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.