Lutfur Rahman council in chaos as Government mulls intervention

At an extraordinary closed-door meeting tonight, Tower Hamlets council called in the local government equivalent of the UN. Amid furious protests from supporters of the borough’s independent mayor, Lutfur Rahman (above), Labour and Tory councillors voted to accept an offer of “support” from the Local Government Association and London Councils to resolve a dispute that is causing the Government “concerns.”

The problem is that ever since Lutfur, a man closely linked to Islamic extremism, took charge of the borough, he has parted company with a worrying number of non-Muslim senior officials. He sacked his first chief executive, the highly-respected Martin Smith (something which cost Tower Hamlets taxpayers around £300,000 in compensation to Mr Smith, who is now head of the rather saner Ealing council.)

Lutfur’s second chief exec, Kevan Collins, walked out last July for a lower-paid post – pointedly thanking councillors, but not Lutfur, in his resignation letter. The man currently doing the job on an acting basis, Steve Halsey, has refused the permanent appointment. The finance director, Chris Naylor, is leaving too. And so is the director of children’s services, Isobel Cattermole.

As the chief executives of the LGA and London Councils say in a letter to councillors, a copy of which has been passed to me: “We would be very anxious that this significantly reduced capacity within the senior management team will present a real risk to the performance and proper governance of the Council.”

Instead of properly-qualified officers, as we’ve reported, the council hired a man closely connected to Lutfur’s Islamist backers, the Islamic Forum of Europe, as assistant chief executive (though was forced to dispense with his services after I exposed his Islamist links.) Mayor Rahman has also imported a large further number of rather questionable cronies on sometimes extraordinary sums of money – several of them associated with that other well-known model of probity, Ken Livingstone. Several of these characters have been busy passing out large sums of council money to Lutfur’s Islamist allies.

In the long run, however, the council simply can’t operate with so many holes in its professional management team. Alas, credible applicants for top jobs at Lutfur’s Tower Hamlets have proved rather thin on the ground. Can’t think why! In fact, for the chief executiveship, only one serious candidate, the current development director, Aman Dalvi, strongly backed by Lutfur, appears to want the gig.

But though Lutfur has absolute power over most things at Tower Hamlets, the appointment of a new chief exec is a matter for councillors. And the councillors, most of whom are Labour or Tory, do not want Mr Dalvi. They say he’s too close to the Dear Leader. They’ve rejected him at least four times now, most recently tonight, amid what someone present at the meeting described as “unbelievably unpleasant scenes” from Lutfur’s clique, even by their standards. Instead councillors voted for the LGA and London Councils peacekeeping force. “Racism” was, of course, the main charge levelled against the opponents of Mr Dalvi – but in a council where Lutfur’s ruling political cabinet is 100 per cent Bengali and Muslim, even though Bengalis only make up about a third of the borough, it’s a charge that could cut both ways.

The most interesting thing about the LGA/ London Councils letter is that it was clearly sent at the behest of ministers. As it says, the offer of support “has been brought about by the Department for Communities and Local Government bringing to our attention its concerns regarding the difficulty the Council is experiencing in making an appointment to the post of Head of Paid Service [chief executive]…. We are also aware that the Minister, Brandon Lewis MP, has expressed his concern about the on-going difficulties in making an appointment and the importance of the Council achieving a satisfactory resolution to the situation as soon as possible.”

As Ted Jeory has reported, and I also know, ministers are keeping a very close eye on the deeply worrying situation at Tower Hamlets. They could intervene, appointing a chief executive of their own, as they did in Doncaster (also blessed with a controversial directly-elected mayor) or even taking over the council. Wisely, they appear reluctant to do either at this stage, hence the choice of the LGA route. Direct intervention in Tower Hamlets may become necessary – what’s happening with the officers is just the tip of the iceberg – but at this stage it would probably be counterproductive, allowing Lutfur and his clique to claim themselves the victims of an undemocratic and racist Whitehall coup.

The actual nature of the LGA/ London Councils “support” isn’t yet clear – the offer only came in this afternoon – but it is unlikely to change the fundamental problem at Tower Hamlets, which is that a £1 billion local authority is being slowly and systematically turned into a vehicle favouring one particular set of interests and one segment of the community. More on this to follow soon.

Lutfur Rahman and Labour Newham: compare and contrast

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Pic: Archant Regional Ltd (contact 01858 419 204, red.williams@archant.co.uk)

Sir Robin Wales, the Labour mayor of Newham, is one of many mainstream politicians who will not deal with Lutfur Rahman (above), the extremist-linked independent mayor of neighbouring Tower Hamlets. In a piece I did for Saturday’s paper, Wales says:

“Lutfur is following policies that will not benefit anyone in the future. I’m extremely worried that you create an enclave, and whenever you have segregation it is an unmitigated disaster.”

Both boroughs have relatively low “white British” populations. The proportion in Tower Hamlets (31 per cent white British, 44 per cent total white) is much higher than in Newham (16.7 per cent white British, 29 per cent total white). But the two boroughs have taken completely different paths on the issues of integration and community cohesion. As I put it:

Mr Rahman’s ruling council cabinet is 100 per cent Bengali, in a borough where Bengalis make up only about a third of the population. While Newham will not fund projects aimed at just one community, Tower Hamlets pours enormous sums into Bengali-only drugs projects, arts projects, youth projects and lunch clubs – many of them run by front organisations of the IFE [Lutfur’s extremist allies]. Other groups are funded too, though less generously, but again more often in racial and faith silos than on any kind of general, community-wide basis.

While Newham pays for recent immigrants to learn English, Tower Hamlets, incredibly, pays enormous sums for British-born children, who have grown up speaking English, to learn Bengali. Since his election two years ago, Mr Rahman has sought to “Islamicise” Tower Hamlets, clamping down on strip clubs and a gay pub. And he has just launched a “community faith buildings support scheme” to pour further millions into religious organisations – substantially, though not exclusively, mosques.

The most interesting thing for me about Newham’s approach was the support I found for it among local people, of all races, and the relative lack of push-back when the council decided to, for instance, remove ethnic-language newspapers from libraries and end grants aimed only at one community group (there was some opposition, naturally, but it was overcome.) The politics of racial separation is of course self-fulfilling: by funding on a racial and faith basis, you create client groups who can be relied on to emphasise race and faith differences, because their funding depends on it. By funding only on a general, community-wide basis, you will in the long term deprive such sectarianism of oxygen.

The domination of Tower Hamlets by Rahman’s clique is even more surprising given that this is a genuinely diverse borough in which, for instance, the Bengali population (32 per cent) continues to be substantially outnumbered by the the white one. There are also sizeable numbers of black and mixed-race people. The proportion of the population which is Bengali has in fact declined slightly (from 33.4 per cent) since the last census as more eastern Europeans and white hipsters have moved in. And of course, there are thousands of Tower Hamlets Bengalis who despise Lutfur Rahman, and what he represents, just as strongly as anyone else.

Read the full piece here. More soon on how Lutfur and his allies are trying to handle Tower Hamlets’ increasingly adverse demographics.