Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I started a hare running with my (admittedly somewhat intemperate) remarks about Tower Hamlets a few days ago. I have had a huge response to this, both in public and in private – mostly in private, and mostly supportive of my spluttering sense of exasperation. I am particularly grateful to the last post on this blog from Phil, who offers the voice of reason in all of this.
It is a febrile and fraught environment east of Bishopsgate, and no mistake. And I cannot help but observe that the City of London has enough threats on its horizon without its immediate neighbour destabilising the fringes. So I stand by my remarks, although I do concede that I could have expressed my views more professionally.
Now, this week, Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, has taken to the online publication The Wharf to rail against my comments. So this is now all a bit more serious. At the risk of perpetuating this row, I am writing an open letter, published below, in the spirit of positivity, and to offer some support if possible.
For the record, though, it is important that I state here that I have no relationship whatsoever with Exemplar, the putative developer of the London Fruit and Wool Exchange. I did know, very slightly, two of the principals of Exemplar, Clive Bush and Dan Van Gelder, back when they both worked for Development Securities, but that was many years ago.
I have had no relationship with them, or their company, ever since. They have never contacted me concerning their application. I am merely commenting on the principles of the matter as I see them.
Open letter to Mayor Lutfur Rahman, London Borough of Tower Hamlets
I note with some consternation that in the online publication The Wharf you have referred to a recent blog I wrote as “deeply unpleasant”.
I am sorry if I have offended. But I would merely remonstrate that while the views I expressed were certainly “sweeping and opinionated” (in the words of Tower Hamlets press officer Kelly Powell), I am quite clear that they were not as personally unpleasant as Ms Powell describing me as “bilious”. And, much more important than this childish yah-boo-sucks exchange, it is a sad factthat the views I expressed were a very mild exposition of the market view of Tower Hamlets as a destination for inward investment.
My views as expressed (and very much worse, and altogether ruder) are the consensus within the commercial market. Rather than quarrel with me, you need to address this perception. A perception which has been reinforced by the decision to refuse the application from Exemplar on the London Fruit and Wool Exchange. And you need to address this very urgently indeed.
So putting personal attacks to one side, I need to correct you on some matters of fact. First, UKR is not a “developers’ lobbying group”. Far from it! We are a tiny SME supported by an open-source affiliation of regeneration practitioners who are actually rather critical, in the main, of developers, and who refuse to compromise on the matters of community engagement or the quality of the built form.
I think you may have been getting us confused with the BPF (the British Property Federation). We emphatically do NOT represent developers, indeed we are so disenchanted with mainstream development processes, that we have secured a funding stream for a new vehicle to bring investment into beleaguered parts of the UK, using “open book” developer techniques, and putting the community and people at the heart of everything we do.
Secondly, Mr Rahman, please be assured this was not an attack on you, or on your office as the Mayor of Tower Hamlets. I was attacking a crass decision by a Labour-dominated planning committee which, as with all planning committees, should have been acting in a quasi-judicial manner.
In fact, I understand that it was advised so to act in the strongest possible terms by your officers, who were clearly doing an excellent job for you and who were disregarded. I understand also that the committee does not have a single independent member, despite independents comprising the second largest group in the council.
I am afraid that it is clear that the committee decision was entirely driven by petty vindictive personal politics. And it has left your authority very exposed.
It is irrefutable that, by any objective criteria, Tower Hamlets council appears rudderless and leaderless. I do not need to remind you that only the other day the Labour group blocked the appointment of a highly regarded chief executive. Again, I appreciate that this was far from being your fault. But it sent a dreadful signal. Similarly, I appreciate and applaud your own mission to tackle worklessness but I am sorry to say that you can have as many lovely aspirations, aims and policies as you like but if you frighten developers and investors away with crazed councillors in key committee appointments then there are not going to be any jobs for anyone.
Tower Hamlets council is clearly at war with itself – it is even suing itself at the moment! How has such an important authority, in such an important part of London and the UK, ended up so totally paralysed and dysfunctional? Rather than waste your energy railing against me, you need to challenge the various factions to put aside their differences and work together for Tower Hamlets. And, if they won’t, then you should invite the secretary of state, Eric Pickles, to intervene.
Finally, I would like to make you a modest offer. My own track record of getting local people into jobs through the large-scale property development process may well be among the best in the country. I say this in all humility as the bar is not very high (it not being something we normally excel at in the property industry).
We could have done so much better had the political will ever been there. But more than 5,000 local people were brokered into the jobs created at Paddington Waterside through work I began in 1997 and which has been brilliantly continued by Kay Buxton. Work that is, to this day, acknowledged as setting a “gold standard” in economic benefit accruing from the property development process.
I would offer you, gratis, that I put together a high-level workshop to bolster your aspiration to tackle this issue structurally. We would take our cue from your own (award-winning and highly thought of) Skillsmatch, naturally, but would also broker in new support such as some of the cutting edge Olympic Legacy thinking and the brilliant initiative being put together under the aegis of Ernst and Young for recruitment of our returning armed forces. But it would mean working with the developers concerned in open partnership. And demonstrating palpably that Tower Hamlets is looking for growth and investment.
Your call, Mr Mayor.