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Jenrick insists ‘no bias’ in quashed Westferry decision

Robert Jenrick

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

PLP Westferry revised scheme September 2018

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.’


Readers' comments (4)

  • 'Nothing to see here, folks' - yes there is, Mr Jenrick - and (outside architecture) I wonder if this is going to become a chorus from Jenrick and others who govern us, in the matter of national security - and stability - and their Russian connections.

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  • So if I take a bribe (in this case 'donation' from Desmond to the Tories) in exchange for a favour (saving him £45 mil) , and send a text to Desmond saying 'its not appropriate to take bribes', that means my hands are clean does it?

    Don't you just love the Tories, in whatever they do that is blatantly fishy to say the least, they just come out and deny it and that's the end of story. 'Don't look at the bit that's dodgy! look here, look at the bit where I look clean!'

    From Boris to Cummings to the simple Jack who exchanged £45mil of public money for a mere 12k in donations, how long are we going to let them get away with it?

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  • Unclear why Jenrick didn't let this go to a hearing if, as he asserts, there was "no bias whatsoever. Any suggestion of that is extremely unfair and in most cases is a wilful misreading of events."

    Concern perhaps that his decision, going against a well-argued position put by the inspector, would not hold up on planning grounds, leaving aside the bias claim? Withdrawing kept the application alive; what are its chances at the second determination though?

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  • For Charles Wright: As this saga unfolds the character of this government minister is looking increasingly like a combination of low cunning, conceit and brass neck - and while cynics might argue that's par for the course in Westminster just now, it's surely going to direct attenton to his seemingly rapid acquisition of personal wealth, and in particular just exactly what benefit he might have gained from his Russia days, and how.

    And in the context of planning procedures closer to home, there's the little matter of just how he came to gain approval for the extension of his own house in Westminster courtesy of the Conservative councillors after their planners had turned him down three times.

    Then there's the matter of a substantial residential and hotel development at Sandown Park racecourse.
    The history of this seems to have some parallels with the Westferry Printworks affair: the development is backed by prominent Conservatives and party donors in the Jockey Club who - following refusal by the planning authority because it's on green belt land and has only 20% affordable housing content - have gone to appeal.
    However, there'll be no planning inquiry, because Jenrick has called it in for his decision - just like Westferry Printworks, and Victoria Tower Gardens (though in the latter case he's one of the MPs promoting the development, and so having called it in he'll leave the decision to an underling).

    You couldn't make this up, in an honest and competent government, and this cronyvirus surely needs urgent eradication to ensure that the likes of Jenrick cease and desist from their unacceptable behaviour.

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