Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick and his supporters today argued “no impropriety” in his decision to overrule his planning inspector and give the green light to a controversial 1,500-home Docklands development by former newspaper owner Richard Desmond.
But 129 pages-worth of documents published by Jenrick this afternoon in the wake of a Commons opposition day debate on the case suggest – at the very least – that there are more questions to answer.
Significantly, the documents indicate that Jenrick not only overruled the planning inspector but also his own planning experts. A submission to the secretary of state on 13 December 13 last year, following the receipt of the inspector’s report dated 20 November, states:
“The Inspector’s Report recommends dismissing the appeal and refusing permission. We agree…We consider there are no material considerations which indicate that the proposal should be determined other than in accordance with the Development Plan…”
But by 28 December 28, officials were being notified that “the Secretary of State…would like to approve the application. He would like this communicated asap in the New Year.”
On 7 January, an email within Jenrick’s department confirms that officials remained against approving the scheme: “We met yesterday with the SoS [Secretary of State] to discuss his rationale for wanting to approve Westferry Printworks against the advice of PINS [The Planning Inspector] and your team.”
But two days later, on 9 January, it was being made clear that “SoS is/was insistent that decision issued this week…as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime”. This was the proposed change to the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) imposed on new developments by Tower Hamlets Council – a change which would have cost the developer £30 million or more.
Alarm bells seemed to be ringing in the ministry. On 10 January, an official wrote: “Risk is unfortunately inevitable when we disagree with an inspector’s recommendation, particularly when, as in this case, it is very thoroughly argued and evidenced.”
Nevertheless, the same day, a draft decision letter was circulating. “The Secretary of State has decided to allow the appeal”, it says, but with an uppercase note at the end: “PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS SUBJECT TO THE SECRETARY OF STATE’S CONFIRMATION THAT HE IS CONTENT WITH THE DECISION LETTER AND LEGAL RISK.”
Even on the day the decision was announced, 14 January, disagreements were apparent. “We are disagreeing with his [presumably Jenrick’s] view that the impact on the Old Naval College isn’t too bad,” says one email, referring to protected views of historic Greenwich.
Another asks: “Can we impose a condition that the developer must look to increase the AH [affordable housing] within the scheme?” – suggesting continuing concern all round about the implications of going against the inspector’s recommendation that the scheme could provide substantially more affordable housing than the 21 per cent proposed.
Notwithstanding, the applicant, Tower Hamlets Council and City Hall were informed that day that the development had got the go-ahead.
What was going on? Back to 20 November, when officials reported: “SoS has flagged a case in Westferry…He understands a ministerial decision on this is likely to be coming up soon and also that there may be some sensitivities with timing of Inspector’s decision…asked advice be prepared for first few days of the new government so that decisions can be made and communicated before Christmas.”
That was two days after Jenrick was seated alongside Desmond at a Conservative fundraising dinner, where it has been reported that Desmond showed the minister part of a promotional video for the Westferry scheme on his phone. That same evening Jenrick had texted Desmond: “Good to spend time with you tonight. See you again soon I hope.” And the next day he seems to have asked one of his parliamentary staff to contact Desmond’s office to “set up a meeting”.
In the event, no meeting took place, though the text exchanges continued.
- From Desmond to Jenrick on 20 November: “Good news finally the inspectors reports have gone to you today, we appreciate the speed, as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing.”
- The same day, Jenrick to Desmond: “As Secretary of State it is important not to give any appearance of being influenced…and so I think it is better that we don’t meet until after the matter has been decided…”
- And on 23 December, Desmond to Jenrick: “Morning Robert How does the advice look? We have to get approval before Jan 15 otherwise payment of 45 million pounds to tower hamlets meaning we have to stop and reduce social housing…”
It was five days later that Jenrick was communicating to officials his position on the scheme: “The Secretary of State…would like to approve the application. He would like this communicated asap in the New Year.”
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