Archive | March, 2016

Laugh? I thought I’d never start

18 Mar

From the Newham Recorder’s report of last night’s cabinet meeting:

In other business, councillors agreed there was no need “at the present time” for new Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in the borough.

Discussing the matter, deputy mayor Cllr Lester Hudson joked that he would like to know the address of the person who “made the objective”.

“I think what Lester is saying is that we would be very happy to set up a site right next to their house,” Sir Robin added.

I can’t quite believe they actually said that – out loud – in a public meeting.

And thought it was funny.

UPDATE (20/03/2016)

On Friday evening Lester Hudson issued a statement to councillors claiming he had been misquoted in the Recorder story:

Deputy Mayor Councillor Lester Hudson has today rebutted a Newham Recorder online story over the misreporting of part of a debate at Cabinet on Thursday in connection with new gypsy and traveller accommodation in the borough.

The rebuttal statement issued to the Recorder by Councillor Hudson reads:

“The local newspaper account of this exchange is simply wrong. I was absolutely serious when I asked to understand more about objectors to our approach, not the objective.

“I am proud of the fact that Newham Council has previously established an authorised public site for Gypsies and Travellers and has made a detailed analysis of the needs of these communities locally.

“Other local authorities could learn much from Newham’s approach and should do much more to help those communities. I wanted to know whether the local authority of any objector had made a significant commitment to Gypsies and Travellers as Newham Council has. I would be happy to see a dedicated public site for Gypsies and Travellers established by every local authority in the country.”

Notably absent from this statement is any comment on what the mayor said, much less a denial.

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Calling time on the Newham Mag

16 Mar

Newham Mag fake

According to The Times this morning (£) Sir Eric Pickles is a step closer to victory in his war on “apparatchik printing presses powered by taxpayer pennies” after the last council weekly newspaper announced its closure.

Greenwich Time’s last weekly edition will run in June, while Tower Hamlets’ East End Life, which moved from being a weekly to fortnightly newspaper in January, will go quarterly from May.

With that battle won…

…the government is now shifting its attention to the remaining nine councils flouting rules on local authority newspapers. Enfield, Hackney, Hillingdon, Lambeth, Luton, Medway, Newham, North Somerset and Waltham Forest are still publishing fortnightly or monthly freesheets, despite rules telling town halls to restrict the publication of council newspapers to no more than four a year.

All these councils have been served written notices by the government.

We’ve been here before. The Newham Mag briefly shifted from its fortnightly schedule after being being issued a formal notice from government, but quickly went back once the heat was off. The council hilariously attempted to argue that residents’ human rights would be affected if they weren’t able to see dozens of pictures of Sir Robin every fortnight.

Closing the Mag, or reducing it to four issues a year, will save hundreds of thousands of pounds a year and an untold number of trees. The sooner Sir Eric prevails, the better.

Woodgrange Road redevelopment

7 Mar

E7 nowandthen 2016 Mar 07

The developer is proposing to replace 12 existing retail units and the small number of residential units above them with 1,650 square metres of retail space and 64 new homes. These will include a number of affordable and family-sized units.

They promise high quality design “to reflect the ambitions of the community,” along with green roofs and cycle storage.

It’s a less ambitious proposal than Obsidian’s, which would have completely destroyed the centre of Forest Gate, but will still have a huge impact on the look of Woodgrange Road. I’ll be interested to see what the drawings look like.

 

Noor comment

4 Mar

The Newham Recorder’s report on this week’s standards committee hearing contains comments from Labour group chief whip Steve Bradshaw:

“It’s very sad that in the borough where we’re trying to get rid of rogue landlords and beds in sheds that we have someone who would kick people out at midnight and then hide behind the Localism Act.

“We have evidence to show that when the [tenants] tried to make a complaint he said ‘no, no’ and made them go through him. It’s almost a hostage situation. It’s an abuse of power.”

