Pressure continues to mount on housing, communities and local secretary Robert Jenrick over his controversial approval of a 1,500 home development in London’s docklands. The beleaguered minister now has until Friday to respond to a call from Commons housing, communities and local government (HCLG) committee chair Clive Betts to disclose all relevant correspondence and documentation on his decision.
Jenrick’s green light for the proposal, for tower blocks rising to 46 storeys at the former Westferry Printworks site on the north side of Millwall outer dock on the Isle of Dogs, was dramatically overturned last month in a High Court settlement after the minister conceded “apparent bias” in his decision-making.
Jenrick rubber-stamped the plans, against the advice of his own planning inspector, the day before Tower Hamlets Council agreed new rates for its community infrastructure levy (CIL) charged on new developments as a contribution to local infrastructure – saving the applicant, Tory donor Richard Desmond, an estimated £40 million.
It was later revealed that Desmond had raised the case with Jenrick at a Conservative Party fundraiser last year. Electoral Commission figures show a donation of £12,000 from Desmond to the party on 29 January, two week’s after Jenrick’s decision in his favour. Jenrick had not discussed the matter at the fundraiser, and there was no “actual bias” in his decision, according to government statements. Government policy is “in no way influenced by party donations”, the party said.
But “important questions” remained as to “how and why planning permission was granted in the first place,” Betts says in his letter to the minister. “Without transparency, this matter could lead to an erosion of trust in the integrity of the planning system and in our wider democratic process.”
Disclosure of documentation is expected to reveal the advice which led Jenrick to bring forward his decision on the scheme to the day before Tower Hamlet’s new CIL rates were agreed, amid concerns that further delay might adversely impact the “viability” of the development, as well as shedding light on the minister’s rejection of his own planning inspector’s finding that the scheme would “not offer the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing”.
The developers had originally proposed 35 per cent affordable homes, in line with London Plan policy set out by Mayor Khan, but dropped that offer to 21 per cent when the scheme went to appeal. Yet other recently-approved schemes, including Poplar Gasworks and Skylines off Marsh Wall, had agreed 35 per cent affordable quotas on top of liability for CIL, said Tower Hamlets councillor Andrew Wood, who represents the Isle of Dogs.
The controversy raises “fundamental issues about the process by which ministers make decisions like this,” Wood says in his own letter to Betts calling for an inquiry. “As a local councillor, it is striking how less transparent the process is in central government then it is at a local level (and it is not great locally either).
“This needs reform in order to ensure greater transparency and to restore confidence. Decisions should be made in public as the Mayor of London does, reports need to be released in advance, not after a decision is made, conflicts of interest should result in decision makers recusing themselves and planning ministers need to publicly declare all meetings with developers or their agents.”
Meanwhile the future of the site, more than 12 acres of prime “brownfield” land unused since the printworks relocated in 2012, remains uncertain. The developers had indicated their preference for their appeal to be reconsidered by a different minister, but no announcement have yet been made almost two years after the application was submitted.
That leaves the original 2016 scheme, approved by Mayor Johnson’s deputy Sir Edward Lister, now a senior Downing Street aide just before Johnson left office, still in place – 722 homes, 21 per cent affordable, and buildings rising to 30 rather than 46 storeys. For local people taking part in a recent online discussion, said Wood, the 2016 scheme is their unanimous preference.
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