In the third article of our series, we look at how the Spitalfields Neighbourhood Plan, a planning document drafted by the local community to protect their interests in local planning, was stymied.
Read the previous article in the series.
In 2014, amid an avalanche of corporate development in Western Tower Hamlets, local residents in Spitalfields began the process of drafting a Neighbourhood Plan. The Plan, they hoped, would allow the community to attain some control over the development occurring in their area. Their hopes, however, were not to be realised.
When the development committee of a London Council is deciding on a planning proposal, it must consult three documents: The London Plan, The Local Plan, and if an area has one, The Neighbourhood Plan. Typically, each of these documents holds equal legislative power in the decision-making process.
The first document, the London Plan, is the spatial development strategy for the Greater London area, written by the Mayor of London. The policies in this plan inform decisions on planning applications throughout the City.
The second document, the Local Plan, is drafted by the local Council and sets out planning policies and proposals for the way a specific borough will develop over a period of up to 15 years.
The third document, which a planning committee must consider when deciding on an application, is the Neighbourhood Plan, which is drawn up directly by locals.
Neighbourhood Plans are relatively new. They were introduced following the Localism Act 2011 to give more power to individuals and communities to write their own planning policies for their local neighbourhood.
Neighbourhood Plans legally empower residents to formulate general planning policies that, when ratified, hold equal weight to the London Plan and the Local Borough Plan.
In Spitalfields, however, an attempt was made to suppress the community’s role in shaping the area’s planning law.
Instead of being a story of community empowerment, the genesis of the Spitalfields Neighbourhood Plan is one of community infighting and fragmentation.
The Forum’s conflicted beginnings
‘’Most people feel excluded from the planning process’’, David Donoghue, one of the founders of the Spitalfields Neighbourhood Forum explains.
To combat this sense of exclusion, Donoghue and other local residents arranged a public consultation meeting in 2014, to begin the process of starting a Neighbourhood Plan, which Donoghue felt would “position local people at the centre of decision making rather than as outsiders.”
The initial step in creating a Neighbourhood Plan is to constitute a Neighbourhood Forum, a group of local residents, businesses and community leaders who work together to consult the community and create a Plan that reflects the needs of the community.
In July 2014, housing associations, the Council, the police, residents’ groups, community groups and others congregated to discuss whether or not the local community should work together to create a Neighbourhood Plan. The idea was met with widespread support.
A few weeks later, on 18 August 2014, Jason Zeloof, owner of the Truman Brewery, attended the inaugural meeting of the nascent Forum. At this point, the brewery owner offered his support for the idea of a Plan.
At the inaugural meeting, a group of 30 local residents, business operators and representatives of local organisations, congregated at the Atlee Centre off Brick Lane to vote on the boundary of the Neighbourhood Plan, that is to say, the area to which the Plan’s policies would apply.
According to James Franckom, who would become the Secretary of the Forum’s Committee, the overall manager of the Truman Brewery, Jason Zeloof, arrived at the meeting with ‘’ten or more’’ others, who were employed by him or associated with him in business.
Zeloof proposed that the site of the Truman Brewery should be excised from the Neighbourhood Plan. This excision would ensure that any resident-designed planning policies developed by the Forum would not conflict with Zeloof’s development plans for the future.
Matters grew heated between those who wanted the brewery to be kept within the proposed boundary and those who were arguing for it to be excised.
Attendees at the meeting then voted 23 to 11 to accept the proposed neighbourhood area, which included the brewery.
During this inaugural meeting, the proposed Forum’s constitution was also ratified, and members of the committee were elected – seven of whom represented residents, three business operators and three local organisations.
In an act of what a prominent Forum member described to me as ‘’magnanimity’’, Jason was then elected to the committee.
The meeting was a birth of fire for the Forum, which would meet a few times each year for almost ten years.
The genesis of the community’s plan and Zeloof’s opposition
Jason stayed on the Forum’s committee from 2014 until 2017, where he cut a silent figure, head bowed, notetaking.
