The second article in our series on the Truman Brewery looks at how the Council’s development committee reached their decision to permit the unpopular development and we scrutinise the relationship between the developers and the local authority.
Read the first article here.
The first proposal – all very friendly
At 6.00 pm on Thursday 27 April 2021, amid a growing storm of public discontentment, the development committee of Tower Hamlets Council were congregating virtually.
One by one planning officers, Councillors and local residents filtered into the online committee meeting from the purgatorial waiting rooms of Microsoft Teams.
Councillors wore restless looks, moving agitatedly, keenly cognisant of what was at stake -the future character of Brick Lane, one of Britain’s most culturally unique streets.
On the evening’s agenda was the building of a one-acre commercial and retail complex on the site of the Old Truman Brewery.
The decision was supposed to lie in the hands of the seven people on the development committee: six Labour Councillors including Abdul Mukit MBE, Sufia Alam, Kahar Chowdhury, Leema Qureshi, John Pierce, Dipa Das, and one opposition Councillor Harun Miah from the Aspire party, a left-wing British-Bangladeshi party formed in the borough in 2018.
However, only five of the seven development committee members attended the meeting, and one Councillor, John Pierce, was substituted for Councillor Kevin Brady. Councillor Harun Miah did not attend the meeting and Councillor Dipa Das was also absent on the night. When asked why they did not attend the committee meeting, Miah and Das both declined to respond.
Mukit, the Chair, introduced the meeting, inviting Patrick Harmsworth, the Council’s senior planning officer, to present the contents of the application and summarise the officers’ view on the design.
Harmsworth went through his PowerPoint slides, each revealing a fuller picture of what the five-storey office building with ground and first-floor commercial units and a two-storey basement, would, in reality, look like.
Harmsworth closed his presentation with the recommendation that the committee grant planning permission.
Several local people followed Mr Harmsworth, each giving an impassioned three-minute speech explaining their opposition to the development.
Alec Forshaw, author and advocate of conserving London’s historic built environment, was the first to offer his thoughts on the development, giving a firebrand indictment of the proposal.
He began by damning the officers’ report, claiming that it failed to provide a ‘’balanced analysis’’ and “read like a rubber stamp’’ of the application.
Attacking the planning officers for their omission of key points in the report, Forshaw condemned their failure to mention that the new building on the corner of Woodseer Street would be twice the height of the corner building opposite. Its height, he argued, jeopardised the historic character of the area.
Saif Osmani, a softly spoken local British Bangladeshi artist followed, lamenting the artlessness of the proposed development and the way in which the proposal aimed to ‘’financially benefit from the collective input of all the communities and individuals who have made Brick Lane successful.’’
Siobhán Goodrich, a resident of Woodseer Street for the last 40 years, voiced her concerns relating to the overshadowing of the street and the loss of light she and her family would suffer once the office block went up.
Next to speak was Jason Zeloof, the developer and member of the Zeloof garment baron family who had built up the Truman Brewery empire since the 1990s.
Words such as ‘’care’’, ‘’contribute’’ and ‘’support’’ were repeated throughout his twelve-minute speech, its message – how much he wanted this development to enrich the community.
A series of restaurateurs, architects and specialists followed Zeloof, elucidating the logistics of the development.
Councillors were then free to question the developer. The amicable, informal relationship between Zeloof and certain Councillors and planning officers, boded badly for the development’s opponents.
Councillor Kevin Brady frequently referred to the applicant by his first name “Jason”. Later on, the Chair of the meeting Councillor Abdul Mukit asked Mr Zeloof whether he could alter the application to elaborate on the ways it would support small businesses and whether he could also assure the committee that the ‘diverse’ community would benefit from the development.
Zeloof did not answer the question directly, responding instead with the vague assertion that small and medium enterprise “…is our bread and butter” and that he would make the development a “success”.
Muki reiterated his question – will you be willing to add assurances ‘in contract?’.
