John Biggs interview: Mayor denies Clear Up Project will be whitewash

At the helm: Mayor John Biggs
At the helm: Mayor John Biggs

Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs vowed that the head of a special new unit of anti-corruption investigators being set up at the Town Hall will be a person with a “strong record” as he denied claims of a whitewash.

However, despite being asked repeatedly, the council has still not said who will lead what has been termed the Clean Up Project even though it has already invited complainants to submit their allegations.

The unit is intended to deal with remaining allegations of impropriety in the wake of the corruption scandals that occurred while Lutfur Rahman was mayor.

Rahman was thrown out of office last year after an election judge found him guilty of illegal and corrupt practices, and Biggs, a Labour politician who has been involved in London politics for decades, was elected to replace him in the top job.

Andy Erlam, an anti-corruption campaigner who was one of the election petitioners who brought down Rahman, has said he feared the Clean Up Project would not get to the truth, however.

Critical: Andy Erlam
Critical: Andy Erlam

Erlam said: “The idea that a well packaged gimmick with anonymous investigators is going to solve the problem is going to look like a whitewash.”

But Biggs told the East End Citizen he was confident a new management team in place at the Town Hall would give complainants faith in the system.

He said the Clear Up Project “should allow people like Andy Erlam to come in with a whole wodge of complaints, and they will be investigated”.

He added: “If they point in any new direction, we will leave no stone unturned to investigate them properly.”

Community Language Service

In a wide-ranging interview, Biggs also suggested the council’s Community Language Service could have its funding cut. The issue has become a political football, with the opposition Independent Group attacking him on it.

An audit committee report found the council could not have confidence that the service – which helps children of immigrants from Bangladesh and elsewhere learn their mother tongues – was being properly run.

Biggs said he had “committed to retaining it [the service] for the time being” but added: “We need to manage it more tightly.”

He said: “There is a considerable view that we shouldn’t even fund such a service. Most local authorities don’t, and indeed, if I’m from a minority community and I want my kids to learn their mother tongue, then I will pay for it myself through a voluntary group on a Saturday morning.”

Tower Hamlets Town Hall. Photograph: Chris McKenna (Creative Commons)
Tower Hamlets Town Hall. Photograph: Chris McKenna (Creative Commons)

He added: “We’ve inherited this system in Tower Hamlets which is tied up partly with the history of the Bangladeshi community. The service actually addresses eight different minority languages, but mainly Bengali. We need to rethink how we provide that service. The community has to have greater ownership of it, and possibly pay more towards it.

“These are tough budget times, so we probably can’t afford the level of funding into the indefinite future. But I want to give people an opportunity to change the way the service works.”

Planning, pollution and airplanes

On air quality, he revealed he wants to intervene in a planning application to open a new primary school called Bromley Hall next to the heavily polluted A102 Blackwall Tunnel Approach because of concerns for the health of pupils.

“I want us to pause on that and to look again at the air quality issues,” he said. “Even if we have an air conditioned school building, when the kids go in the playground are they just going to be filling themselves up with noxious fumes?

“The planning permission itself is a quasi-judicial decision, so I can’t stop that happening, but I will ask our officers to jump through the hoops again and talk about the air quality issues with building a primary school there.”

And he added: “I think looking at it, it’s a pretty lousy place for a school.”

Biggs, who is a former London Assembly Member, again defended his support for the Silvertown Tunnel plans however – even though this will mean more roadbuilding in East London.

Environmentalists are opposed to the proposed road link, which would connect Royal Docks with the Greenwich Peninsula.

A map showing the route of the planned tunnel. Image: Transport for London
A map showing the route of the planned tunnel. Image: Transport for London

Biggs told the East End Citizen: “The lazy thing for me to do, if I was down the Dog and Duck talking about this, would be to say: ‘Building roads – more traffic. I’d never support it.’ But I think in the case of East London it’s a bit more complicated than that.

“Silvertown will have two lanes each way, only one of which will be for private vehicles. The other will be for HGVs that need to cross the river – they’ll have to pay – and buses.

“So we’ll finally be able to get double decker buses under the Thames, which would be pretty good because we can’t get them through Blackwall.

“We’ll be able to get a more intense bus network, which is another benefit. I’m not happy with Silvertown because you can’t get bikes through it.

“Obviously you don’t want cyclists to cycle through the tunnel, but what is the cycling option to cross the Thames?

“Transport for London have rather feebly said it’s the cable car. But it’s slow, it’s ponderous and cyclists who are commuter cyclists don’t want that.

“What I proposed in the consultation was that we could have something a bit like what they have in some other cities around the world where you have perhaps a bus that hops across the Thames that has bike racks on it.”

He said he is against City Airport’s planned expansion, adding that the council will “engage in what you might call tough love” with the airport, which he says “may not have a future” in the long term.

Biggs, who is on record as supporting Heathrow’s expansion, said: “If we have a third runway at Heathrow then the justification for City Airport will reduce.”

Entryism concerns

Biggs acknowledged Labour’s woes nationally and said that, as executive mayor, he hopes to “add to the discovery of better ways of doing things” which could help the party win back power nationally.

He described himself as liberal on economic issues but added: “I’m pretty left wing on social policy.”

He refused to speak directly about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, saying: “I work about 80-90 hours a week as Mayor of Tower Hamlets. I’m not seeking any sort of medals for that – that’s the sort of job it is. It requires me to focus unremittingly on that and to not be distracted by some of these sort of noise issues.”

However, he admitted he had concerns about entryism, adding: “We need to have a proper conversation in which we can explore ideas together as a single party, otherwise we’re screwed, basically.

“I’m not a Marxist. I’m not on the hard left. I’m more of a hodge-podge and less of a stereotype than people would like. I feel very angry about social issues. I think the Blair government got a lot of things wrong. But I think it got quite a lot of things right as well, you see.”

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