Tower Hamlets Council and City Hall could face further costs running to hundreds of thousands of pounds if the increasingly controversial 1,500 home Westferry Printworks development goes to a new public inquiry.
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick’s green light for the proposal, for tower blocks rising to 44 storeys on the north side of Millwall outer dock on the Isle of Dogs, was dramatically overturned last month in the High Court after the minister conceded “apparent bias” in his decision-making.
With the future of the 12-acre site still undecided, almost two years on from the developers appealing to the minister after Tower Hamlets failed to decide on the scheme within statutory time limits, the Planning Inspectorate has confirmed that resolving the appeal will mean holding a new inquiry before a new inspector.
“It’s standard procedure that if a case is to be redetermined following a successful High Court challenge, a different inspector is assigned to run a new inquiry,” an Inspectorate spokesperson told On London. And that could mean significant costs for Tower Hamlets and City Hall, if their opposition to the scheme continues.
Figures from the two authorities show they spent more than £530,000 on the original inquiry, which ran in August last year. “Everybody now has to pay twice”, said Isle of Dogs councillor Andrew Wood, who resigned from the Conservatives over the issue. “Having spent over half a million pounds of public money we might have to pay it again in a second appeal for a process which we know is not transparent.
“In the meantime the desperately needed new secondary school on the site is not getting built, as well as new homes, because of the delays caused by Tower Hamlets Council and now Robert Jenrick squashing his own decision.”
Jenrick rubber-stamped the plans against the advice of his own planning inspector, who in a detailed 140 page judgment had ruled against the scheme because of its low levels of affordable housing and family size homes, its impact on the setting of heritage sites including Tower Bridge and the Greenwich Naval College, and its breach of an established policy that new developments should “step down” in height from Canary Wharf.
“We had won the planning arguments but the minister decided to ignore them,” Councillor Wood, says in a detailed examination of the case on his website.
The minister’s decision, the day before Tower Hamlets hiked its levy on new developments to fund community infrastructure, also saved applicant Richard Desmond an estimated £40 million, on top of benefiting from a similar amount through Jenrick agreeing just 21 per cent affordable housing on the site.
New reports show Jenrick not only seated alongside Desmond at a Conservative fundraiser in November last year, but also viewing part of the developer’s promotional video for the scheme.
Pressure continues to mount on the minister, with the Commons communities committee and the cabinet secretary scrutinising documents, and Labour set to use its Opposition Day debate on Wednesday to press the government on the issue.
The Prime Minister has declared his “full confidence” in Jenrick, but speculation continues that a mooted cabinet reshuffle could see Jenrick out of his job. In any event, issues of ministerial decision-making on planning matters remain, according to Wood. “Some of the key lessons from this are that ministers should not be making decisions like this alone and in secret. They should be made in public as the Mayor of London does, and ideally as a committee with others,” he said.
Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs agrees. “It’s right that the Secretary of State’s decision is fully investigated so the public can have confidence proper processes are in place to stop cosy deals between politicians and developers,” he told On London. “I hope any scheme that proceeds is decided on openly and transparently and considers the needs of my residents. Any development at Westferry Printworks needs to deliver an adequate level of affordable housing and be an appropriate height and density so it doesn’t adversely impact on the Isle of Dogs.”
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