Zeloof stumbled in the face of the persistent questioner, calling for the aid of a planning officer, Patrick Harmsworth, who came to the developer’s assistance, “Jason’’ he said, “I am happy to answer from a planning point of view.’’
This interjection prompted dismay from Mukit, the Chair, who exclaimed “Why are you interfering here? I don’t understand’’. Mukit attempted to reintroduce some proper distance between the developers and planning officers by sternly reminding the planning officer that the question was intended for the applicant.
In response to further concerns raised by Councillors, Zeloof continued to answer with equally vague responses.
However, despite the assurances of the developer, the development committee were not convinced, opting to defer the application.
Councillor Brady asked the developer to work with the planning officers on a supplementary report that expanded on the provisions for local businesses and community cohesion to assuage some of the fears being expressed about the application.
Councillor Brady offered his apologies to “Jason” for the deferral, the deferential manner of which gave the suggestion that once the developer made some minor tweaks to the document, the proposal would be allowed. As though the decision was a foregone conclusion.
The second application – down to three
On Tuesday 14 September, 2021, five and a half months after the deferred decision, the Truman Brewery redevelopment application was again up for consideration.
Against the backdrop of further public mobilisation, the development committee reconvened to decide on whether the commercial and retail development on Brick Lane would be allowed.
Councillor Abdul Mukit sat at the centre of the top table once again Chairing the meeting.
At the meeting’s outset, Mukit informed the public that, since the item was deferred, only the Councillors that were present at the original 27th April committee meeting and those there in the Council chamber that day, were eligible to vote.
Councillor Sufia Alam was unable to vote as she was on maternity leave.
To the dismay of many in the gallery, Mukit then announced that Councillor. Leema Qureshi, who was self-isolating but attending via a Microsoft Team link, would not be allowed to vote.
It was deemed that Qureshi was no longer allowed to vote by video link as legislation permitting video voting during the pandemic had recently been withdrawn. Apparently unaware of the legislative change, Qureshi attended the meeting via a Microsoft Team link, instead of in person. Despite the gravity of the decision and the fact that Councillors had voted by video at the previous meeting, Mukit persisted in revoking Qureshi’s vote.
Mukit’s earlier ruling would prove to be of massive significance to the meeting’s outcome, as Qureshi later stated that she would have voted against the redevelopment. Had she been allowed to vote the application would not have passed.
The development committee, which was supposed to comprise seven Councillors, was now left with only three, the minimum the meeting needed for the committee to be quorate.
The meeting lumbered on, with only three elected representatives left to decide on this area-defining application.
Patrick Harmsworth, senior planning officer, stood up to give a short presentation on the application.
Harmsworth delineated how the application had been revised from the deferred version to deal with concerns expressed by the Councillors in the April meeting.
Detailing the contents of the application, he explained that negotiations between the planning officers and the Zeloofs had borne some fruit in the shape of minor changes to the original application.
Following negotiations between planning officers and representatives of the developers, the new proposal would provide more favourable deals on affordable workspace for small businesses, which made up just 10% of the overall workspace offering. Instead of offering 30% of the indicative market rent for a period of 15 years, they would now offer 45% over a period of 15 years.
The market rate for the proposed grade A office space would still be £70 per square foot. Even at this capped rate, rents would be double the £35 pound “second-hand business space” rate that the offer was replacing.
Harmsworth again recommended that the Councillors vote the application through.
This time, despite requests, there would be no members of the public allowed to speak as they had already spoken at the April meeting.
The Councillors fired another burst of questions at the planning officers; the planning officers batted them away, reiterating that the developers had gone beyond the minimum planning requirements.
The vote was passed by two to one. Councillors Kevin Brady and Kahar Chowdhury voted in favour, reasoning that the decision should only be reached on the grounds of whether or not the applications complied with local planning rules.
Councillor Chowdhury contended that since the developers had dealt with the reasons for deferral, the application should be accepted as it would be allowed on appeal even if councillors rejected it at this stage. To him, it was essentially a judicial matter.
