New checks to stop any more Tower Hamlets ‘bargain’ sell-offs like Poplar Town Hall

The old Poplar Town Hall sold off in 2011

The old Poplar Town Hall sold off in 2011 - Credit: Archant

Tough checks have been put in place this week to prevent any other cheap sell-offs of valuable public assets in London’s East End following the scandal of the “bargain basement” dumping of the old Poplar Town Hall.

1921 Poplar rates rebellion leader, Mayor George Lansbury

1921 Poplar rates rebellion leader, Mayor George Lansbury - Credit: TH Archive

The listed Victorian building with its distinctive tower overlooking Poplar High Street, where George Lansbury’s historic 1921 rates rebellion was staged, was offloaded in 2011 under Lutfur Rahman’s administration at a knock-down price of just £867,000, little more than the price a terraced house in the same neighbourhood at the time.

A formal Tower Hamlets council inquiry began in 2014 after it emerged that Mayor Rahman—since barred from office until 2020—had allowed its change of use from office to a luxury hotel without going through statutory legal planning channels. The switch was made behind closed doors, instead of being aired by the authority’s legally-constituted planning committee.

“It would have been worth millions to council taxpayers had it been sold as a ‘hotel’,” Tory Group leader Peter Golds said at the time.

“This was not a couple of houses, but a municipal building with a council chamber, public gallery and offices.

Cllr Minnie Lansbury, George Lansbury's daughter-in-law, led off to prison in 1921 Poplar rates rebe

Cllr Minnie Lansbury, George Lansbury's daughter-in-law, led off to prison in 1921 Poplar rates rebellion - Credit: TH Archive

“It is a test about whether democracy can be bought.”

The inquiry report sent to the council’s new chief executive Will Tuckley was adopted at last week’s Overview & Scrutiny committee held at Whitechapel Ideas Store.

He acknowledged it as “a controversial, difficult and protracted issue”.

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The committee voted to recommend to the council’s Governance working group that checks and balances now put in place will be used on all future sales of public assets and that the council changes its culture and allows Town Hall officials to challenge councillors on difficult issues.

The price tag for Poplar’s 150-year-old architectural gem with its distinctive domed tower, just two minutes from Canary Wharf, was less than two terraced houses—a five-bedroom house in Woodstock Terrace nearby was on the market for £750,000 that year.

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 in 1921 and refused to collect tolls for the London County Council, which led to prison sentences on principal.

Refusing to collect the LCC precept triggered reform of a rates system that had discriminated against poor boroughs like Poplar having to pay the same as affluent Westminster.

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