Ministers have attacked the way Tower Hamlets LBC is run by its elected mayor for the second time in as many weeks.
Local government minister Brandon Lewis (Con) accused the mayor of “mismanagement of council staff and resources” following a watchdog’s critical report into political broadcasts in the borough.
Mr Lewis’ attack, in a written parliamentary answer last week, follows communities secretary Eric Pickles’ comments this month that he was “very unhappy about what is going on in the borough”.
Both interventions follow a January Ofcom ruling which Mr Lewis said had censured five local television channels which had run adverts for the mayor of Tower Hamlets. This broke rules prohibiting political advertising, he added.
Mr Lewis said the alleged use of taxpayers’ money for the mayor’s political campaign was “simply not acceptable” . He then criticised the council’s “weekly propaganda newspaper” East End Life for alleged contravention of the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.
“Such actions are not just a misuse of public funds, they are ultimately harmful to local democracy and an independent, free press,” Mr Lewis said. “It is also further evidence of a worrying pattern of divisive community politics and mismanagement of council staff and resources by the mayoral administration.”
Ministerial concerns about the management of the authority, in particular its long-running failure to appoint a chief executive because its senior politicians are unable to agree on a candidate prompted ministers to raiser concerns with the LGA late last year.
As part of the sector-led improvement model, the LGA and London Councils then wrote to Tower Hamlets to offer assistance with the recruitment process.
Amid fears within the authority that a non-appointment could result in a formal intervention by government, Tower Hamlets last month agreed to extend the contract of its interim head of paid service Stephen Halsey’s until after the 2014 mayoral elections.
Despite this extension, Tower Hamlets has been mentioned in parliament in negative terms on four separate occasions in recent months.
In mid January, former local government minister Bob Neill (Con) criticised the authority’s monitoring officer for the way she had handled complaints against the mayor and his group of independents compared to complaints against councillors in other groups. Tower Hamlets disputed his version of events and Mr Neill’s actions were criticised by the Association of Council Secretaries & Solicitors.
Earlier this month, Mr Neill said the interim head of paid service had issued “erroneous” advice to councillors when he told them they were not entitled to repeat the comments made by Mr Neill about the council’s monitoring officer.
On the same day, Mr Neill - who is now Conservative party chairman for local government - made a separate criticism relating to the Ofcom report into political broadcasts.
These comments led Mr Pickles to declare himself “very unhappy” with what was going on in the borough.
A council spokeswoman said: “Tower Hamlets is a high-performing local authority, providing excellent services. We’re building more new homes than any other council, bucking the national trend with improving GCSE results and opening new libraries. As a high-performing local authority we take compliance seriously and this includes the current Code of Recommended Practice on local authority publicity.”
Turning to the criticism of the council’s weekly magazine, the spokeswoman said a review of East End Life in 2011 had found that 72% of residents supported the publication.
“East End Life is budgeted to be produced at net nil cost to Tower Hamlets Council. The £1.2m required to produce it annually is budgeted to be offset by the advertising revenue it raises each year,” the spokeswoman said.
“We are assured that a weekly publication is the most cost effective way of fulfilling our legal duty to inform the local community and promote race equality, healthy lifestyles and positive change such as recycling.
“We will continue to monitor the financial performance of East End Life to ensure that it continues to fulfil the needs of our local community, who we, not central government, are best placed to understand”.