Looks like the recent ASDA Crossharbour development community ’fun day’ on 30th August 2021 has provided far more fun and games than the organisers expected.

What fun!

For a simple event it is a complicated story and even the redoubtable Moley has not yet worked out exactly what happened.

So the below is what we know at the moment and also, to complicate matters even further, some information which seems to show that Lutfur Rahman is very keen to get the ASDA development passed.

First a little explanation of a council planning process.

The role of the Development Committee is to determine applications for planning / listed / conservation area consent whereas the role of the Strategic Development Committee (SDC) is to consider major planning matters that may exceed the remit of the Development Committee in terms of size and scale.

Clear?

It’s worth how much?!

As you can imagine councillors who are members of either the Development Committe or the Strategic Development Committee (SDC) can have a significant power. The ASDA development for instance is worth around £480 million.

Update: No it’s not worth £480 million. According the Council it is worth £1,188,925,930 or £1.19 billion.

LBTH Crossharbour ASDA Development Summary

One allegation is that a member of the Strategic Development Committee (SDC) Cllr Sabina Akhtar (Labour, Stepney Green) worked with the ASDA Crossharbour developer Ashbourne Beech to organise an ASDA ‘fun day’ on the 30th of August at, you guessed it, ASDA Isle of Dogs car park.

Cllr. Akhtar denies this in the strongest of terms.

The fun day included giving 60 local people certificates to community champions and, Mole has heard, a donation by the developers to a charity of the champions choice.

We need this confirmed or denied by champions so if did get an award please get in touch via hello@eastendenquirer.org

The ASDA planning application seems to have been running for years (probably ‘cos it has) but most recently the Councillors on the Strategic Development Committee met on the 9th June to make a final decision but ran out of time.

The final decision was to be made on the 23rd September. So, as Cllr Wood points out in his account the fun day took place between these two dates.

Issue One – Who organised the event?

The kerfuffle seems to be that after the fun day had taken place there was, and still is, a lot of confusion as to who organised the event.

Was it developer Ashbourne Beech or Tower Hamlets Council?

Tower Hamlets Council has been asked for comment.

This matters for a variety of reasons, the main one being that if the developer organised the fun day and lots of councillor were invited was it an attempt to influence local residents in favour of the development?

Issue Two – Cllr Akhtar

Photo of Cllr. Sabina Akhtar
Cllr. Sabina Akhtar

More importantly did Cllr Sabina Akhtar work with the developer to organise the fun day and send WhatApp messages asking residents to send message to their councillors in support of the development?

You can see her statement below.

Issue Three – Who Attended and Why?

The following elected representatives were present at or involved in the fun day (whoever organised it) and their understanding of what they were attending is crucial.

  • Cllr Mohammed Ahbab Hossain Speaker of the Council (Bethnal Green, Labour)
  • Cllr Sabina Akhtar (Stepney Green, Labour), Cabinet Member for Culture, Arts and Sport) and Member of the Development Committee.
  • Cllr Ehtasham Haque, (Blackwall & Cubitt Town, Labour) and Isle of Dogs resident and partner of Cllr. Sabina Akhtar
  • Cllr Mohammed Pappu, (Bethnal Green, Labour) – Licensing Committee (Member) Blackwall & Cubitt Town Ward, Chair of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee and Isle of Dogs resident
  • Unmesh Desai, Greater London Authority (GLA) Labour Member for Barking & Dagenham, City of London, Newham, Tower Hamlets and close political ally of Mayor John Biggs.

Each of the above was emailed for comment and their replies, with the exception of Unmesh Desai, are below.

Cllr Mohammed Pappu Statement

“I am happy to clarify my position.
I was invited by a Labour Party member and local businessman to give out awards in my capacity as a councillor. I saw posters of the event and believed it was a community event in my ward.
It was a community event and one to recognise COVID champions, on the day I did find out the event was organised by the developer.
My objections to the development are public and I spoke out against the development at the committee on the 6th of June at the strategic development committee.
Kind regards,
Cllr Mohammed Pappu”

Cllr Ehtasham Haque Statement

“I attended the fun day as a local councillor and made announcements to recognise Covid 19 Champions.”

Cllr Sabina Akhtar Statement

“In answer to your question I did not attend the event.
I gathered that this was a community event, where I was asked to send nominations for people to receive awards for their work during Covid.
The text message which I forwarded, with my name on, was only sent to a group of Labour cllrs.
Clearly due to being misled by the organisers of the event, and the agents the London Tea exchange.
Due to my error and being misled by a PR company, I recused myself from the Strategic Development Committee and did not take any part in making the decision.
I did not send or forward the other two messages.”