Similarly, in a statement released on Twitter after the decision, Councillor Brady said that “it was clear” the application had complied with local planning rules, and that as such “there are no grounds for refusal”. This also implies that the decision was a judicial one – if the application complied with planning rules it should be accepted.
But this is a misunderstanding of the role and responsibility of a councillor. Planning decisions are not judicial. Unlike courts, they are not made by an independent person who is required to make their decision in accordance with the law, putting aside his or her own personal views. They are instead an exercise of judgement, giving equal regard to circumstances and planning policy. A planning decision is not simply an application of the law, but instead, a political decision.
The Meeting Chair Abdul Mukit voted against the application, standing alone in acting on the democratic will of his community and showing that there were, in fact, grounds for refusal.
Murmurings and groans of discontent erupted from the gallery and the Councillors left the room to the sound of heckling.
It was done. The redevelopment was through.
Mayor John Biggs took to Twitter to lament the apparent powerlessness of his administration – “Our hands are tied by government policy” he said.
Biggs, in response to the avalanche of protest, said that he also “share(s) these anxieties’’ around development in Tower Hamlets and that he had asked for an “urgent review of our planning policy”, a planning policy which had clearly failed.
A culture of blind pro-development
Biggs’ claim of being powerless does not paint the full picture. The development committee’s failure to stop the latest iteration of harmful corporate development had not been down to government policy alone.
In reality, the previous administration, when drafting the Local Plan, had helped to tie their own hands.
The Local Plan could have included any number of policies that demanded more concessions from developers and curtailed the proliferation of unpopular megadevelopments.
For example, the plan could have required those behind large-scale corporate developments to finance the construction of a greater number of affordable houses on or offsite, to offset increasing rent prices, or required an increased provision of affordable workspace in new commercial developments of this scale.
In reality, the Council had lacked the political will to draft this sort of legislation.
The Labour administration – too close for comfort?
The close relationship between developers and Councillors of the Biggs administration extended beyond the niceties displayed in meetings.
Tarik Khan was one Councillor with ties to big development companies. Formerly chief whip of the Tower Hamlets Labour group, Khan was responsible for coordinating the allocation of committee places from May 2021 to May 2022.
Khan also sat on the Strategic Development Committee, from 2019-2022. The role of the Strategic Development Committee according to the Council website, “is to consider major planning matters, within and exceeding the remit of the Development Committee in terms of size and scale amongst other issues.”
While he held these positions, Khan was employed by Braeburn Estates, part of Canary Wharf Group, which is partially owned by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund and is one of the biggest builders of office space in London. Khan worked as a community outreach officer for the developers.
When asked whether being employed by a large corporate developer while also sitting on the Council’s Strategic Development Committee jeopardised the impartiality of decision-making, Khan stated “…when there is a conflict-of-interest Councillors recuse from the decision-making process.”
Abdal Ullah was another Councillor from the Labour administration with ties to developers.
In 2015, having served as a Tower Hamlets Labour Councillor from 2006 until 2014, Ullah was hired as a consultant for public relations firm Quatro, a company that helps developers secure planning consent for their proposals.
Until 2018 Quatro’s website described Ullah as bringing “…extensive contacts from across London’s political and community networks and direct experience of the complexities of Tower Hamlets politics.”
Ullah regained his seat as a Labour Councillor in May 2018. He still works as a public relations consultant. We asked him to confirm his current employer but have yet to receive a response.
While common practice, it is arguable that these ties between Councillors and property developers can influence political thinking with corporate logic, thereby compromising the ability of Councillors to represent the will of their community.
Speaking to the Guardian, Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, in 2021, claimed that the overlap between the property industry and councillors “undermines trust” and potentially “the important national objective of increasing affordable housing”.
Graham proposed that the government should… “place restrictions on council members who are also employed by property companies and make it a legal requirement that they must stand down when decisions on planning issues are discussed, which they may have an issue in.”