A Neighbourhood Plan could place significant limitations on plans Zeloof had to develop the Truman Brewery as well as other parcels of land in which he held interests. But with the Forum and the proposed boundary decided upon, what could Zeloof do?
In November 2015, Zeloof and his planning consultants sent a letter to the Council with a list of objections. In response, the Forum critiqued the letter saying it was “riddled with misrepresentations and baseless claims”.
There were also numerous reports of the brewery owners using an astroturfing campaign to challenge the neighbourhood boundary agreed upon by the forum.
The practice of ‘astroturfing’ is the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a proposal even when little support may exist. This practice is often weaponised by property owners to garner support for their proposals.
Speaking to this newspaper, Murillo Sguillaro, a former tenant of a property managed by Jason Zeloof told us that during a meeting in 2015 to discuss a potential tenancy agreement, Jason had asked him to sign a petition against the neighbourhood planning area. The prospective tenant didn’t support the petition but, realising he was “speaking to the main guy” he “understood what the deal was” and felt “in a very weak position as [he] really needed the space.” So, he signed the petition.
On the 5th of April 2016, when the Council gathered to decide on accepting the proposed Spitalfields Neighbourhood planning boundary, concerns about an astroturfing campaign were raised again.
Aman Dalvi, the Council’s Director of Planning and Development, wrote a report to aid Councillors with their decision on the boundary.
Dalvi noted that there had been 608 objections made against the proposed planning area that included the Truman Brewery within its boundary, and a mere 23 in its support. Yet the officer recommended the approval of the boundary area, opting to discount the high volume of objections on the basis that many of the representations were from the same sender.
He explained “…many of these representations were received as part of the submission made by Zeloof LLP” and that “many of these representations repeated and reflected the same concerns using the same format and content only differing in respect of individual addresses and signatures.”
Dalvi’s report recommended that the boundary, including the brewery, be accepted, and the Council agreed. If there was an astroturfing campaign waged by the owners of the Truman Brewery, it had failed to get the brewery excised from the planning area.
At the same Council meeting in April 2016, the application to officially designate a Neighbourhood Planning Forum for Spitalfields was approved, and the area was also designated a business neighbourhood area.
Being classified as a business neighbourhood area meant that, once the plan was written and sent to the referendum, there would be two separate referendums, one for businesses and one for residents, instead of the more common single referendum for residents.
In 2017, Jason was ousted from the Neighbourhood Forum committee. According to Franckom, many in the Forum had come to believe Zeloof was “using his place on the committee to just gather information to use to undermine our work”. Zeloof has not responded to our request to comment on this suggestion.
After being voted out, he returned to the 2018 AGM “with about 40 people’’, according to those present. His supporters signed up for the Forum and voted Zeloof back on the committee.
By 2020, after debate and discussion, the policies for the Plan were finally written and endorsed by members of the Forum, including Zeloof, at a meeting on July 15th.
However, in February 2021 Jason sent another letter to the Tower Hamlets Council challenging the draft Neighbourhood Plan.
In the letter, he argued that the draft Neighbourhood Plan’s policy, SPITAL7, which would oblige developers to provide a 45% rent discount on Affordable Workspace allocations in new large commercial developments, was ‘’unfeasible and undeliverable.’’
Despite the developer’s continued objections, the plan was endorsed by the Forum’s committee members, with the inclusion of policy SPITAL7. A year later in July 2021, the Forum agreed to submit the final version to Tower Hamlets Council for referenda.
In August 2021, after making some minor modifications, the independent examiner approved the recommendations that the Spitalfields Neighbourhood Plan should be sent to referendum.
The revised plan’s policies contained three core components: aiding small local businesses, delivering protection to areas of open public spaces, and finding a way to protect the area from excessive over-development and encroachment from the City.
On 11 November 2021, two referendums were held, one for local residents and one for local businesses, asking them to vote on whether to adopt the Neighbourhood Plan.
