Housing secretary Robert Jenrick was ‘insistent’ on pushing through the 1,500-home Westferry Printworks scheme, saving its backer Conservative party donor Richard Desmond £45 million, documents reveal
Jenrick previously denied there was any ‘actual bias’ behind his contentious approval for PLP’s £1 billion east London scheme, against the planning inspector’s advice. His unexpected decision came just 24 hours before Labour-held Tower Hamlets Council increased its community infrastructure levy rates on 15 January.
It has since emerged that Jenrick had sat next to developer and media magnate Desmond at a Conservative party fundraising dinner in November; that Desmond had brought up his development company Northern & Shell’s Westferry Printworks scheme at the dinner; and that Desmond had gifted the party £12,000 just two weeks after Jenrick’s approval.
But the documents released by the MHCLG, following an opposition day debate on the minister’s highly controversial decision, show Jenrick made a concerted effort to rule on the application before the January 15 deadline. The newly published correspondence also include a series of text messages which mention arrangements for a possible visit to the site.
Two days after the November dinner, Desmond texted Jenrick saying: ‘Good news finally the inspectors reports have gone to you today, we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!’
On the same day an aide to Jenrick sent a message to an official at MHCLG saying: ‘SoS [secretary of state] has flagged a case in Westferry London Docklands (redevelopment of a printworks or something like that?).
‘He understands a ministerial decision is likely to be coming up on this soon and also there may be some sensitivity with timing of final decision. Given this he has asked that advice be prepared for the first few days of the new Gov.’
A text from Desmond to Jenrick on 23 December makes clear: ‘We have to get the approval before January 15 otherwise [I will have to make a] payment of £45 million to Tower Hamlets.’
Another email sent by an official at MHCLG on the week of the planning decision said: ‘On timing, my understanding is that SoS is/was insistent that decision issued this week ie tomorrow – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime.’
Government planning rules explain that the housing secretary has a quasi-judicial role, which means he ‘should act and be seen to act fairly and even-handedly’ to all parties involved in a planning dispute.
That means ministers should avoid meetings with applicants and, where that is impossible, should ‘not discuss the particular planning case’.
The guidance makes clear: ‘Privately made representations should not be entertained unless other parties have been given the chance to consider them and comment.’
Elsewhere in the tranche of documents published last night (24 June), an official communication reveals that the internal planning teams at MHCLG were in favour of dismissing the application but were overruled by Jenrick.
In another internal email, an official complains that ‘we have tried as best as possible to reflect his reasons [for approval] in the DL. It is not the case that the SoS subjective decision cannot be challenged at all.’
It goes on: ‘We have to provide [REDACTED] reasoning in the DL as to justify why the SoS is going against the recc of inspector and officials. That is what we have tried to do.’
Last month the government admitted Jenrick’s approval was ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’ and the housing secretary’s planning permission was subsequently quashed.
Tower Hamlets had previously asked the High Court to order the government to disclose documents that it said would show Jenrick was influenced by a desire to help the developer save millions of pounds.
According to the council: ‘Faced with the prospect of having to release documentation relating to the decision, the secretary of state chose to allow the planning permission to be quashed.’
However, all those documents appear now to have been released and pressure is now mounting on Jenrick to resign.
A spokesperson for MHCLG said: ‘The Secretary of State has been clear that he took his decision in line with his long stated views that we face a generational challenge to build the homes of all types the country needs.’
‘The timing and effect of a pending new Community Infrastructure Levy tariff is a valid material consideration, as it may have effect on the viability of a development and the likelihood that it will be built out in good time, and the published documents show this was a considered decision taken on its merits and with an open mind.’
But John Biggs, mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: ‘The revelations about the Westferry Printworks decision have blown apart confidence in our planning system under Mr Jenrick. The documents he was forced to release are damning and it looks like he rushed through the decision to help save the developer money and short-change my residents.’
He added: ‘The Minister referred to our borough as “rotten” and messages from the developer called our council “Marxist”. This name calling says more about them and their disregard for my residents whose borough it is, and who rightly want much needed affordable homes and money for local services.’