London Assembly police and crime committee chair Unmesh Desai has added his weight to calls for a police investigation into communities secretary Robert Jenrick’s controversial approval of a 1,500 home development in London’s docklands.
The decision, taken against the advice of a government-appointed planning inspector, was dramatically overturned last month in a High Court settlement after Jenrick conceded “apparent bias” in his consideration of the proposal for tower blocks rising to 46 storeys at the former Westferry Printworks site on the north side of Millwall Outer Dock in the Isle of Dogs.
The minister rubber-stamped the plans 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.
Desmond had raised the case with Jenrick at a Conservative Party fundraiser last November, it was later reported, and figures released today by the Electoral Commission, the regulator for political donations, reveal a donation of £12,000 from Desmond to the party on 29 January, two weeks 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.
In a letter to Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick, Desai, the Labour AM for the City & East Assembly constituency, which includes the Isle of Dogs, says, “There remain many unanswered questions about Mr Jenrick’s conduct”.
Desai’s concerns include the lawfulness of the timing of Jenrick’s decision, including its backdating to the day before it was formally issued, possible connections between Jenrick and Desmond which should have led him to recuse himself from the decision-making process, and documentation requested by Tower Hamlets as part of their legal challenge but not released following Jenrick conceding the settlement.
“Only an investigation by the police will uncover whether these papers contain any material evidence,” Desai says. “There seems to me to be a prima facie case for such an investigation.”
Legal experts have called for changes in the process for ministerial decision-making on planning applications, with Jenrick’s decision controversial in its dismissal of his planning inspector’s 140-page finding that the proposal fell short on affordable housing, conservation concerns and long-standing local policy that new Isle of Dogs developments should “step down” from the dominant Canary Wharf cluster.
Barrister Sasha White, who acted for Tower Hamlets in their legal challenge, told Planning magazine that a review was required. “We don’t know what interaction there was between ministers and civil servants. Warning bells should have been ringing left right and centre,” she said. “They should also consider the impact of the minister’s decision on the Planning Inspectorate. Inspectors must be horrified, as it calls in to question the credibility and legitimacy of the head of the planning system.”
Meanwhile reports suggest that Jenrick is considering a permanent shift in planning decision-making, from local councils to “development corporations” under government control.
Image from Westferry Printworks website.
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