PLP Architecture is continuing to work on detailed designs for its highly controversial 1,524-home Westferry Printworks scheme – after it was stripped of planning consent amid a growing ‘cash-for-favours’ scandal
In its recently published accounts for the year ending December 2019, project backer Northern & Shell said that it was pressing on with the designs ‘so as to lose as little time as possible’ and still expects to get the go-ahead for the plans before the end of 2020.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick approved the £1 billion development – which includes banks, shops, restaurants, and a school – against the advice of his planning inspector in January. The consent was later quashed after the decision was found to be unlawful following legal action by Tower Hamlets Council, which fiercely opposes the scheme.
A decision will now be taken by a different secretary of state, who can choose whether to order a new planning inspection based on the submissions of interested parties, according to The Town and Country Planning Rules.
Documents published by the government show Jenrick deliberately fast-tracked a decision on the application so Conservative donor Richard Desmond, owner of Northern & Shell, could avoid a £45 million extra payment towards Tower Hamlets’ community infrastructure levy.
They also showed that members of the government’s planning casework unit believed the application should be rejected, with one email remarking: ‘We have tried as best as possible to reflect [Jenrick’s] reasons [for approval …] it is not the case that [the Secretary of State’s] subjective decision cannot be challenged at all.’
But PLP has been instructed to work up detailed designs as Northern & Shell continues to prepare to build the series of towers, up to 44 storeys high, contained in the application – as it believes it will receive planning consent in the coming months.
The admission is made in a strategic report which was signed off by Northern & Shell’s joint managing director, Robert Sanderson, on 22 June and published alongside the company’s annual accounts last week.
Sanderson wrote: ‘Naturally the group is disappointed with the interminable delay and the continued unwarranted obstruction of the local authorities.
‘However, we remain committed to deliver on our promise to bring the significant development to fruition […] and remain confident that the scheme will ultimately secure approval by the end of 2020.’
He added: ‘Aside from the planning machinations, the group is pleased with the overall progress of the development works which, to date, have progressed under the 2016 consent [for 772 homes] with the works being also applicable to the new scheme.
‘The group, at its own financial risk, is currently working with its professional team on the detailed design of the new scheme so as to lose as little time as possible in the development and sales programme.’
The remarks come despite strongly worded criticism of the scheme from the planning inspector, who said it would damage heritage assets, contain an unacceptable lack of affordable housing and have a harmful effect on the character of the area. The inspector concluded the scheme was ‘in conflict with the [local] development plan as a whole’.
The update also appears to undermine the government’s claim that Jenrick fast-tracked his decision in January to save the developer £45 million because the payment ‘may have [an] effect on the viability of a development and the likelihood that it will be built out in good time’.
Jon Biggs, mayor of Tower Hamlets, shot back at the accusation his council had provided an ‘unwarranted obstruction’ to the development.
He told the AJ: ‘It’s remarkable that Northern & Shell should chose to blame the council for this delay when we simply stood up for our residents and insisted the developer meet our minimum level of affordable housing and contribute to local infrastructure.
‘Tower Hamlets has some of the highest levels of new housing built every year in the capital but this scheme fell well short of our expectations. Given the council, the planning inspectorate and local people all think this scheme needs a rethink, it’s high time the developer takes note.’
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: ‘This remains a live planning matter, and it would be inappropriate to comment on issues that may be material to the consideration of the re-determined planning appeal.’
He added: ‘All parties involved will shortly receive a letter from the department setting out the next steps in this process.’
PLP and Northern & Shell declined to comment.
The revelation comes as Jenrick has been sent 26 questions about his decision to hand consent to Westferry Printworks application by the housing select committee, which has said ‘it respectfully disagrees with the Prime Minister’s assertion that “the matter is closed”,’ instead stressing: ‘Serious mistakes were made during this process.’
Jenrick has been asked to appear before the committee on 13 July.