The Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, Tower Hamlets: (Simon Balson / Alamy)
Artillery Row

The bludgeoning of Brick Lane

Prioritising millionaires over working class communities is now standard practice for London Labourites

Editor’s note: This article has been amended to remove the erroneous statement that Councillors Kahar Chowdhury and Kevin Brady overrode a motion to defer the vote until more people were present.

In the latest betrayal of London’s working class communities, Labour Councillors in Tower Hamlets have gleefully twisted the knife that they long ago plunged into the heart of Brick Lane. At a planning meeting where only three people voted, two men alone decided to approve plans for a late-1990s-glass-box-and-Starbucks-warehouse style, five storey shopping mall and corporate office block extension to, and part demolition of, the Old Truman Brewery. These two men did so in spite of over 7000 officially filed objections, in spite of statutory consultation advice that the development would cause harm to the character of the Conservation Area and the setting of listed buildings, and in spite of the desperate pleadings of the local Bangladeshi community that it would be devastating for them and their still recovering businesses. 

Councillor Kahar Chowdhury didn’t want to be “unfair” to the developer

But how was such a sprawling decision ever in the hands of so few people? Well, it shouldn’t have been. Of the seven strong committee, one councillor had previously been removed for non-attendance of meetings; another had not been present at the April meeting which previously discussed the scheme, and so was disallowed from voting at this one; another was on maternity leave; another was quarantined and attended via Zoom — also disallowed from voting. That left just three people to make the decision. Abdul Mukit MBE (who, though I have decried his performance in the past, was the only one to even vaguely represent the sweeping concerns of his constituents) voted to refuse permission, and should be applauded. Councillors Kahar Chowdhury and Kevin Brady (who could have deferred the vote until more were present but chose not to) should not.

Imagine the coldest, wettest, weakest handshake you’ve ever received. If that handshake were a man, that man would be Councillor Kevin Brady. A failed actor*, Brady describes himself as an “oop North native” and works full time at a bottom-rung-of-the-ladder talent agency*. He is a classic, bourgeois citizen of nowhere; a few years ago he didn’t live in the area, a few years from now he won’t live in the area. He has no relevant expertise, beyond time spent volunteering as a school governor despite having no background in education and no children*.

Brady put out a statement with bland, meaningless weasel-words in which he essentially said that it wasn’t his fault

Kevin Brady, then, epitomises the worst kind of New Labour busy-body culture-tourist; blowing in on the wind and imposing his cut-and-paste opinions, forcing locals to bend to his arm’s length lack of ideals, exploiting their homes and communities as playgrounds in which to roleplay his delusions of relevance. When he inevitably moves on to some leafy suburb in the home counties he will have left the wreckage of Tower Hamlets in his faded, late 90s, corporate-hip image. Kevin Brady IS gentrification.

Councillor Kahar Chowdhury, at least, actually has some connection to the area. He grew up in Poplar, attended a local school, interned for the local MP, and now works as a litigation solicitor with a focus on housing. The core reason he gave for voting to approve the development is that, regardless of the potential damage the scheme might wreak at a local and demographic level, he didn’t want to be “unfair” to the developer. Extraordinary talk for a local Labour Councillor, and one of the reasons, perhaps, that so many on the social media are calling him a traitor to his community.

Soulless: The planned development

This is a development that the council acknowledges will see 90 per cent of the newly built office space as explicitly unaffordable to locals, and all but 3 of the new retail units available to generic High Street chains. A council which acknowledges that similar developments at the Fruit & Wool Exchange and Spitalfields Market saw the local businesses decimated and the new employment taken up by non-locals. A council whose Development Manager (Paul Buckingham) actively acknowledges that 7122 people objected to this, then states that “We are cognisant of levels of objection, but planning deals with the building not the occupants.” A council that acknowledges the social cleansing inherent to the development, and simply shrugs and says that the planning system “can’t deal with that”. I repeat, this is a Labour council.

Brady put out a statement on Twitter soon afterwards, predictably bloated with bland, meaningless weasel-words and therapist-speak in which he essentially said that it wasn’t his fault, he had no choice, he doesn’t actually have any power really and just exists to rubber stamp and maybe next time. He then disabled responses to it, as his “mental health” had to be prioritised over actually engaging with the residents whose lives will be forever altered by his choice. The lives he acknowledged dismissively in the meeting with the line “some people will be disappointed”. Over 300 small businesses currently operate in the Old Brewery complex. Brick Lane has been called the “most important Asian community outside of Asia”. The buildings alone have over 300 years of history, twined with the waves of immigration and settlement that defines East London. All of this is now to be sacrificed for the chain stores and swollen rents of a soulless shopping mall and corporate office plaza. The fact that Brady cannot comprehend this blow to the community as anything deeper than mere “disappointment” leaves me gaping. I repeat: Labour.

Perhaps the campaigners fighting for Brick Lane should threaten Labour’s safe seats at the next election?

The prioritising of corporate millionaires over working class communities has, alas, become standard practice for the latest generation of London Labourites. It is a betrayal of all that the party was formed to represent and uphold, and a cruel bait-and-switch on the few constituencies still voting for them. How can it possibly be the case that a decision worth so many millions, and so many thousands upon thousands of lives, which will permanently disfigure and redefine the area for generations to come, was made by only two low-level, part-time Councillors of minimal experience, minimal expertise, and limited ability? By any measure, the system has failed. Will Khan step in? Will Gove? Tower Hamlets is the third richest local authority in the country with the highest rates of child poverty in Britain. I repeat: the system is broken. Who will fix it? Who cares? Not Kevin Brady. Not Tower Hamlets Labour.

“People are not against change. They want change, but they want that change to have a meaningful and material impact on their lives and not to displace them from their community … Too often, Labour councillors in areas like Tower Hamlets have taken for granted they are safe seats. They utterly infantilise the local Bengali community … These individuals in power use their bureaucratic vernacular as a veneer to claim superiority over those they’re supposed to represent. There is a disdain for the working class communities because of their proximity to land worth in the millions. They will always back profit. … This is a problem w/ Labour across the country. The way it takes advantage of its racialised communities and assumes they will never budge. Not only is this fork of thought entrenched in racist thinking but also exposes how little attention you’ve been paying to your local area.”

Those are the words of Dr Fatima Rajina, founder of NijjorManush, an independent campaigning group for Bengalis and Bangladeshis in the UK which has been a shining light (alongside the Spitalfields Trust) throughout this sordid, murky planning process. Labour is not working for Tower Hamlets. It hasn’t for a long time. It doesn’t care. The committed campaigners fighting the battle for Brick Lane deserve better. The next local elections are in May 2022. They should threaten the safe seats. They should form a grassroots political party and stand themselves to try and fix the endless mess of exploitation and local corruption that has defined Tower Hamlets for too long. Nobody else is going to. Kevin Brady certainly won’t.

*A brief correction, in response to welcome clarification from Councillor Kevin Brady: 1) there was no formal motion to defer the meeting; 2) Kevin doesn’t considered himself a “failed” actor, because after finishing drama school and briefly attempting an acting career it was, in fact, his own decision to give up and do something easier; 3) Kevin does not work for a bottom-rung-of-the-ladder talent agency. It is a solidly middling agency, pumping out many forgettable faces into supporting roles on television and stage over the years. The rest was quibbling about how long he’s lived in his ward, what defines “a few”, and protesting that there’s nothing in the rules that says he isn’t allowed to be a school governor. Kevin didn’t have anything to say about the accusations of gentrification, social cleansing, prioritising corporate interests, orchestrated demographic change or the betrayal of local working class communities. Clearly those issues matter far less than whether or not he failed as an actor.

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