Governance and Resources Scrutiny Committee

Member Working Party Panel Review Hearings February 27, March 6 and March 14, 2006

On 20th February 2006, following a motion put before the Full Council on 1st February, Hackney’s Overview & Scrutiny Commission met to record its proposals for a Review Panel to examine how the property sales procedures adopted in 2000 had impacted on local business and residential communities and to investigate the role of Nelson Bakewell auctioneers in the sales procedures.

The public review lasted, effectively, for six hours, with much behind the scenes gathering of documents and written submissions and responses.

This was a mammoth task in reality and there were unlikely to be any concrete proposals coming from any recommendations that the panel could be expected to formulate in such a short timeframe.

The enquiry sat on 27th February and Chair James Cannon set the remit for the 3 session debate.  Week one concentrated mainly on the cases of Spirit and Tony from Broadway Market, both of whom gave unscripted evidence before the panel.

Andrew Boff, Tory panel member and Councillor for Queensbridge ward asked many sympathetic questions and drew the expected responses, particularly from Tony who referred to the previous administration as a bunch of corrupt  thieves.

Bill Hodgson, outgoing Labour Queensbridge Councillor, did his best to salvage his party’s image by implying that Tony and Spirit could have acted quicker to get their freeholds and were up against market forces over which the Council had little or no control.

Our fears about Tony were not realised and every member left the first hearing in one piece and returned on 6th March to hear evidence about Dalston Lane.

Bill Parry-Davies, local solicitor (who has acted in the past for both Tony and Spirit) and is Director of OPEN-Dalston, gave evidence about how 14 properties in Dalston Lane had been gifted to an offshore Company (which still owns Spirit’s Broadway Market unit under a different name) because the leaseholders who had operated their businesses from the area for many years were not informed in advance that Nelson Bakewell had reached the decision to sell the units as a job lot.

The leaseholders had turned up at the auction as individuals with well over £ 3 million to spend in total, but were not even given the chance to pool their resources because they never knew they might have to, and the entire site sold for just £ 1.8 million.

Yes, if the Dubai based buyers were hell-bent on buying the site they could certainly have outbid the leaseholders, but at least that way the people of Hackney would have gained some benefit from the extra £1.5 million that would have raised.  Instead, the Dubia group (who operate their business from a tax haven in the Bahamas) were allowed to rob the local community and have since watched as mysterious fires have forced out all but the last few remaining leaseholders and have damaged the buildings so much that they will now need to be demolished.  This is exactly what the owners wanted to happen and even Councillors are now openly stating that the new owners set the fires for this purpose.

Bill Parry-Davies also used his legal influence to mention the OPEN-Dalston campaign and to highlight the methods by which Hackney Council has pushed through its plans for the Dalston Theatre site and the underhand way that local planners have bullied Councillors into passing demolition plans.

Then 3 leaseholders who have managed to survive in their Dalston Lane properties told the Panel that they had never really been offered the opportunity to buy their business premises and were never allowed to seek advice or group themselves together.  Their evidence was compelling and clearly shocked the Labour Panel members who had already decided how to defend the Council from any further damage.

Part 3 of the Inquiry was listed for hearing at 2pm on 14th March.  The day before, the panel chair informed us that thee was no time for any further verbal submissions and that the hearing would concentrate on past submissions and responses from the Council.  If we wanted any further evidence to be considered it would have to be drawn up in written form and presented to the Council’s officers within a few hours.

With a lot of running around, we managed to get statements drawn up and written evidence copied and got this all to the Town Hall 15 minutes before the deadline.

The hearing begins on the following day and we are told that the evidence which we had submitted at the last minute was too defamatory and ‘put the Council at risk’.  The Panel then set about reading out a list of questions which had been raised and the brief and irrelevant answers which had been listed on papers handed out before the hearing began.  After a protest from one of those attending, which was given short shrift, the assembled campaigners simultaneously stood up and walked out of the Chamber in disgust, leaving a shaken panel to ponder on whether their tactics may have rather backfired.

Fearing that this was censorship rather than genuine concern for the legal standing of the Council, e:mail traffic became intense.  At a private hearing of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 15th March (which turned to a public hearing at the insistence of Councillor Boff) the Chair conceded that, following legal advice, some of the withdrawn documents would be taken into consideration and made public and that all documents were now before the Panel.

So the Panel sat again and we waited for the anticipated whitewash. Only to find that the Committee had decided that they should recommend the immediate repurchase of the Dalston Lane units by Compulsory Purchase Orders, and that Council officers should retain the option to repurchase Tony & Spirit’s shop.

There was intense debate over whether there should be a recommendation to continue the inquiry as soon as the Council reformed in May.  Andrew Boff fought hard for a commitment to do so.  The 3 (Labour) against 1 (Tory) argument was not won and we now have a few days before the final verdict is announced to persuade the Committee to make a firm recommendation that the past 2 and 1/2 weeks was simply the start of a much wider nquiry into just exactly what went on and who did hat?

Councillor Elaine Battson (Labour – Dalston) – who had een extremely quiet to this point, and even failed to attend when the Dalston Lane evidence was heard – suddenly became very vociferous and repeatedly said that the evidence before the Panel was too weak to be seriously considered so why should there be any further hearings?

We now have to ensure that the Met, the Public Sector Fraud Office and the FSA properly and thoroughly investigate the allegations, which will not go away, and it may well be the case that this can only be achieved by the occupation of Scotland Yard, Wellington House and Canary Wharf!  But the truth will come out in the end – to that aim we are totally committed – and all those who have abused their positions to rob the local population and feather their own nests will learn that people power is far greater than their own influential contacts.

Unless this is achieved, there will be Nelson Bakewell’s springing up everywhere and victims like Tony and Spirit will dominate the world’s press for many decades.

The Campaign against property sell-offs has achieved many victories in a few short months.  Mounting local support, liaisons across class divides, a six thousand signature petition, worldwide media attention and a full public inquiry which shook the Council to its core.

Corrupt property developers have retracted into their shells and the flack is still falling all around them. Their former associates in positions of power are left wondering how much longer before the shit really hits the fan and we continue to fight for their activities to be fully exposed.

This seems to be the start of something far more powerful than any local protest has ever achieved before, not least because there are Broadway Markets and Dalston Lanes in every London borough and across the Country and beyond.

So the fight goes on and the ballot box results in a few weeks time may well give an indication as to who exactly is winning the war.