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Pickles imposes additional directions on Tower Hamlets

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Additional directions have been imposed on Tower Hamlets LBC despite an attempt from cross-party leaders to maintain limited decision-making powers until a new mayor is elected.

LGC reported last week that the communities secretary had proposed new directions. These would mean the commissioners could order Tower Hamlets to “take any actions needed to safeguard good governance”, which included taking most decision-making powers away from the council until a new mayor is elected.

The move followed a judgment in the High Court which resulted in Lutfur Rahman being deposed as Tower Hamlets’ elected mayor after his election was declared void. Judge Richard Mawrey said Mr Rahman was guilty of “corrupt and illegal practices for the purpose of his own aggrandizement”.

A re-run of the mayoral election is set to take place on 11 June.

In a letter sent to Tower Hamlets’ interim head of paid service Stephen Halsey yesterday, deputy director of democracy at the Department for Communities & Local Government Paul Rowsell said communities secretary Eric Pickles believed recent events in Tower Hamlets were “deeply concerning”.

The additional directions, announced yesterday evening, give the commissioners power to require the council to carry out any action they believe is necessary to “avoid so far as practicable incidents of poor governance or financial mismanagement”. These come on top of an immediate direction to put a stop to the destruction of any hard copy and electronic documents by the council that was agreed last week and the original directions last November that put in place commissioners to oversee the running of the council.

Proposing the additional directions last week Mr Rowsell said it would mean the cabinet could only take a decision if it “accords with officer recommendations and there is cross-party agreement for it”.

A concordat signed by Labour group leader Rachael Saunders, Conservative group leader Peter Golds, and Ohid Ahmed, cabinet member for community safety, on behalf of the cabinet, was sent to the communities secretary objecting to this. The document said all believed it would be “inappropriate for executive decision making to be executed until a new mayor takes office”. They proposed the council’s executive (cabinet) could only take decisions on urgent “uncontroversial issues” and proposed decisions would only be passed with cross-party consensus.

Although he had welcomed the concordat, Mr Rowsell’s letter said Mr Pickles did not believe that would provide “adequate safeguards for good governance and sound financial management”. It added: “However on balance, having had regard to all the representations the secretary of state has received, he considers that whilst entering into this concordat may facilitate good governance, the need for the additional directions as proposed remains.”

Alan Wood, director of children’s services at neighbouring Hackney LBC and immediate past president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, and former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Chris Allison, have been sent in to the council and they will join the existing team of commissioners headed by Sir Ken Knight. Meanwhile, Lewisham LBC’s chief executive Barry Quirk has also been drafted in to help Tower Hamlets’ returning officer John Williams administrate upcoming elections.

The additional directions are intended to be in force “only as long as necessary”, said Mr Rowsell and added once a new mayor had been elected and chief executive, section 151 officer and monitoring officer roles had been filled on a permanent basis the situation would be reviewed with a view to the additional directions ending “by 31 October 2015 or earlier if appropriate”.

In separate letters to Mr Rowsell, Cllr Saunders said she recognised the role the commissioners “can usefully play in ensuring good governance and financial management”. However, she thought they should only intervene on “matters of legality, financial probity, or governance”.

The appointment of additional commissioners was welcomed by Cllr Golds in his letter as he said the situation at Tower Hamlets was “not satisfactory”.

A Tower Hamlets spokeswoman said the council continued to “work productively” with the commissioners to implement the directions. She said: “The secretary of state’s reasons for the latest direction are a matter of record as is the authority’s response to the draft proposal. Our focus will be to continually improve and to further maintain and develop high quality and efficient services for residents.”

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