Something stinks in east London
We can't help but wonder — could the bin strike have been averted?
Afternoon — commiserations to our readers in east London, who’ve had a pretty gross time of it during the bin strike. Not to miff you off even further, but some tell the Spy that the whole thing could have been avoided. We go behind the scenes of the Tower Hamlets bin strike after your briefing below.
Plus: a senseless killing in Croydon, an unexpected demolition order, and a Pret price backlash.
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What we’ve spied
🚨 Tragedy in Croydon when a 15-year-old girl was fatally stabbed on Wednesday while trying to protect her friend on the way to school. Elianne Andam is the 15th teenager murdered in London this year and her death has drawn a large amount of national attention this week. Witnesses say Andam was on a number 60 bus on Wednesday morning when an argument between her friend and a boy flared up after he tried to give her a note and roses. The group stepped off the bus as the encounter grew tenser, and resulted in Andam reportedly being stabbed in the neck with a long blade at roughly 8.30am. Andam’s devastated family have made a series of heartbreaking statements in the wake of the murder, and they attended a vigil at the scene on Thursday evening. By Friday a 17-year-old boy had been charged with murder, as well as possession of a knife. Andam’s death has reignited scrutiny of knife crime in Croydon and wider London. Pastor Lorraine Jones, a campaigner whose son was fatally stabbed in 2014, says there is a “state of emergency” when it comes to knife crime and young people. It’s also prompted concern about the safety of young women in cities — Nadia Whittome, a Labour MP, posted on X/Twitter: “No girl should fear for her life for rejecting a man. No girl should lose her life protecting her friend”.
👮 Soldiers were nearly deployed on the streets of London this week when the Met Police’s firearms officers handed in their guns in protest. By the time the Spy arrived in your inbox last Sunday, hundreds of firearms officers had reportedly stepped back from duty, fearing their job ‘wasn’t worth the risk’ in the wake of charges being brought against a fellow officer for the murder of Chris Kaba. The unnamed officer, known only as NX121, is alleged to have killed Kaba, a 24-year-old construction worker who was tailed by an unmarked police car and then shot in the head last September in Streatham Hill, despite being unarmed. The crisis in the ranks meant the Met had to request support from the army — but as of Friday the firearms officers have returned back to duty. Their minds may have been eased by the Met commissioner, the prime minister and the home secretary all expressing their support for firearms officers in the wake of the rebellion. Some in the media have sympathy for the difficult, split-second decisions the officers have to make on the job. Others take a dimmer view, suggesting the backlash to the charges only serves to “delegitimise” the investigation into Kaba’s murder. Trouble might flare back up again though, with news on Friday that the police watchdog has recommended a different Met officer should face a misconduct hearing over the shooting of Jermaine Baker in Wood Green in 2015.
🏘️ Embarrassment and outrage at Greenwich council’s order to tear down two ‘mutant’ flat blocks only completed last year. The council says parts of the Mast Quay development in Woolwich need to be knocked down due to 26 changes to its approved plans that were made during construction without permission. Some of the deviations are architectural — a bigger footprint and different cladding — but Greenwich has also hit out at a lack of a playground and gardens, inadequate disabled access, windows smaller than agreed and fewer shop units than planned. Residents that have already moved into the blocks only found out about the decision from media reports, and they're understandably livid. The developer, Comer Homes Group, intends to fight Greenwich council’s demolition order, saying it was “surprised and extremely disappointed” by the move. No wonder, given some industry sources say it will cost £180m to tear the flats down and rebuild.
📱 Old Twitter history continues to haunt the Conservative’s candidate for London mayor, as Susan Hall now defends liking a post praising Enoch Powell. Hall says she “didn’t mean to cause offence” when she liked the 2020 image of Powell next to the words “it’s never too late to save your country”. There’s no denying Hall was a Twitter power user — previous posts include calling TV personality Gemma Collins a “stupid fat blonde woman” and quote-tweeting an article alleging the 2020 US election was stolen from Donald Trump. And yet despite her campaign’s rocky start, a new poll this week found that Hall is just 3 percentage points away from winning the London mayoralty in 2024.
🍸 Plans have been unveiled to turn a vast network of spy tunnels under London (not ours 🕵️) into a tourist attraction with its own bar. Accessed via a side road near Chancery Lane station, the mile-long tunnel network was built during the Blitz, and was once home to a secretive government bureau charged with making high-tech spy gadgets. If that sounds awfully James Bond, it’s because it is: the bureau was apparently the inspiration for the “Q-branch” – where Bond goes to pick his gizmos. New plans to spruce up the tunnels and open them up to the public, expected to cost £220 million, are being proposed by an Australian banker called Angus Murray. The plans (detailed on a glitzy new website) include the creation of a museum and the reopening of London’s “deepest licensed bar”, where visitors can grab a Martini 40 metres below ground. If he’s given the green light from planners, Murray reckons the tunnels could be open by 2027.
👀 Not just London’s but Europe’s highest free viewing platform is set to open next month at the top of 22 Bishopsgate tower. The tower, which is the tallest building in the City, has been kitted out with high-speed lifts to whisk visitors up to the 58th floor in just 41 seconds. At 254 metres above the ground, the gallery is a tad taller than the Shard’s 244 metre-high one. Crucially it’s also free, compared to the £32 charged by the Shard. The gallery has been named ‘Horizon 22’ and can be booked online here.