The results drew surprised reactions from many quarters.
The Residential Referendum was closer than anticipated, with only 54% voting in its favour.
Even more surprising was the fact that the Business Referendum was rejected by a landslide, with 80% of businesses voting against adopting the Plan.
The Business Vote
A number of curiosities arose from the Business Referendum, causing doubts to form over the validity of the vote.
Firstly, the percentage of registered voters in the Business Referendum ‘turning out’ was much higher at 91 Brick Lane than anywhere else. Forty-six out of 97 of the business votes came from this address.
The Truman Brewery owns 91 Brick Lane, which contains over 150 office spaces, so this high ‘no’ vote at the location would indicate Zeloofs had been encouraging their tenants to vote ‘no’.
Another curiosity was the level of votes in the Business Referendum rejected by the Council; 10% votes, compared to only 0.4% rejected in the residents’ vote.
However, the number of votes that should have been deemed invalid is probably closer to 25% of all votes.
The law dictates that a business owner has one vote but can vote twice if exercising a proxy vote. However, some owners managed to vote several more times than that.
Jason Zeloof, owner of the Truman Brewery, voted five times. His tenant, Matthew C Haughton voted four times, each time from a different company registered at the Truman Brewery address.
Like all voters, both men received voter registration forms that stated that: “Ratepayers may only register to vote once in the referendum regardless of the number of properties for which they are liable to pay rates.”
The poll card, sent to voters before the referendum, and the postal vote cards also informed voters that it is an “offence to vote more than once at the same referendum.”
We asked Jason Zeloof and Matthew Haughton to comment on the multiple votes they cast despite the registration form warning that you couldn’t vote multiple times. We received no response from Zeloof. Haughton stated “Each of the four companies had the chance to vote and each company cast a vote. This matter has already been officially investigated and no further action to be taken. All votes were cast in the correct manner as stipulated on each separate voting request.”
There were other instances of individuals voting for businesses that have been closed down and there were also votes for businesses that don’t pay business rates in the area.
Altogether, almost half of the votes cast in the Business Referendum were from addresses connected to members of the Zeloof family.
The residential referendum
Out of 1,200 Resident Neighbourhood Plan referenda in the UK, only four have resulted in a no vote.
Therefore, the fine margin by which the Residents Referendum passed – 54% yes to 46% no – raised many eyebrows in Spitalfields.
A look at some tactics employed by elements of the ‘No’ campaign in the lead-up to the referendum may go some way in explaining how they managed to gather so much support.
The legal spending limit for campaigners is outlined in the Neighbourhood Planning Regulations (2012). The figure is based on the size of the electorate in a given area. According to calculations by Peter Golds, the borough’s Conservative Party councillor, the spending limit, in this case, would have been £2,650, based on the number of residential and business voters in the Spitalfields Neighbourhood Plan area.
Golds, who has held electoral scrutiny roles in the UK for several years, calculates that the volume and distribution of leaflets produced, distributed by Royal Mail and paid for by the ‘No’ campaign, would have exceeded the legal maximum.
The actual content of the first leaflet also appears to have infringed the electoral law.
Under s143 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000), certain details, called ‘imprints’, are legally required to be included on referendum materials such as leaflets to ensure transparency.
Leaflets must clearly state who is campaigning and must include the name and address of the printer, promoter, and any person on behalf of whom the material is published if they are not the promoter.
The leaflet did not contain such an imprint. The leaflet failed to display any address, nor the name of the printer or promoter. It provided a phone number, and the name of a local restaurant owner Redwan Kahn, who has declined to comment on his connection to the leaflet.
The content of the leaflet was misleading. It claimed that the plan was put together by a ‘handful’ of people when actually there were 200 members of the Forum, from a wide range of backgrounds, working to produce the plan.
The leaflet made the claim that the plan “excludes the Bangladeshi community” saying that people should vote no to “save our Bangladeshi identity, our rights, our voice…”
Yet leading Bangladeshi activists in the area had all been involved in drafting the Neighbourhood Plan or were overtly supportive of it, including local Bangladeshi councillors Shad Chowdhury and Puru Miah as well as members of local Bangladeshi rights organisations Nijjormanush.
