Richard Desmond’s latest bid to push through his Westferry Printworks development got underway at a new public inquiry this week, 12 months after Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick’s controversial backing for the 1,500-home plan ended up in the High Court.
Jenrick rubber-stamped the Isle of Dogs scheme on 14 January last year, saving the developer some £40 million under new Tower Hamlets council Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) rates which were introduced just a day later.
That ruling was quashed after Jenrick conceded “apparent bias” in his decision to overrule his own planning inspector’s recommendation. Desmond had discussed the application with the minister at a Tory fundraiser, subsequently donating £12,000, and had warned him by text that approval was needed “before Jan 15 otherwise payment of 45 million pounds to tower hamlets…”, it was later revealed.
Now the planning arguments for and against the scheme – as distinct from the bias arguments – are getting a fresh airing before the same planning inspector who recommended its refusal previously, but with the final decision to be taken by a different minister.
The inquiry opened yesterday, with the applicant’s barrister Paul Brown saying the situation has now changed – not least because £43 million CIL money is now payable, but also because the scheme would boost post-Covid recovery with new homes and new jobs in an area which has seen a 165 per cent increase in unemployment.
The government is planning an “almost Rooseveltian new deal” response to the crisis, Brown said. And the scheme, more than doubling the number of homes in plans previously agreed for the site in 2016, is sitting “ready and waiting to make its contribution to that endeavour”.
Paying £43 million in CIL money meant that only 21 per cent of the new housing would be affordable, Brown conceded. That percentage is now accepted by Tower Hamlets and City Hall as the maximum which could reasonably be provided, with CIL paid upfront, and still “more than twice the previously consented scheme”.
However, Sasha White, the barrister for Tower Hamlets, said the plans, which include five tower blocks ranging from 19 to 44 storeys stretched along the north side of Millwall Outer Dock, include a “disproportionately low increase” in affordable homes compared to the previous scheme of just 282 compared to 1,242 at market rate.
He added that the proposal continues to “drive a coach and horses” through Tower Hamlets and City Hall planning policies. The borough’s concerns remain those set out in the inspector’s previous 140 page report, which had resulted in the recommendation to Jenrick that permission be refused.
These included the scheme’s “grossly excessive height, scale and massing”, conflicting with established planning policy that development should “step down” in height to the south and west of the dominant Canary Wharf cluster of tall buildings and harming the character of the area.
The development, with just eight per cent family housing, also falls short of policy requirements for larger homes, White said. Its bulk would harm the settings of Tower Bridge and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, and have an adverse impact on sailing conditions in the dock, particularly for novice and inexperienced sailors.
Neither the agreement between the parties on affordable housing percentages, nor the extra housing compared to the previous scheme changed the balance of harm against benefits, White maintained. “The price paid in planning terms is out of all proportion to the benefits.”
Residents remain unconvinced too, said Canary Wharf councillor Kyrsten Perry: “The strength of feeling is the same as it was. The height, density and sheer scale will definitely affect the fabric and feel of the place.”
The inquiry continues and can be watched on the Planning Inspectorate’s YouTube channel.
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