Strong words. And ones that wouldn’t have been said without the approval of Sir Robin. Whatever political cover Ahmed Noor had from the leadership has very obviously gone.

Cllr Kay Scoresby, who sits on the committee asked:

“What do we have to do to get him more than a slap on the wrist?

“Newham is an authority that claims to be the best on enforcement. Can we get assurances he will be dealt with properly despite being a councillor?”

That should worry Noor. This week the council’s website proudly trumpeted a £40,000 fine imposed on a landlord who failed to licence her poorly managed rental property as a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO). Which is not a million miles away from what Ahmed Noor did at 238 Romford Road.

Standards and Noor

1 Mar

Newham council’s standards committee is meeting tonight (Tuesday 1 March) to consider the Monitoring Officer’s report on a complaint made against Councillor Ahmed Noor (Plaistow South).

The complaint was made by the council’s own Chief Executive and relates largely to Cllr Noor’s activities as a private landlord. Two independent reports were commissioned, one from Mazars, a firm “who undertake audit investigations” and another from CH & I Associates, “an experienced investigator of members’ conduct issues.” This second Report has been published with the committee papers, but the first has been withheld. 

Although the Report ends up taking a generous view of the distinction between Councillor Noor’s private and public lives it does provide a detailed timeline of events related to 238 Romford Road. And it doesn’t shy way from cataloguing an alarming number of other cases where his conduct has been less than exemplary. This includes his following the examples set by Sir Robin and Councillor Ian Corbett in refusing to cooperate with any of the investigations.

The Report says that “on 16 July 2013″ Ahmed Noor leased the property at 238 Romford Road to a charity, CMN Reachout Ltd. That date must be a typo, as the remainder of the timeline makes no sense if it’s correct. I suspect they mean 2012. The lease was for commercial purposes but Noor gave consent for it to be used “as a hostel / residence to care for people in need” if CMN obtained the necessary permissions from the council. In early 2013 ten housing benefit claims were identified as being paid to people living at 238 Romford Road and CMN was named as the landlord in all of the applications. The council’s planning enforcement team visited the property on 6 March 2013 and concluded that it was likely that it was being used as an HMO without permission.

On 25th March Noor contacted the council to say he had evicted CMN for breaching the lease. CMN told that council on 5 April 2013 that it still technically occupied the property and would continue to do so until their lease expired. They added that Noor had locked them out and boarded the property up. The site visit by council officers confirmed this.

In June 2013 CMN successfully challenged their eviction. The court believed that Noor knew what his property was being used for before the council took enforcement action. CMN were allowed back into 238 Romford Road, but were told that a new enforcement investigation had been opened and would remain active. There would be periodic visits to ensure it was not being used for residential purposes without planning permission.

Council officers made an unannounced visit on 3 March 2015 but were refused access. After contacting CMN a further visit was arranged for 23 April. The Report continues (paragraphs 5.7 to 5.13):

On 23 April 2015 representatives of CMN met with planning enforcement officers outside 238 Romford Road and told them that Councillor Noor had wrongly evicted them for a second time. They also expressed concern that the property was being used by new tenants as a residence, something that the Council had not allowed them to do. It was pointed out that Councillor Noor, as a member of the Council, looked like he was getting preferential treatment. Officers were again refused access to the property; one person they spoke to though confirmed that they were living at 238 Romford Road and that they had a tenancy agreement with Councillor Noor. Officers informed the representatives of CMN that they would have to seek their own legal advice with regards their lease dispute.

Officers were eventually able to obtain access to the property later the following day after contacting Councillor Noor directly; he in turn told those in the property to allow the inspection. The visit identfied that the property was being used as a large HMO without consent. At least two residents told officers that their landlord was Councillor Noor, with one resident confirming that he knew nobody else in the building. Officers also identfied a number of associated safety hazards, which were particularly concerning given that there were clearly children living in the property. During the visit officers spoke to a [name redacted] who said that he had a tenancy agreement with Councillor Noor to run a business from the property; [name redacted] claimed that the people living in the property were his friends.