🏢 More signs this week that the London office is dying — they’ve lost a fifth of their value over the past year. On average, London office values have dropped 17.1 per cent since summer 2022, having fallen in each of the past five quarters, data from BNP Paribas shows. This week also saw tech giant Meta announce it has paid £149m to break its lease on a central London office near Regent’s Park, as the company embraces hybrid working. Who can blame them, given the recent discovery that office worker favourite Pret has been charging £7.15 for a cheese sandwich at a branch in Kensington.
🔍 Some other bits that caught our eye:
Thanks to the University of Cambridge, there’s a new map of every murder in London in Medieval times, complete with all the gory details
Steve Coogan has been cast in a stage adaption of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, coming to the Noël Coward theatre in London next autumn
A video of a west London MP belting out ‘Don’t you want me, baby’ at karaoke
Celebrity chef Richard Corrigan led a herd of sheep across Southwark Bridge, making use of an ancient right to freely herd sheep over a London bridge
A baby beaver has been born in London for the first time in 400 years
An east London girls’ football team is considering legal action after being turfed out of their training ground with no explanation, after turning up to find the boys’ team running around instead
Two very different stories are now being told about the Tower Hamlets bin strike, which saw rubbish pile up in the East End until a deal was agreed on Tuesday. One is of a borough mayor rescuing residents from the filth as soon as negotiations with the union allowed. The other is of an entirely avoidable week of carnage, triggered by a cash-strapped council thinking it could dodge a £250,000 bill for its staff, only to U-turn in the face of bad press.
Once strike action began in the east London borough on September 18, the impact soon became hard to ignore. Social media was flooded with images and videos of rubbish overflowing throughout Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Mile End, festering on pavements and spilling into bike lanes. The sorry state of Brick Lane became a regular photo op. One of the massive mountains of rubbish was splashed on the front of the Evening Standard. National outlets gleefully ran stories on the rats that moved in.
It was an awful lot of attention — or “immense reputational damage,” as Tower Hamlets councillors put it when they met the day after the strike finally ended. “This week we were back in the gutter press,” lamented Wapping councillor Abdal Ullah to colleagues at the town hall on Wednesday. But for borough mayor Lutfur Rahman and his party Aspire, who have been in charge of the council since they beat Labour in last year’s election, there was cause for celebration. “The resolution of this strike reiterates the good, healthy relationship between the mayor, the council, trade unions and the workforce,” read the statement Aspire councillors voted to endorse at the meeting. “This has been recognised by the Unite the Union, who have confirmed that ‘Lutfur Rahman played a part in helping to resolve’ the recent discussions around pay”.
Others don’t buy it. They have a very different account of how the bin strike unfolded behind the scenes. “If Rahman had been on the ball, the whole thing could have been averted,” Limehouse councillor James King of the Labour group told the Spy after the meeting. Refuse workers in Tower Hamlets ended up with a one-off payment of £750 after their ten days of strike action, as well as some agency staff being brought on the council’s books permanently. Refuse workers in the London borough of Newham got the exact same deal when they also threatened to strike this month — except their council agreed without a single employee needing to walk out.
The difference, according to King, is that the leadership at Tower Hamlets thought — and hoped — they could ride out the storm. “I think the mayor of Tower Hamlets is governed by his pride and his power of communication,” he tells us. “They thought they could get away with blaming the strike on national factors. That's very much what the communications coming out of Aspire were saying: ‘This is a recent national strike, it has nothing to do with us’”. King says he was also told by the council’s chief bureaucrat that averting the strike would cost £250,000 — a tough pill to swallow, given the council has some pretty huge spending commitments on the horizon. Last month Rahman came under fire for a “lavish” £400,000 planned makeover of his office at the town hall in Whitechapel, including a budget of £50,000 for a meeting table and 30 luxury chairs and £25,000 for a kitchenette. There are big flagship policies in the borough that need paying for too, like free school meals for all secondary school students, not just primary schools, as is being offered across all of London by mayor Sadiq Khan at the moment.
So when refuse workers began their strike in the borough, the Tower Hamlets negotiating team hadn’t put a single offer on the table, according to King. It was only as the strike snowballed, and as local fury and national attention grew, that prompted a change in strategy. Late on Monday, September 25, nine days into the strike, an offer finally came through to Unite, the union organising the strike and representing refuse workers in London. It was put to a vote and accepted by workers the next day. As King tells it: “The argument happening behind the scenes was ‘we actually can't afford this’. But I think when it became clear that their communications weren't working — and that the strike was going to go on for three more weeks — they decided they couldn't afford not to anymore.”
Whether the strike was avoidable or not may seem a moot point, now that the bin backlog is finally being cleared. Yet there are reports of some Tower Hamlets residents, businesses and flat blocks paying from their own pocket for private refuse collection during the carnage. “The council definitely should be compensating them,” King says. “It could easily set up a set of funds with an application process.”
Tower Hamlets council didn’t respond to the Spy’s request for comment on King’s account of the bin strike. So we’ll leave you with more from the statement Aspire adopted on Wednesday. “The ending of the strike demonstrates that there are cohesive, productive and robust relationships across the council, and how open dialogue and frank discussions can lead to resolutions and results,” it reads.
“Where possible, all workers should be guaranteed the right to stable, secure work as and when they want it.
“Mayor Lutfur Rahman has always looked to secure such employ for working people across Tower Hamlets — whether in the leisure service, care service and now in the council’s refuse service.”
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