Cllr Mohammed Ahbab Hossain Statement

“I can clarify.
I was invited to attend a community fun day and an awards ceremony for covid champions.
I want to pay respect to all the people who have supported vulnerable people during covid.
I was not aware or made aware that this has anything to do with the Asda Development.
As Speaker my duty is to represent the council and the people of Tower Hamlets.”

Issue Four – The Speaker

One odd fact is the involvement of Cllr Mohammed Ahbab HOSSAIN, Speaker of the Council.

Several councillors have told the Enquirer that because they were invited to the event by the Speaker they automatically assumed it was an official LBTH event. Completely understandable.

However in his comment above the Speaker says that: “I was not aware or made aware that this [the event] had anything to do with the Asda Development.”

One problem with this is the big sign on the right hand side of the main photograph and about eight feet from the Speaker which seems to be all about the ASDA Crossharbour development bu Ashbourne Beech.

Some of the invitations to councillors were made by the Speaker by phone, this would seem to also emphasise the importance of the invitation. Fair comment?

As with any event not all councillors could attend. This is fortunate because if they had attended the event they could be in trouble – if the event was organised by the developer.

More than one councillor Moley has spoken to was furious about this whole mess and that they could easily have turned up at this event or nominated a champion after being misled.

Issue Five – Community Champions

It seems (using that phrase a lot, sorry!) that each councillor was invited to nominate a community champion.

At least one councillor did this and so the person nominated was given a certificate and (allegedly) a donation was made to a charity of their choice.

When the councillor realised that the fun day was not (allegedly) an official council event she was absolutely mortified.

Would have been interesting to overhear conversations with her colleagues after that. Ouch.

So far, so confused? You are in good company.

Issue Six – Decision, decisions, decisions

Bottom line is that Councillors making a planning decision should have no direct involvement with the applicant or their agents unless a planning officer is present.

Don’t think there were any planning officers present. Why should there be?

Issue Seven – The Messages

Cllr Sabina Akhtar is a Cabinet Member, sits on the Development Committee and the Strategic Development Committee. This puts her at the top of the Labour Party hierarchy just to one side of the Mayor.

The allegation against her is that she sent WhatsApp messages to various people, in one message claiming that it was as a result of her organising a previous fun day that ‘the developers saw with their own eyes how big the community is on the island… and accepted our argument for the need for social housing to be included.’

Below is a annotated screen grab of the messages but please remember we do not know if these are a genuine messages or a imitations.

It is also alleged that although Cllr Akhtar claimed that all councillors were being invited to the event, this does not seem to be the case.

We have been told by a Isle of Dogs resident that the messages were sent out to a WhatsApp group rather than multiple individuals.

In addition to promoting the fun day Cllr Akhtar also allegedly circulated a template email in support of the ASDA development and asked residents to ‘tweek’ [sic] the email and send it to Council planning officers.

Again we cannot verify the authenticity of this image.

Sheikh Aliur Rahman, London Tea Exchange

Public relations for the fun day was handled by ‘Brand Ambassador Female Tea Master in Training’ Sonia Lard Lal who also works for the London Tea Exchange which promoted the event.

The London Tea Exchange in Brick Lane is run by Tower Hamlets Labour member Sheikh Aliur Rahman.

Between 2014 and 2015 his company donated over £90,000 to the Labour Party and then MP Sadiq Khan although nothing since then according to Electoral Commission records.

In 2018 Aliur was awarded the Civic Award by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for his contribution to business and local community.

As to why Sheikh Aliur Rahman was involved in promoting the fun day is not totally clear.

Issue Eight – The Lutfur Factor

At a meeting of the Tower Hamlets Strategic Development Committee (SDC) held on Wednesday, 9th June, 2021 to further consider the Asda – Crossharbour District Centre Members of the applicant’s team (developer Ashbourne Beech) addressed the Committee as they have the right to do.

But there is a small wrinkle which few seem to have noticed until recently. Here is a screen grab from the ASDA Crossharbour planning application document submitted at the SDC meeting Wednesday 9th June 2021 which lists the applicants team.

Screen grab from PA/19/02534 ASDA planning application document SDC meeting Wednesday 9th June 2021.
Screen grab from PA/19/02534 ASDA planning application document SDC meeting Wednesday 9th June 2021.

