It is odd how a boring bit of land like the Sutton Street Depot seems to be of such interest to so many people.
Even odder because this is Tower Hamlets where odd things happen all the time.
Mole has been considering the reason for the popularity of Sutton Street Depot for some time and the most sensible answer is that it hides a natural spring from which flows water that bestows the secret of eternal life.
Eternal life or not it is still just super odd how many times this bit of land pops up when discussing the festering rats nest that is Tower Hamlets politics.
And to this oddness let’s add a dash of odd sauce because Sutton Street Depot only seems to be of interest at election time.
2011 – Rahman
Far, far away (well, the Commercial Road) and long, long ago (2011) during the reign of
Lord Mayor Lutfur Rahman, Sutton Street Depot was declared as surplus to the Council’s requirements at a Cabinet meeting on 3rd August 2011 although it was still used ‘for various purposes’ until January 2012.
(What those purposes were we do not know and to be honest do not want to know. Look at the council property at Burslem Street and what was going on there.)
Although Mayor Rahman was determined to dispose of Sutton Street someone somewhere decided that renting out Sutton Street to someone was a better plan.
2013 – Rahman
In 2013 someone (maybe not the first someone but another someone) made a successful bid for the lease.
But… because of various problems with break-ins and squatters the unknown someone wanted the lease changed.
So far so vague. The reason for this enforced vagueness is that it was decided that because the lease contained commercial details and other super secret things the reports would be restricted.
In other words ordinary people were not allowed to see what was going on or how much Council money was being spent or generally handed out.
Which is great for everyone involved – apart from residents.
So rather than getting information we got this Sutton Street, Mayor’s Executive Decision Making which is useless.
This is the recurring theme – secrecy because of ‘confidential commercial interests’. Rahman did it, Biggs does it.
Anyone believe that the documents really are restricted because of commercial confidentiality? No, us neither.
2014 – Rahman
But then it seems the whole bidding process was a complete sham as the 2014 report by PriceWaterHouseCoopers (PwC) revealed here.
This report being the one the government ordered when they finally realised there were massive problems with Rahman’s council.
As it is election time and Moley does not want to embarrass anyone running for Mayor who was involved in this Sutton Street charade let’s all agree to not mention Poplar Town Hall either because that was well dodgy.
Or as the Minister at the time said in a speech:
“Poplar Town Hall was sold to a company involving a person who had helped the Mayor [Lutfur Rahman] with his election campaign, against internal advice, and the winning bid was submitted after other bids had been opened.”Eric Pickles
Oh and also Moley would like to point out that the details of what actually went on with the sale of Poplar Town Hall (and other valuable council assets) are not to be found in the PwC report.
Another reason not to mention it.
To be honest Moley is now wondering if we should also not mention the odd fascination that a disused council depot has for so many Mayors. Well, two.
But Mole does not give a damn so off we go!
Down the Sutton Street rabbit hole
If you have read the PwC report you will know that the awarding of a lease of the Sutton Street Depot was real Alice in Wonderland stuff, it bore no relation to reality whatsoever.
The council received six bids for a five-year lease of the old depot. The property was being marketed by Strettons Ltd and they recommended the lease should go to the second highest bidder as there were problems with the highest bidder.
According to PwC ‘For reasons and under circumstances that remain unexplained’ one of the bidders submitted another bid three weeks later which was 11% higher than the previous highest bid.
The Council’s Asset Management and Capital Strategy Board recommended this be the bid to be accepted, despite none of the other five bidders being offered the chance to submit their own refined bid.
Odd? Not in this borough it isn’t.
To ensure that the maximum amount of residents money was splashed around by Rahman he decided (via a Mayoral Executive Decision) to give the winning bidder one-year rent free, and up to £50,000 cash for essential Health and Safety works.
Even by Tower Hamlets Council standards this decision was blatantly dodgy and so was subject to a call-in (review).
Lutfur bottled this meeting and sent along Alibor Choudhury, Cabinet Member for Resources, instead.
Even Alibor Choudhury, one of the most capable people in the borough, had a problem talking his way out of this one and claimed that asbestos had been found at Sutton Street, hence the generous terms of the lease.
Unfortunately for Alibor records showed that an asbestos survey had been carried out in 2011 and another in 2013. Neither showed any traces of asbestos.
According to PwC the lease documentation budgeted £105,000 for Health and Safety work and another £220,000 for general refurbishment.
2018 – Biggs
As we all know Lutfur Rahman was found guilty of corruption and both he and Alibor were banned from seeking elected office for five years.
Alibor, usually the smartest one in any room, has apparently made the decision to have nothing more to do with Tower Hamlets politics and has moved on.
But here is the odd thing. From 2018 (when the last Mayoral election was held) until 2022 (when another Mayoral election is being held) the Sutton Street Depot was empty but in possession of the tenant.
Empty but the tenant still had possession?
2021 – Biggs
At Overview & Scrutiny Pre-Scrutiny Decision Questions (PDSQs) held on 20 September 2021 a very simple question was asked (item 6.9 in the Chairs Advice of Key Issues or Questions document linked above).
“When the lease expired in June 2018 why did the Council leave Sutton Street Depot in the possession of the tenant and not seek to recover the property for three and a half years?”
You can see the lame BS excuse given below.
“The lease negotiations included agreement on works to be undertaken, and it is not unusual for lease negotiations of this complexity to take an extended period. Because of the complexities of landlord and tenant legislation we were limited in our ability to charge the tenant rent during the negotiating period, as this would have risked granting them greater security of tenure”
A simpler answer might be this and Moley has a feeling this is closer to the truth. Just a guess but…
Maybe Sutton Street Depot was not recovered by Mayor Biggs because it was being kept warm for someone? Sort of like a gift of council property that consecutive Mayors pass around to whoever they like?
So now we come to the latest Mayor election and once more the identity of the Sutton Street Depot tenant is shrouded in secrecy.
Here’s another curious little detail.
2022 – Biggs
At Cabinet on 22 September 2021 Mayor Biggs is recorded as saying this about the Sutton Street Depot lease renewal.
“The Mayor welcomed the report but also highlighted that he was looking forward to the opportunities that would arise once the site was ready for redevelopment. He noted the Pre-Decision Scrutiny Questions and officer responses. Finally, he noted that the proper processes had been undertaken in preparing the proposals listed in the report and he stated that he welcomed any scrutiny on this matter. He proposed the recommendations as set out in the report and these were unanimously approved by those present.”(Enquirer emphasis)
Why would the Mayor make a point of noting that proper processes had been undertaken?
Why would the Mayor state that he welcomed any scrutiny on this matter?
This is just plain weird.
Because as far as Moley is aware nobody was challenging the way the Sutton Street Depot lease had been reviewed at the time the Mayor made those remarks. Moley certainly wasn’t.
And nobody had, to Moles knowledge at least, carried out any scrutiny of this lease renewal at that time either.
So why go on record to say that proper processes had been undertaken in preparing the Sutton Street Depot lease proposal and he welcomed any scrutiny on this matter when nobody had been examining the process or lease proposal for the premises?
Maybe because Mayor Biggs thought that he would be found out?
What Mole does know is that Mayor Biggs and council officers had gone to extraordinary lengths to try and keep the Sutton Street Depot lease proposal secret.