Number 69-89 of the Mile End Road, a large retail, office and community space, has come under renewed scrutiny again from the local community for reasons that are fast becoming notorious in London’s boroughs and have come to symbolise the gross neglect and inequality that is engulfing the nation’s capital.
The developers of the former Wickams Department store are seen as a bullying, Goliath figure within the community, known for pushing and trampling on small businesses and community organisations in order to secure its business ambitions. But this time, the developer has been trying to bully and push away local residents in what many are describing as social cleansing of the largely Somali neighbourhood, and unsurprisingly for so many Londoners, strong evidence is emerging to suggest that local officials at Tower Hamlets are complicit in it.
The latest story in London’s inequality mill started in July 2013, when Resolution Property, later teaming with Schroder’s UK property fund, proceeded to acquire and redevelop the Whickams store, under a joint venture ironically named ‘Whitestep’ SARL.
The objective of the joint venture was to develop the site into an office and retail space, with a view to subsequently redevelop the site into a residential village – as is often the case in line with British planning law. After acquiring the site, however, the venture deemed that the mosque adjacent to it was having a negative effect on the value of its asset, and consequently launched an audacious and insensitive takeover bid of the mosque, offering a cash payment of £2 million to buy it out. The mosque, run by local Somalis and a centre of the Somali community in the East End, rejected the offer and continued to stand firm in the face of future attempts to undermine it.
Having failed to buy out the mosque, the Whitestep joint venture proceeded to apply for an entertainment license for the basement of their property which would have a ‘zombie’ theme and involve ‘explosions and gunfire’, which happened to be planned right next to the mosque, knowing full well that it would cause great disruption to its worshippers. Unsurprisingly, this caused outrage within the local community, and a flurry of objection letters were sent out to the council outlining residents’ discontent at the scale of the disturbance in terms of noise pollution that the new venue was causing to the community. Mysteriously, council officials decreed the letters ‘invalid’, deeming the residents’ complaints about noise pollution to be objections on religious grounds.
Upon closer look, however, this is evidently a community that feels cornered and is fearing for its very place in the East End. Amidst allegations of racism and discrimination against it, some are even asserting that opening a night entertainment venue is a deliberate attempt by the developer to bully the Somali mosque and Somali community into moving away from the site.
This plea bargaining by local working class communities struggling to make a living in London against big corporate interests has become a toxic reality of life in London for the dominant less privileged population of the capital. It is indicative of the harrowing inequality that has become a major feature of this country’s social fabric; inequality that is not just ignored, but actively suppressed by those in power.
The local, mainly Somali-born, community’s tribulations against the powerful Whitestep venture is the typical cliché story of London. Tower Hamlets council is the most recent example of neglect and complicity by local officials in favouring big business, in this case, at the cost of inflicting an existential threat to the Somali community in London.
Tower Hamlets council’s licensing procedures clearly state that should a single letter of objection be filed and accepted then the application must be referred to the licensing sub-committee. There were some 16 objection letters, and yet the council license officials declared them all invalid. Moreover, council officials insist they had already consulted the mosque leadership, and that the latter did not object to the prospect of a night-time entertainment venue opening next door – a version of events the plausibility of which is rather brought into question when one considers the fact the mosque had officially submitted an objection letter to the planning application on the basis of concerns over noise pollution.
The shock granting of the planning and entertainment license, apparently in clear violation of procedures, is now coming to light after a local councillor recently filed a member’s inquiry asking officials for an explanation as to why all objection letters by residents had been dismissed, and why the official account implied the local mosque and community were happy with the plans – a clear lie.
An outraged community is now taking unilateral action to up the pressure on the council, commissioning its own independent acoustics report, which unambiguously confirmed that a night entertainment venue would cause adverse noise effects on the mosque and its activities. Local conservationists have also launched their own campaign against the development and Developer behind it (namely Schroder’s UK Property Fund) on the grounds that the planned venue endangers local heritage. The campaign has to date attracted more than 2,700 supporters.
Such double-standards in favour of powerful developers in Tower Hamlets are exemplified by the strictness with which local officials dealt with the mosque’s own recent planning permission request. Members of the mosque exclusively revealed to the writer that when they had explored the option of expanding the mosque a few years ago, council officials imposed rigorous acoustic tests on them with a view to ward off any noise pollution concerns. It appears that there is one rule for developers and another for locals in Tower Hamlets.
This is the latest indictment in what is becoming an increasingly dysfunctional Tower Hamlets council, and raises a number of questions about what is being done by the government to tackle local corruption by local officials. London is already tainted by its reputation as a rich man’s club, and the concerted attempts by developers with the help of corrupt officials in what can only be described as an ongoing drive of mass social cleansing ought to make national headlines.
The historical reputation of the current developers, Schroeder’s UK Property Fund, as ruthless and unscrupulous on community issues has not been lost on some. The lead spokesperson for the venture, Jacob Loftus, is a relative of Richard Loftus, a close confidante of Dame Shirley Porter who had been found guilty in the homes-for-votes scandal three decades ago – an intelligently designed programme for removing poor people from Westminster council areas.
In this regard, it is a cruel irony that the spectre of Porter’s army continues to lead the charge against London’s poor and working class communities.