On 27 April 2015 the Council served a planning enforcement notice to a number of parties associated with 238 Romford Road, including Councillor Noor. The alleged breach of planning control was that the material use of a house had been changed to an HMO without planning permission. Councillor Noor was required to cease the use of the property as an HMO and remove all associated fixtures and fittings by 27 August 2015.

On 28 April 2015 solicitors representing Councillor Noor contacted the Council to confirm that CMN were no longer tenants at the property and that the current leaseholder was [name redacted]. The solicitors said that the Council’s intervention demonstrated that [name redacted] was in breach of his leaseholder agreement; as a result Councillor Noor had notified his tenant that he had 28 days to cease use of the premises as an HMO. His solicitors stressed that Councillor Noor was committed to assisting the planning enforcement team.

Following notification from Councillor Noor that the property now complied with the enforcement notice, a further site visit was undertaken on 13 May 2015 with the Police in attendance. The inspection team found that the property was still being used as an HMO. The visiting officer spoke to a woman who confirmed that she still lived in the property. She told the officer that her landlord would only accept cash payments and would not provide her with an Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreement; as such she could not claim housing benefit. Another tenant said to the Police Sergeant that their rent was collected in cash by a third party on behalf of Councillor Noor.

Further to this visit a Newham Council Law Enforcement Officer was passing 238 Romford Road shortly after midnight and saw contents from the property being loaded onto a van. Further investigation indicated that everybody living in the property had been made to leave. The following morning the Lead Officer on Joint Housing Operations visited the property and was able to confirm that the premises were vacant. On 20 May 2015 Councillor Noor’s solicitors wrote to confirm that the property was now empty.

Subsequently officers from the Private Rented Sector housing indicated that there was sufficient evidence to consider prosecuting Councillor Noor for operating a “cash in hand’ HMO. In addition the Council considered further investigations to establish why no business rates have been paid at the property since August 2009. It is not clear from the papers, or indeed relevant to my own considerations or for the Standards Advisory Committee, whether these matters were progressed.

Having dealt with matters on Romford Road the Report tackles some of the other properties owned (in whole or in part) by Ahmed Noor.

At 218 Green Street and 9 Plashet Grove extensions were built without planning permission. In both cases the building works are “now lawful by virtue of time.” 

Further investigation has found that the first floor of [9 Plashet Grove] is being used as an extension of the shop, rather than for residential use (as was believed by the Council). As a result the Council are considering referring the matter to HMRC so that the Valuation Office can take a view as to whether business rates should now be payable and potentially backdated.

When officers visited 46 Windsor Road, which is in the Woodgrange Conservation Area, to serve an enforcement notice in relation to 238 Romford Road, they noticed that the front garden turf had been replaced by artificial grass. As no planning permission had been sought a further pre-enforcement notice was served.

Noor has owned or held a financial interest in 75 Derby Road and 77a Derby Road since September 2004. These properties sit on the same site but have two different entries on the Land Register. They are – or are intended to be – warehouses.

On October 2007 a planning enforcement case was opened in relation to the property following complaints that the empty warehouses had people living in them. An inspection on 12 November 2007 found that the entire building was being used for residential purposes, with a number of wooden cubicles and boarded off areas being discovered. Councillor Noor maintained that he did not know anything about it as he had not visited the property for several months. It was noted that the door had not been forced and that Councillor Noor had used his original key to gain access; Councillor Noor suggested that his builders had a key and that it was likely it had been copied many times.

A further site visit three days later confirmed that Councillor Noor had taken steps to remove the cubicles and most of the possessions in the house,though some furniture did remain. The planning enforcement officar was satisfied that any breach had ceased. 

