Pressure is mounting on Robert Jenrick to publish documents relating to his decision to approve PLP’s Westferry Printworks, after he admitted he had been lobbied by the developer, a prominent Conservative Party donor
The housing secretary sat next to property magnate Richard Desmond at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner in November, weeks before his shock decision on 14 January to approve permission for an application by Desmond’s Northern & Shell company for the 1,524-home project.
Jenrick’s rubberstamping of the project went against the advice of the government’s own planning inspector who, in a damning report, had recommended refusal for the huge application. The local planning authority, Tower Hamlets, had also been strongly opposed to the Isle of Dogs scheme.
Last week the government admitted Jenrick’s approval was ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’, his decision coming just 24 hours before Tower Hamlets’ revised Community Infrastructure Levy rates came into force on 15 January, which would have cost the developer an extra £40 million.
The housing secretary’s planning permission has now been quashed.
But Jenrick’s admission of bias meant he sidestepped a court order secured by Tower Hamlets Council to release internal housing ministry documents about how and why the decision was taken.
Mike Amesbury, Labour’s shadow housing and planning minister, has called on the documents to be immediately published and has written to cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill demanding an investigation into Jenrick’s decision.
Serious questions need to be answered about why this decision was taken, a decision which could have saved a Conservative Party donor tens of millions of pounds
‘Serious questions need to be answered about why this decision was taken, a decision which could have saved a Conservative Party donor tens of millions of pounds and in the process deprived local residents of vital infrastructure funding,’ said Amesbury.
‘It’s essential that we have transparency in processes such as this so that trust can be maintained in our housing and planning system. I hope the Cabinet Office will uphold this spirit of transparency, do the right thing and conduct a thorough investigation into the events around this decision.’
The Metropolitan Police has also confirmed officers from its Special Enquiry Team are ‘assessing’ an allegation received last Wednesday about a potential breach of the law relating to Jenrick’s decision.
A spokesperson for Robert Jenrick insisted the minister shut down conversation about the Westferry Printworks application when it was raised by Desmond at the November dinner, adding that there was no ‘actual bias’ in his decision.
PLP Westferry revised scheme September 2018
But John Biggs, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, said it was ‘vital’ the government released documents relating to the Westferry Printworks decision so ‘the public are able to have confidence in the planning system’.
‘The longer the government tries to hide in the shadows, the more people will wonder why. How can anyone have faith that planning applications will be fairly handled in the future if there is no transparency about what happened with Westferry?,’ he said.
It is understood Northern & Shell now has three options for moving forward with the Westferry Printworks site now its planning consent has been quashed.
As the government admitted to botching the planning appeal process, it could re-appeal, meaning there would be another planning inspection, followed by a formal decision by a different secretary of state.
However, the strength of opposition to the scheme from the first planning inspector – and the time and money lost through the legal process – could make this an unappealing choice.
The developer could also design a new scheme for the site, or it could proceed with an earlier consented scheme for 800 homes on the site.
PLP and Northern & Shell have not responded to a request for comment.