A modern-day Dickensian tale is being played out in the heart of London; a story of how powerful property developers, Schroders UK Property Fund and Telford Homes, have used their influence with local politicians to force out the working poor. In this sorry process, much-needed community facilities and social housing are being swept away in an inner city borough.
This report also aims to illustrate how the dysfunctions plaguing the London Borough of Tower Hamlets did not begin nor end with the controversial Mayor Lutfur Rahman, but extend far beyond a single individual. Indeed, since Rahman’s removal, it appears the dysfunctions at the heart of the local authority have only multiplied and deepened. In this particular case, the issues appear to have been aided and abetted by an old confidant of Mr Rahman, Labour Councillor Marc Francis, now Chair of Planning.
I examined in a previous Ceasefire article how planning procedures in the borough were being manipulated by developers (Schroder UK Property Fund), with the help of local officials, to harass a local mosque in an attempt to force it to sell up and move away. The incident was a classical example of how local authority powers were used by developers as “bureaucratic bulldozers”, in the aid of gentrification to clear a coveted area of its working poor.
Eight months after the removal of Mayor Lutfur Rahman, things have gone from bad to worse. This is perfectly illustrated by two recent planning applications: Wickham House and Balfron Tower. Both were tabled for a decision together over two separate meetings, on the 25th November 2015 and the 17th December 2015, respectively.
Wickham House Application
The second floor of Wickham House is used as a community hall, locally known as the Waterlily community hub. The Waterlily community hall is currently used extensively by local residents and groups, and supports the activities of the mainly local Muslim community, as well as local churches, charities and schools. Once again, Schroder UK Property Fund has attempted to manipulate the planning process of the borough to dismantle valuable community infrastructure.
Schroder seeks to transform Wickham House, the only affordable community assembly hall in the immediate and surrounding area into luxury offices. The prospect of the extinguishing of a community has understandably been met with the ire of local groups, who hail not just from Tower Hamlets, but across the surrounding boroughs too. Vocal supporters of Wickham House have included Paul Regan of the Living Wage Foundation and London Citizens. The community facility is also part of the local social infrastructure, and thus falls under the protection of the National Planning Policy Framework and the London Plan.
A thorough critique was put forth against the developer’s plans during an initial Planning Committee meeting on 25th November 2015. At the meeting, a range of voices from the public gallery, including trustees of local charities, academics, architects and one local councillor, provided a compelling case against redevelopment. This included robust questioning of many of Schroder’s shaky assertions about the suitability of the site for luxury office spaces. So strong was the case against redevelopment, the majority of councillors, against the wishes of Marc Francis (the Labour Councillor and Chair of Planning), voted to hold off the decision until after a site inspection. At the subsequent planning meeting, on 16th December 2015, the councillors’ votes were apparently evenly split, and the casting vote was thus made by Francis (as the Chair).
Leaked email evidence has emerged, however, suggesting that the debate and voting were something of a farce. Email communications between James Lass, fund manager at Schroder, and his planning consultant suggest they were privy to the voting intentions of members of the council, including Marc Francis and his Deputy Chair, Shiria Khatun, before the meeting even took place. In fact, one of the question asked in their exchange was, “what has been arranged?” in reference to the upcoming planning meeting. To put it bluntly, it appears both the Council Chair and his Deputy Chair were already in Schroder’s pockets, pledging their votes before hearing a full presentation of facts.
This cajoling and lobbying had already been clear for all to see by observers during the Tower Hamlets Planning Committee meetings. One onlooker described them as akin to a bazaar market: Marc Francis was seen in the corridor haggling with an agitated lobbyist from Schroder (if confirmed, this contradicts guidelines which state that members of the public cannot communicate with councillors on the planning committee). In addition, just before the agenda item was discussed, Marc Francis took out committee member Rajib Ahmed out of the room. Rajib Ahmed ended up abstaining, allowing Marc Francis to use his casting vote.
Balfron Tower Application
If this was not enough, that same day the committee considered another agenda item concerning Balfron Tower, a listed Tower Block in Poplar. The building was designed by renowned architect Erno Goldfinger for the then London County Council in the 1960s. The block, previously owned by the local authority, had been transferred some years ago to the social landlord Poplar HARCA. However, for some years now, Poplar HARCA, working with its close development partner Telford Homes, has been privatising its social assets. The Planning Committee’s decision to rubber-stamp the privatisation of this block for luxury flats represented a loss of over 100 social housing units.
In his eagerness to facilitate the operation, Cllr Marc Francis seemed to disregard both the cultural heritage value of the building and the social issues raised by the application. This was despite a vigorous campaign and detailed objections by the Community. Mayor John Biggs, who attended the Balfron Tower decision, received a sharp rebuke from Francis, making it quite clear who is boss.
It must be noted that these controversial decisions were taken based on reports that ignored a number of material planning issues. The unusual way the planning reports were drafted prompted community activists to request appointments at the Town Hall to come and view the planning file. However, on two separate occasions before the meeting in December 2015, activists were denied access to the planning file. The Balfron Tower planning file, they were informed, was a “restricted document”.
There seems to be pattern here. Since Marc Francis’s ascension to Chair of Planning, there has been a flurry of large planning applications in the Borough from developers, many of whom have elicited strong opposition from residents, community groups and activists. Francis is now widely seen by many as the key power broker in the area, and the “go to man” for all planning lobbyists.
Tower Hamlets activists have vowed to continue campaigning to hold their authority to account, and are now taking legal advice. A number of them have formed a group to document and highlight the dysfunctional nature the planning process. Many hope such efforts, and subsequent publicity, will allow the Secretary of State to intervene and call in all planning applications in the London Borough.
Many observers have likened Mr Francis to Michael Keith, the former controversial leader of the borough. Keith was infamously associated with engaging in “behind the scenes politics” in the borough, including taking advantage of racial division to build up a personal power base. It seems that while Keith has “officially” left Tower Hamlets politics, his legacy lives on.