The claims made in the leaflet ran in opposition to the view of independent examiner Jill Kingaby who was “highly impressed” by the Plan’s “level of detail” and “professional scrutiny”. She also labelled measures taken to consult and engage with the local population as “exemplary’’.
A second leaflet was circulated which did include an imprint. According to local Councillors, copies of this leaflet were issued on the day of the election and distributed by hand.
Despite these efforts by some persons in the ‘No’ campaign to sow mistrust and confusion, the residential community still voted ‘Yes’, attesting to a strong general will to have their voice represented in planning.
It is still unclear who orchestrated the ‘No’ campaign. However, we do know that this leaflet was produced by Incite Communications, an agency that helps property developers gain community support for their developments.
This company is owned by Azizun Chowdhury who previously worked for property developers Grainger in their failed attempt to get the community onside with the wildly unpopular Seven Sisters Latin Village development.
Given this area of expertise, it would be surprising if Incite Communications was not aware of the legalities surrounding campaign activities. We have asked Chowdhury to respond to the question of rules being breached, but have had no response.
Following the referenda, police were called to investigate allegations of multiple voting; suspicions of a “possible conspiracy to subvert the referendum”, and claims that some business owners had exerted “undue influence” on the voting process.
In October 2022, the Crown Prosecution Service was granted an extra 12 months by a judge at Westminster magistrates court to complete their investigation.
Detective Constable Melissa Gillam, giving evidence to the district judge Michael Snow, said that the “unusual occurrence” of a business referendum receiving a ‘No’ vote had originally raised suspicions.
Gillam identified suspicions of multiple voting as well as citing possible breaches of leaflet and spending rules in the vote.
The 18-month-long investigation by the Special Enquiry Team of the Metropolitan Police had concluded by May 2023.
As regards issues of multiple voting, it had been determined that there was insufficient evidence to suggest any criminal offence had taken place. No one had voted on any occasion except in the genuinely held belief that this was permissible under the terms of the referendum. As regards the ‘No’ campaign leaflets, the police investigation found that the total costs incurred to produce and distribute the leaflets did not surpass the spending limit and noted that a corrected version of the leaflet was published.
Since residents had voted to adopt the plan but businesses had voted against it, the referenda results were inconclusive and the decision on whether to adopt the plan was left to the Council.
The Council were to make their decision at a Cabinet meeting on 5 October 2022.
The vote took place amid a sordid online campaign in which empty Twitter accounts, showing zero followers and following, barraged members of Nijjor Manush, a Bengali rights organisation supportive of the plan.
An anonymous YouTube video was also released by ‘No’ campaigners in the lead-up to the vote.
The video made allegations of racism against a prominent member of the Forum, and alleged that the Plan’s ultimate aim was “to grab power from the community’’ and that it “would render democratically elected Councillors useless in their own wards’’ by “empower(ing) a group of outsiders sitting in gated communities.’’
Amid this online frenzy, legitimate concerns about elements of the Plan were made. Specifically, the fact that the neighbourhood area did not extend to Chicksand Street – which is the centre of working-class Banglatown – left a section of the local community excluded.
This exclusion could have been resolved with a roundtable discussion to democratically redraw the boundary area. However, the deluge of misinformation swirling around the Plan after the campaign of misinformation and online abuse had sabotaged the possibility of a resolution.
On the 5th of October, in a heated meeting, the Plan was voted against by the Council’s new Aspire administration, with the support of their Labour opposition.
The ‘No’ campaign had succeeded. The community’s voice in planning had been silenced.
In part four, we examine the rise to prominence of the Zeloofs, the family behind the controversial development.
Cormac Kehoe has written this report as part of The Centre for Investigative Journalism’s Collaborative Community Journalism programme, which is funded by Trust for London.
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