Robert Jenrick told MPs there was ‘no bias whatsoever’ in his ill-fated decision to approve PLP’s 1,500-home Westferry Printworks scheme
The housing secretary insisted he was not influenced by the scheme’s backer Richard Desmond, despite sitting next to him at a dinner and exchanging text messages.
Jenrick approved the £1 billion east London project the day before Tower Hamlets Council’s community infrastructure levy changed, effectively saving Desmond’s Northern & Shell development vehicle £45 million.
The approval was later quashed by the government, which admitted it was unlawful on grounds of ‘apparent bias’.
But Jenrick said today: ‘The decision was the right one. There was no bias whatsoever. Any suggestion of that is extremely unfair and in most cases is a wilful misreading of events.’
Appearing virtually before the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee yesterday morning (22 July), he added: ‘Would it have been better not to have been sat next to the applicant? Yes. That wasn’t my decision. Would it have been better not to have had text messages with him? Yes and both myself and the department will learn lessons from the experience.’
Documents released by the government last month showed that Desmond – who gifted the Conservative Party £12,000 weeks after the Westferry approval – had sent a text message to the housing secretary saying: ‘We have to get the approval before January 15 otherwise [I will have to make a] payment of £45 million to Tower Hamlets.’
Jenrick said today: ‘With hindsight it would have been better not to exchange text messages with the applicant but those text messages make very clear that in accordance with the guidelines I said to the applicant that it was not appropriate to discuss the application. On the first occasion where the applicant made any comment beyond that, I went back to him swiftly and made that very clear.’
PLP Westferry revised scheme September 2018
The housing secretary said the scheme only came to him because of Tower Hamlets Council’s ‘failure’ to make a decision on it. He suggested the committee of MPs probed the council on the cancellation of a series of meetings he said could have decided on the application before it reached ministers.
Jenrick added that there was a ‘generational challenge’ to build more homes, and that it was right to prioritise brownfield sites amid existing clusters of high-rise buildings.
The under-fire minister went on to defend the timing of his decision. He said: ’I think it was perfectly fair to get this done one way or another before the CIL charge came in. Who that benefits is of no interest to me. I’m not interested in the personal finances of the applicant, I’m interested in making a fair decision on the basis of the facts before a material change in circumstances occurs.’
He claimed the scheme might not have gone ahead otherwise. Jenrick said: ’The inspector’s report restated the point that the viability of the project might be compromised were the CIL to come in, and obviously the developer in their submission to the planning inspectorate made that point as well.’
During the committee meeting he was challenged by Conservative MP Bob Blackman challenged about the affordable housing element of the scheme and whether he regretted approving the east London project given the levels had fallen from 35 per cent of the development in the initial plan to 21 per cent in the final application.
Jenrick said that, as secretary of state, his role in planning decisions was to give a ‘binary’ yes or no decision and that he could not demand or request changes to an application.
He claimed it was better to have the development with the lower affordable housing provision rather than none at all. He said: ‘The role of the secretary of state is not to gameplay what may or may not happen later on in that process to negotiate.’