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John Biggs: finding it hard to find fault with Mayor Lutfur Rahman's plans for the Town Hall

John Biggs confesses Mayor Lutfur Rahman right on Town Hall move

Council confirms move to Whitechapel

After a six month delay, during which John Biggs tried – and failed – to find fault with Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s decision to move the Tower Hamlets Civic Centre to Whitechapel, the plan’s back on.

Mayor Rahman devised his plan after four things became clear.

First, the owners of the property which Tower Hamlets Council currently rents and uses as a Town Hall, are knocking the building down and putting up a new development on their land. This means that the Council has to move out of the current Town Hall by 2020.

Second, as Mayor Rahman searched for ways to save money without affecting front line services, it became clear that the Council was throwing away thousands of pounds each year on rent, and owning its own Town Hall would be much more cost effective.

Third, a number of landowners in Whitechapel were looking to redevelop their land.  To stop the kind of anarchy breaking out which governed development on the Isle of Dogs in the 1980s, Mayor Rahman had arranged for a Masterplan for the area to be drawn up.

Fourth, the NHS Trust was looking to sell off the front part of original London Hospital building, redundant now that the new Royal London Hospital had been completed.

Mayor Rahman asked council officers to look at these points and work out if it would  be feasible for the Council to buy the Hospital building and use it as a Town Hall – in what will be a major centre in the borough, well connected by public transport links.

The Labour Party did not welcome the plan and called for it to be scrutinised. There were various allegations that Mayor Rahman was trying to build up a palace for himself in the part of Tower Hamlets where he was most popular.

When John Biggs squeaked into office in May, he demanded that the plans be scrutinised again.  They were.  The plan still stacked up.  At the Cabinet meeting at the start of November, he agreed to stop scrutinising the proposals and get on with them. There was just one last step to take, which was to obtain cross-party support for the plans. This is a standard political move: it ensures that the key figure can take all the credit if the plans works out (it was his idea, he backed it) and if anything goes wrong, it insulates the politician from blame (as his opponents are tied into the deal by having backed it in public).

John Biggs put a resolution to the Council meeting held on 18th November. The full text essentially congratulates him on confirming the idea the Council had been working on anyway. There is a commitment to retain all existing One Stop Shops and to “consider” opening additional facilities in the Isle of Dogs and Bethnal Green. There is also a pledge to set up a cross-party “reference group” (made up, it seems, of officers and councillors) to keep the project under review. It may have been a bit more convincing if the motion had been tabled in the name of a councillor, or even a Cabinet Member – but if John Biggs feels the need to table a motion congratulating himself, so be it.


Resolutions are at the end of the agenda and often the Council meeting closes before they are reached. Councillors from the majority Party (Labour) often put questions on the agenda to allow them to move a resolution higher up the agenda, so there is time for it to be taken. (The Labour Group tends to vote down requests from the Independent Group to move resolutions up the agenda on a similar basis, so their resolutions are seldom taken.)

So it was with John Biggs’s resolution congratulating himself on the Town Hall proposals.  Cllr Amina Ali asked, under councillors’ questions, for an update on the new Town Hall. It was quite clear she hadn’t tabled the question because she genuinely wanted to know: she could have gone to Cabinet or just asked John when she saw him if that was the point of the question.  John Biggs said that the scheme was proceeding, as agreed at Cabinet. He had, additionally, asked Cllr Dave Chapman, to keep an eye on on how proposals were being progressed, in particular appointing contractors and the like to work on the project.  Those present were rather confused, as Cllr Dave Chapman resigned from the Council in the early 1990s (paving the way for Derek Beackon, the first BNP councillor in the UK, to be elected). John Biggs quickly realised his error and explained he had asked Cllr Chesterton to do this work – though Cllr Chapman had been a fine fellow whom John Biggs had met again only recently.

John Biggs then pointed out there happened to be a motion on this item later on the agenda, and he moved (successfully) to take the motion now.  He then moved the motion, indicating that he respected the work done by the previous mayor (yes, really, he said – it was not all a Punch and Judy show here at the Council) and this was being progressed.

Cllr Oliur Rahman

Cllr Oliur Rahman

Cllr Islam, Deputy Mayor, seconded the motion. Cllr Oliur Rahman spoke next and was pleased that John Biggs had endorsed the decision of the previous Administration to move the civic centre to Whitechapel: it made John Biggs look good, which was always nice (until 2018, when Cllr Saunders may be the mayor…).

A Conservative councillor then explained his Group supported the proposal because it would keep all staff together, it was on good transport links, it would be funded by selling off redundant buildings, it would be supported by the local access points (which had to be good and located in the south, given that was the part of the borough with highest population growth), the building was flexible (unlike Newham’s new building, parts of which were now being rented out).  Their support was conditional upon the project coming in on budget, £77 million.

Cllr Ohid Ahmed then spoke: Cllr Saunders heckled him and the Speaker did not intervene – so we did have a little Punch and Judy after all.

Cllr David Edgar spoke next: pointing out that he was pleased that the Lib-Dems’ folly of moving to Mulberry Place had now been exposed.  This was a little disingenuous, as the tenancy at Mulberry Place had been renewed by Labour on more than one occasion since the Lib-Dems left office in 1994.

John Biggs then replied to the debate, saying his door was open to all councillors whenever they wanted to discuss this project.  He said his own proposals were different in some respect from the previous proposals.  First, there was more emphasis on using emails and websites for residents to access the Council. Second, he emphasised co-location more (in other words, he is open to renting out part of the new Town Hall to bodies within the NHS or local landlords, so that many services can all be based together). Third, he was stricter on proposals to dispose of empty buildings, saving the Council paying to keep them secure, as empty buildings.

So, after six months, it’s “as you were, folks”. Despite the new Administration’s self-professed commitment to transparency, there has been no public assessment of how much the delay has cost.


The Amendment


Cllr Rabina Khan

Cllr Rabina Khan spoke in the debate on the Town Hall, and thanked officers for their work, under both Administrations.  She welcomed the proposal to have our own, freehold, civic building.  She asked councillors to consider car park space around the Civic Centre, as there was already difficulty for those visiting the hospital to park.  She welcomed the proposal for a cross-party group to work on this, but she also wanted a community stakeholders’ group so that a pledge to community involvement would be enshrined in the procedure.

She offered this as a friendly amendment, but John Biggs would not accept it as an amendment to his resolution (though he said he would bear the idea in mind). He said he thought Cllr Rabina Khan’s amendment was constructive, and he was indeed meeting several Whitechapel groups (not least to ensure that things like affordable workspace were not swept away) to ensure the historic strengths of Whitechapel were retained. It would seem rather inefficient to meet community stakeholders one by one, but it seems that this is what he intends to do – denying the stakeholders and chance of meeting together and hearing not only everybody else’s views but also what is being said to different sections of the community.