Tower Hamlets Election: We're the nice guys, say Greens

By Rob Virtue on May 2, 2014 7:50 AM |

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With policies such as shackling Tesco's rapid expansion in east London and aiming for 75% affordable and social housing on new developments, the Green Party is placing itself firmly on the left in Tower Hamlets.

But mayoral candidate Chris Smith, who launched the manifesto at Brick Lane recently, is less keen to fix a position on the political spectrum.

"Left and right?" he said. "I try to avoid that. Yes, maybe we are left but I think we're just the nice guys."

The Greens are well known for their anti-airport and anti-river crossing views on this part of town but it's the party's policies against capitalist giants that stand out in this May's election.

So what's wrong with Tesco?

"There are too many of them," said Mr Smith. "And they wreck local businesses. I'm not going to say I never shop at Tesco. That would be lying. I do my best to go to the local market but often Tesco is the only place open late for vegetables. The problem is you're wiping out all other businesses.

"And they're not a good employer. On environmental practices they source products that use unsustainable palm oil, tuna that's been fished badly. They use zero hour contracts and don't pay the London Living Wage. They're not a good supporter of the community whatever they say."

Tesco, meanwhile, says it makes every effort to recruit from the local area.

Mr Smith is calling for a mathematical formula on the number of Tescos permitted in a fixed area.

The Green's bid for 75% of social housing puts them in line with prevailing views about the housing crisis - but at odds with the developers who have to make the numbers work. Such schemes would not be economically viable, they would argue, ensuring that no homes were built.

"How much money does a developer have to make on a development?" responds the Green candidate.

"What's more important is they're giving people jobs and helping the community. If they have their development, get people to work on it and still make a profit, that's great but how much profit do they need?"

Are developers holding councils to ransom?

"Absolutely," says Mr Smith. "And they're too scared to say no, because we've got a housing crisis."

He also wants Canary Wharf Group's focus on housing - such as the proposed Wood Wharf scheme - to have a greater emphasis on affordable.

"Those earning lots more than the average wage should have a right to live near to where they work but so should nurses, firefighters and the police," he said. "Why should they be priced out of the area where they are aiding the community?

"I won't say you can't have expensive housing - that would be ridiculous - but there has to be balance otherwise the cultural integrity would be ruined."

Mr Smith, a former television producer and now a digital marketer, is no political novice. He stood against the Labour candidate for this mayoral election, John Biggs, in the City and East London Assembly election in 2012.

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Mr Biggs won that by a landslide but it saw the Greens leapfrog the Liberal Democrats and the BNP to come third with the Conservatives in second.

The Green candidate also stood in the 2010 Parliamentary election against Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick.

While the party is gaining in popularity, Mr Smith admits his chances of winning are "a challenge" with a lack of resources compared to his rivals.

The headline contest has become a furious two-horse race between Mr Biggs and controversial incumbent Lutfur Rahman, with second votes possibly holding the key.

"I'd rather we didn't give a second preference to anybody," said Mr Smith. "I suppose, if it was a choice between Lutfur Rahman and John Biggs, John Biggs is a trusted public servant and, while he's not the most dynamic and charismatic person, he's very experienced in local government."

And Mr Rahman? Mr Smith criticises the current mayor's team for constant accusations of racism, but he's not convinced Mr Rahman is entirely bad for Tower Hamlets.

"He's introduced a living wage into council and suppliers," said Mr Smith. "I don't think he's totally bad but he's not totally great.

"He's got so much scandal attached to him now that even if wins again, he's so badly tainted. And with the investigation into the borough he's going to be hampered completely."