Tower Hamlets mayoral scandal: Consequences south of the river?

Tower Hamlets Council hoarding
It’s an east London matter, but last week’s news that Tower Hamlets’ elected mayor Lutfur Rahman had been booted out of office by an election court after being found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices during an election could have consequences south of the river too.

The particular circumstances of Tower Hamlets are unusual. Elsewhere, the system of having an elected mayor has worked well, with Sir Steve Bullock a popular and respected figure in Lewisham. But Lutfur Rahman turned his office into a personality cult, even sticking his face on humdrum signs in the borough.

A fresh election will be held next month. Labour’s John Biggs, the current London Assembly member for City & East and a former Tower Hamlets council leader, will be hoping to take charge of the authority once again.

Tower Hamlets returning to Labour would have significant consequences for Greenwich and Lewisham, as Biggs – like Greenwich’s Denise Hyland and Newham’s Robin Wales – is one of that generation of London Labour politicians that still believes building new roads can bring prosperity.

He’s been a fervent advocate for the Silvertown Tunnel – believing it would relieve congestion in the borough (although as it’s aimed at Canary Wharf and the City, it’d do nothing to relieve the southbound snarl-ups on the A12).

By contrast, under Rahman, Tower Hamlets has been inconsistent on the issue – opposing it in 2012, cautiously welcoming it in 2014. Just as yesterday’s Supreme Court verdict on air pollution will make it easier for campaigners to challenge the tunnel, a Biggs victory in Tower Hamlets could increase certain local politicians’ resolve to continue with this dubious venture.

Indeed, it’s possible we’ll see a more united front between the riverside boroughs on the huge redevelopments and other infrastructure projects across the area – relations between Tower Hamlets and Greenwich on planning issues haven’t been healthy in recent years, most recently with Isle of Dogs residents feeling left out on discussions over plans to expand the long-delayed cruise liner terminal (more on this to come). The winner out of all this could well be Newham’s muscular mayor, Sir Robin Wales, who recently hosted a meeting of east London boroughs (and Greenwich) to discuss devolving responsibilities from central government.

Of course, this is speculation – intra-borough jealousies don’t depend on them being run by rival parties, as anyone who’s dealt with Greenwich and Lewisham will know. But heads could well be banged together soon, especially with Labour currently poised to take the London mayoralty next year.

East End Life, 27 April 2015

The other consequence to the Tower Hamlets ruling concerns Greenwich Time. Tower Hamlets is England’s only other council to publish a weekly newspaper – one which the local Labour party has consistently criticised for bias.

The two government commissioners recently sent into Tower Hamlets (yesterday joined by two more) have kept East End Life going – something which hasn’t gone unnoticed by Denise Hyland – using Press Association copy to report on the election court case. I wonder how Greenwich Time would have dealt with a similar case here.

Whether the next government will implement Eric Pickles’ laws banning “town hall Pravdas” is something we’ll find out in weeks to come – the election has thrown Pickles’ fight with Greenwich into the long grass.

But a new administration in Tower Hamlets may well scrap East End Life as a symbol of reform – or it may well try to find some new solution. All of which could impact on Greenwich’s battle to keep its own weekly paper going.

Again, this is all speculation – two elections mean things are very much up in the air, and after all, this is Tower Hamlets politics.

But it’s worth keeping an eye on events across the water in the next few weeks – the excellent Trial By Jeory and Love Wapping will keep you up to date on what’s happening.