolution at last night’s council meeting.

The listed building in Poplar High Street, within walking distance of Canary Wharf, was sold as offices in 2011 at a knock-down price of £867,000—little more than a period terraced house in the area at the time.

But a permit for a change of use was agreed by Lutfur Rahman’s administration last July to turn it into a Dreamstar hotel, boosting its value several fold, without going to the authority’s legally-constituted Strategic Planning committee.

The resolution notes that Dreamstar is “well known to the Mayor and members of his administration”.

Listed Building Consent for the change of use was granted under council officers’ delegated powers, which opponents say bypassed the elected committee.

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Tory Opposition leader Peter Golds earlier denounced the move as “a test about whether democracy can be bought.”

The sale was a purpose-built municipal building with a council chamber and even a flat which he maintains would have been worth millions more to council taxpayers if sold as a hotel.

His emergency motion, backed by Labour, notes: “It is entirely inappropriate to grant this change using delegated power, considering the public interest in the sale and the effect it would have on residents.”

There are “unanswered questions” about the relationship between the current owner-occupiers and the council administration, it adds.

So the council has instructed its acting chief executive to investigate with the District Auditor how the disused town hall was sold and to pay attention to “any potential conflict of interests not properly disclosed.”

Poplar Town Hall, built in the 1850s as the Board of Works, secured its place in political history when radical Labour councillors led by George Lansbury staged a rates rebellion in 1921 against collecting tolls for the London County Council. The rebellion put 19 councillors in prison—but triggered reform of a rates system that had discriminated against poor areas like Poplar paying the same as Westminster.