The lead-up to one planning decision in the Isle of Dogs in 2021 reveals uncomfortable proximity between councillors and developers.
The ASDA controversy
The development in question, the building of 2,000 homes and several retail outlets in the car park of the Isle of Dogs Asda superstore, had a gross development value of £1.19 billion.
Having already rejected three applications, in June 2021 the Strategic Development committee was set to decide on the fourth proposal by Ashbourne Beech. Unable to decide, the committee deferred their decision until late September.
On the 30th of August 2021, three weeks before the deferred decision, an Asda Crossharbour community ‘fun day’, sponsored and organised by the applicants, took place on the proposed site of development.
The event was attended by one of the senior directors of Ashbourne Beech and several local councillors.
Councillor Sabina Akhtar, who was sitting on the Council’s Committee deciding on the Asda application, helped to organise activities for the developer’s ‘fun day’ and then sent a WhatsApp message asking Councillors to take part to Councillor Tarik Kahn, who then forwarded it to the Tower Hamlet’s Labour Party’s internal WhatsApp group. Councillor Tarik Khan was also on the Committee making the decision.
The fact that members of the Strategic Development Committee were promoting an event, organised by a developer whose proposal they were about to decide on, attests to an uncomfortable proximity between those making the planning decisions in the borough, and large-scale developers.
Three weeks later, after debate and questions, the application was approved unanimously.
Councillor Tarik Khan sat on the committee, voting in its favour but Councillor Sabina Ahktar never took her seat, apologising for her “lateness”.
Sabina Ahktar has not responded to requests for comment on the WhatsApp message. Tarik Khan has responded to say that he had forwarded the message at the request of the speaker Councillor Mohammed Ahbab Hossain and Councillor Ahktar “who… was the person sending the message.”
Khan added that “All Councillors, especially those in the Strategic Development Committee were on a three-line whip not to attend the event.”
After Labour was beaten by Aspire in May 2022, the Labour Councillor Gabriel Salva Macallan, took to Twitter to criticise the administration of which she was a part, ‘’it’s clear now that despite the huge majority we held over the past four years, there is a need for the Labour Group to reflect & understand why we lost the confidence of the community we should have been representing…‘’ going on to admit that the party had pursued ‘’planning/housing policies that people felt were not in their interests’’ and that ‘’raise serious questions locally.’’
Councillors, who had been tasked with drafting part of the development plan and deciding on planning applications in the borough, including the controversial redevelopment of the Asda supermarket on the Isle of Dogs, were working directly and indirectly for large-scale development companies throughout the course of the Labour-led administration.
This tight-knit relationship, and the corporate logic that it imbued in the Labour administration, was fertile ground for developers seeking to get applications that did not sufficiently cater to the demands of the community, passed.
The failure of the Judicial Review
Unhappy with the local authority’s decision to approve the Brewery development proposal, The Spitalfields Historic Building Trust brought a judicial review against the Council in June 2022.
In late August, however, the judge upheld the committee’s decision, finding that the Council had the power to disallow Qureshi for not attending in person and therefore the committee’s composition was quorate.
The judge, Mr Justice Morris also ruled that, according to the relevant law, and the Council’s own rules, it was at the discretion of the development committee whether to disallow public speaking and that they had also paid due regard to the relevant policies of the draft neighbourhood plan.
The decision had ultimately come down to points of law, and despite only three Councillors voting on the decision, the defiance of the community’s will and the silencing of local residents’ voices in the decisive meeting, the Council’s decision had remained within the law.
In defying local protestations by waving through another unpopular large-scale development the committee had managed to remain within the bounds of the relevant planning law; at least in the eyes of the High Court judge.
However, the High Court judgement did leave many wondering where the say of residents figured in the planning legislation governing development in Spitalfields and Banglatown.
In part three we look at how the planning process was manipulated and how efforts to protect local community interests were stymied.
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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