Is Eric Pickles about to send government troops into Tower Hamlets? Last night’s Panorama examined Lutfur Rahman, the borough’s independent directly elected mayor, who is accused (amongst other things) of mismanaging public funds to purchase influence within certain communities. The programme outlined how Rahman has allegedly ignored the advice of his own officials on distributing money and more than doubling funds to projects in Tower Hamlets’ Bengali community— of which more than two thirds were responsible for electing him in 2010. Rahman has denied all of the allegations against him, calling the BBC Islamophobic, a charge the BBC has in turn refuted in vigorous terms.
Part of Panorama’s aim was to question whether Rahman’s lack of accountability shows a flaw in the system of elected mayors. They didn’t quite come to a clear conclusion but there is evidence that the checks and balances are slowly working. Firstly, the seriousness of the accusations has drawn the attention of Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, who has announced he will be delving further into the situation:
‘There is a worrying pattern of divisive community politics and mismanagement of council staff and resources by the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets. I will be carefully examining the evidence provided by Panorama’s thorough investigation and will consider the appropriate next steps, including the case for exercising the legal powers available to me.’
There’s no timeline on when government inspectors might be sent in to monitor Rahman, or, if they are, when they will report back. But the Department for Communities & Local Government are keen to stress that due process must be taken so there is no predetermined outcome. So although there may be no immediate action from Pickles and co, this doesn’t mean Tower Hamlets has been forgotten.
Secondly, Panorama has made it clear that Rahman is reneging on responsibilities of being an accountable mayor. He has been called to Tower Hamlets’ Overview and Scrutiny committee ten times in the last year, and has not attended a single session — something Pickles described as ‘virtually unprecedented’. Panorama pointed out he is the only one of England’s 15 directly elected mayors not to answer any questions at an O&S committee. No doubt this will taken into consideration during the DCLG’s investigation.
But unlike many other controversial local council leaders, Rahman is in his position purely thanks to the public and next month, they’ll have a chance to voice their concerns. One hopes that the voters of Tower Hamlets will take the questions raised by Panorama into account when heading to the ballot box on 22 May.