The mayor of Tower Hamlets on why London’s councils need power to crack down on rogue developers

The two faces of Tower Hamlets: The Robin Hood Housing Estate and Canary Wharf in 2008. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets on the problem of rogue developers.

A council’s relationship with property developers is always tricky. On the one hand, government cuts to council budgets have meant deals with developers are often the only game in town when it comes to delivering the house building numbers we need to solve the housing crisis. On the other, that gives developers significant power to try and negotiate down levels of affordable housing and increase their profit margins.

For Tower Hamlets council, our focus is on delivering homes which are genuinely affordable to local people. Whilst we have ambitious plans to build new affordable council homes ourselves in the coming years, we also rely on maximising the amount of affordable housing being included in new schemes by developers. Developers, on the other hand, are private companies ultimately focused on their profit margins.

Managing that tricky relationship, balancing very different priorities, is always going to be hard – but it’s in both sides’ interest. That’s why, when developers do cross the line, we must come down hard on them.

Last week was one of those occasions, when overnight a developer illegally demolished three Conservation Area Victorian cottages on the Isle of Dogs. Despite having had requests to demolish them rejected, the owners of the land literally ploughed ahead at the weekend when officials weren’t watching.

The homes, which had survived the Blitz, are now reduced to rubble. For our part the council are looking at all legal options available, including rebuilding these cottages brick by brick – but it opens up a broader question about how development works in our city.

Whilst rogue demolitions are a first for Tower Hamlets, it’s not unheard of. Last year, the Carlton Tavern, a historic pub in Maida Vale was illegally levelled by developers. The Council ordered it to be rebuilt but the developers ignored the ruling in the end, forcing the secretary of state to set up a public enquiry which ruled the developers should rebuild the site.

London is one of the fastest changing cities in the world, with my borough of Tower Hamlets home to massive amounts of development. To make that work we need constructive and respectful relationships between councils, developers and local people. We might not always agree – but more often than not we should be able to strike a balance.

The mayor of London has talked a lot about punishing rogue landlords; we might consider extending that to developers too. I’d like to see action to crack down on bad practice, potentially banning rogue developers from acquiring planning permission on sites they have cleared illegally, but that would require a change in legislation.

To make development work for the capital, we need it to be done in partnership with local people, not bulldozed through in secret.

John Biggs is the Labour mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.