The two local residents were Ms Atia Begum Jorna and Mr Abdul Haque Habib. The screen grab below shows them both being interviewed on NTV Europe in January 2020. You can watch the video on Facebook here.

Atia Begum Jorna and Abdul Haque Habib on NTV Europe January 2020.

Atia Begum Jorna, described only as a local resident, spoke and was very much in favour of the development being given the green light.

Abdul Haque Habib, Managing Director of the London Training Centre, also spoke in support of the development.

What Atia Begum Jorna neglected to mention was that (a) she did not live on the Isle of Dogs but in St Peter’s or (b) that she was the Campaign Manager for ex-Mayor Lutfur Rahman.

Abdul Haque Habib did not see any reason to mention that his company provided Lutfur Rahman with multiple payments totalling £22,000 towards his legal fighting fund in 2014.

Here are the payments from the London Training Centre to Lutfur as detailed in the spreadsheet which is in the public domain.

IDDateFromAmount (£)
68Feb/2015London Training Centre5,000
75N/KLondon Training Centre7,000
93N/KLondon Training Centre5,000
97N/KLondon Training Centre5,000
Sub-total21,000
Payments by London Training Centre to Lutfur Rahman’s legal fund

Total donations to Lutfur Rahman’s legal fund from all donors was £749,500.

Both Ms. Jorna and Mr. Habib have been contacted for comment but nothing had been received at the time of publication.

(For some context Ex-Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman launches fundraising drive for legal challenge.)

We have emailed Ashbourne Beech and asked how these two people in particular were recruited to their team.

As to why the only two non-technical people on Ashbourne Beech’s team should be two of Lutfur Rahman’s closest allies is a complete mystery.

Only joking! It’s about the money, innit?

It seems that Lutfur sees the ASDA development as a good way for him (and his mates of course) to make some money. Or even lots of money. How we don’t know, but feel sure that our ex-leader, found guilty of corrupt electoral behaviour and kicked out of office, will find a way.

If you are reading this Lutfur do let us know.

As stated above the precise nature of the odd ‘fun day’ and who was involved with what and why is still emerging.

No doubt a thorough investigation by the Council will reveal all.

Sorry, joking again. Of course that won’t happen. That’s why we have to write all this stuff.

Issue Nine – The Big One

The question that has to be asked of all the elected members involved is very harsh but if the Enquirer does not ask it we will be rightly accused of dodging the issue.

“Did you accept any inducement, financial or otherwise, to take part in the ASDA Crossharbour fun day? If so what was this inducement, who gave it to you and what were you required to do in exchange?”

Nasty. But essential so no apologies.

Somebody call the cops please

In reality this sort of question should be left to the Metropolitan Police to ask when they investigate, for investigate they must.

As it seems that ex-Mayor Lutfur Rahman somehow managed to get two of his key people on the developer’s presentation team as ‘local residents’ is also quite extraordinary and has to be formally investigated.

Is there a connection?

Lutfur’s interest in the ASDA development raises the possibility (and we could be quite wrong on this) that there is a connection between his interest and the weird ASDA fun day events.

Quite what we don’t know but it’s got to be looked at hasn’t it?

The Enquirer is no clearer on who organised what or why or when or to whose benefit than we were a few days ago.

Ashbourne Beech have not replied to our emails and neither has ASDA or LBTH.

Playing fast and loose with the rules

One reason that this incident is such a mess is that Tower Hamlets Labour and Tower Hamlets First have played fast and loose with the law to such an extent, and have been allowed to do so by central government, that they no longer have any real idea when they are breaking the rules.

The way that the Liveable Streets project was handled is another example of this.

The ASDA Crossharbour development is on a different scale to that, a £480m deal. That’s big money.

Our understanding is that the final decision on the ASDA site development now has to go the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

It seems only sensible that his decision is only taken after the Metropolitan Police have done their work.

And who knows what other interesting events will emerge before then?

Moley has the feeling there will be quite a few.

If you would like Moley and the Enquirer to continue publishing these interesting stories then please consider moving some cash from your pocket to ours ‘cos we do all this nonsense for free.

This story would not have been possible without the contribution of numerous people across the borough of all political beliefs, most of who will as usual never be identified.

Moley can identify Cllr Andrew Wood (Canary Wharf, Independent) who as ever makes a massive contribution to Tower Hamlets out of all proportion to what he is required to do or the amount of his councillor allowance. You can find out more about Andrew on his website Councillor Andrew Wood which is a model of transparency.

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