Rotten Borough Heather Bonfield: unelected consultant tries to ban anti-Olympic protest demonstration

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By the time this post goes up, the big Counter Olympics Network will hopefully have left Mile End park and will be ambling peacefully in the direction of Wennington Green (via Bow Road, Fairfields Road, Roman Road, etc).

The organisers do have the permission of the police and Transport for London for their route. It is simply not clear whether we have been able to get the agreement of Tower Hamlets council for speeches after the demonstration, despite the fact that every demo in Britain in the last 20 years has ended with speeches of one sort or their another. Rather the council’s good idea has been that demonstrators should get to Wennington Green, enter it, and then “disperse” (whatever that means).

What makes this more troubling is that the demonstrators are told by the local councillor (Bill Turner) and by the local MP (Rushanara Ali) that we have their support. Indeed the Mayor, the senior elected person with responsibility for the council has so distanced himself from his own officers, as to convey a message to the organisers, via councillor Rania Khan, that the event should go ahead as planned.

For those interested in this story, as a case-study of how local democracy does – or doesn’t work – here are the key dates:

On 11 June 2012, CON  first wrote to Heather Bonfield the interim head of Culture at Tower Hamlets informing her of our intention to hold an event starting at Mile End Park marching through roads controlled by your authority and ending at Victoria Park.  She wrote back on 22 June as follows:

“Thank you for your email.  My apologies for not coming back to you
sooner. I have to advise you that the Council does not grant you
permission to use either park and if you make a formal application –
which we require – it will not be approved.”

“During the Olympic period our major parks, especially Victoria Park,
will be extremely busy and we will not permit any additional use.”

“We have advised the Police that we are refusing your request.” (emphasis added)

Officers of the council were present at a meeting with CON, the Metropolitan Police and Transport for London on 9 July where this matter was revisited. Michael Rowan, Head of Tower Hamlets Parks, was asked whether it remained the council’s position that it would not allow an event ending at Victoria Park, and answered that the council had changed its position and would allow an event provided that it ended at Wennington Green rather than Victoria Park.

On 10 July Michael Rowan again informed CON that speeches and other events would be allowed provided only that there was no indication from the police that they would be unsafe. He wrote: “The one issue that concerns us here is the use of Wennington Green for speeches etc as when I approached the meeting I had assumed it was to be used as a dispersal site. I have asked my colleague who is sending the paperwork to comment on the health and safety implications of use of that particular site with the number of people potentially surging forward to see or hear what is going on. So long as the police are content that there is no health and safety issue then that is fine” (emphasis added).

There was then a lengthy to-and-fro about the details of the event, with CON being asked to send an event plan, which we did, and there were various email and phone exchanges in which there was no suggestion that the council was against the event.

Then, quite out of the blue, on 17 and 20 July, Michael Rowan emailed CON, copying in Ms Bonfield (the original decision-maker of 22 June, but who had then been on leave and played no part in any public exchanges between 22 June and 17 July) to say that they would not allow anyone from CON to enter Wennington Green save for the sole purpose of dispersal.

On 23 July, CON threatened Tower Hamlets with Judicial Review, with the result that at 5pm on 25 July, Tower Hamlets wrote to us backing down, but sending us a list of conditions for the event, none of which had been put to us before, including a prohibition on “marquees” but not on “gazebos” (and what exactly is the difference?), and a ban on sound traveling outside the park (given the limited strength of our amplifiers that will present no difficulty), and a newly dreamed-of rule that there should be no more than 1 hour of speeches and no other activities (ie an absolute ban on a speech delivered in the form of a poem, or as a sketch).

We responded, accepting some but not all of their conditions, at 10am on Friday, and have heard nothing since.

The best explanation for the council’s official hostility to the event appears to be that Heather Bonfield has objected to the event and on her return from leave brow-beat more junior council officers into accepting her decision – despite the support it had from every publicly elected politician with any relationship to the area. There was less hostility in early July, when she was away. On her return, she was able to foist her decision onto her more junior colleagues.

Heather Bonfield, the author of the charming correspondence I quoted above, is not even an employee of Tower Hamlets council, but is a self-employed consultant trading under the originally-titled name “Heather Bonfield Consultancy Limited”.

As to how much she is paid: according to her own company records at Companies House, in 2006-7, the turnover of her business was around £75,000; but the documents she has filed at Companies House in 2011 and 2012 are not so gauche as to reveal her present income.

Express journalist and long-time watcher of the council, Ted Jeory, reports she is is being paid £800 per day, and around £200,000 p/a altogether. But, given the paucity of the information she has filed, I cannot confirm that. What I do note is that if Jeory is right that means she is trousering more than her own Chief Executive, who is paid on a salary scale from £165,000 to “just”  £194,000 per year.

There is something troubling about the idea that someone who is not even employed by Tower Hamlets has the authority to countermand the elected councillor, the elected MP and the elected Mayor.

Without speculating at all as to the politics or ethics of this arrangement: the demonstration – and the speeches – go ahead.

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