In March 2012 ownership of the two properties was transferred to a charity, although Ahmed Noor registered and retained a charge over both. Two months later a planning enforcement case was opened and a notice was issued to Noor as the new owners had not yet registered their details with the Land Registry. Paragraph 5.26 provides a jaw-dropping revelation:

On 15 June 2012 Councillor Noor contacted the planning enforcement team to stress that he was no longer the owner of either property. Notes taken by the planning officer indicate that during the call … Noor claimed to be a councillor (at this time he was not a councillor) and close to Robin Wales the Mayor of Newham. As a result of the call a temporary stop notice was served.

Since then the charity has submitted two planning applications for the properties, both of which have been unsuccessful. Nonetheless some work appears to have been done and an enforcement case has been opened. The report notes that 77a Derby Road is not registered for either council tax or business rates.

After his election in May 2014 Councillor Noor filed a register of interests form that declared only his ownership of 46 Windsor Road. In September 2014 he updated it with a number of other properties, but his financial interest in 77a Derby Road has never been declared.

There are obviously a number of matters of significant concern here, which the Report handily summarises (paragraph 6.3):

As the owner of 238 Romford Road I would have expected Councillor Noor to have knowledge of the activities undertaken at the address (indeed the evidence from ‘tenants’ within the property suggests that Councillor Noor was fully aware). The property is/has been used as a hostel (in 2013) and an HMO (in 2015). purposes for which planning permission or licenses have not been granted. Councillor Noor is expected to have knowledge that such pemiissions were required and therefore he knowingly operated in breach of the Council’s regulations.

The accommodation provided at 238 Romford Road appears to have been of a very poor quality and raised a number of health and safety concerns for those living there. Those residing there claimed that Councillor Noor denied them tenancy agreements; instead they had to provide him (via third party) with cash payments for rent. Further there is evidence that Councillor Noor has evicted tenants without proper process.

Building work was carried out at a number of Councillor Noor’s properties without the appropriate licences and permissions being sought, resulting in some cases in Council monies being spent on investigation and legal action.

There appears to be significant doubt as to whether Councillor Noor has correctly registered his various properties for Business and/or Council Tax.

Councillor Noor seems to have wrongfully claimed to be a councillor while also stressing his association with the Mayor when talking to a planning enforcement officer in 2012.

Councillor Noor has failed to register all of his properties when called on to do so following his election. Further when he updated his register of interests in September 2014 he failed to include his financial interest in 77a Derby Road.

So what is to be done about all of this? As it turns out, not a lot.

A councillor is only subject to the provisions of the Code of Conduct when s/ he is acting in her/his official capacity and the Report finds that most of Cllr Noor’s activities in the complaint took place before he was elected in May 2014. So Noor cannot be held to account by the standards committee for anything he is alleged to have done before then. As the report notes, tartly:

…you have to actually be a councillor (rather than simply claiming to be one) for the Code to apply.

And as far as the things he has subsequently done are concerned, most of them are in relation to his activities as a private landlord rather than as a councillor. The only breach he is guilty of is never registering his interest in 77a Derby Road. But…

Having said that, I do understand how the complainant would have taken the view that Councillor Noor by his conduct might have brought the Council into disrepute. It is difficult to see how the surrounding publicity surrounding Councillor Noor’s conduct could have had anything but a detrimental effect on the reputation of both the Council and its members in general, particularly given recent Council campaigns to improve the behaviour of local landlords.  (paragraph 6.16)

There may be little the committee can do to Councillor Noor beyond reprimand him for not declaring 77a Derby Road and warn him as to his future conduct. That said, I would hope his Labour colleagues are less forgiving. I don’t expect he’ll be welcomed back into Group any time soon and the prospect of his name being on the ballot paper again as an official Labour candidate must be extremely remote.

Sadly, there is no ‘recall’ mechanism for councillors. Unless Noor does the decent thing and resigns the residents of Plaistow South are stuck with him until 2018. Which is an outrage: the Report throws into question his fitness for public office.