A High Court action brought by Tower Hamlets council has put a stop to a planned multimillion-pound residential development by Northern and Shell owner Richard Desmond on the Westferry Printworks site.
The saga saw the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick accused of bias and succumbing to lobbying from Desmond after he intervened and gave the plans for 1,500 homes the green light.
Tower Hamlets council – who along with the planning inspectorate had rejected the application – took the issue to the High Court prompting Jenrick to quash his ruling.
John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “We may never know what emails and memos the secretary of state received before making his decision and what influence they had, but his reluctance to disclose them speaks volumes.”
“In siding with the developer, he went against not only the planning inspector but also the council’s Strategic Development Committee and the residents whose lives would be directly impacted by this scheme” he added.
Tower Hamlets Council rejected the planning application for the new development comprising buildings ranging from nine to 46 storeys in 2018, arguing it would not provide enough social housing and conflicted with local conservation policy. The independent Planning Inspectorate agreed with the council’s reasons in August 2019.
However in January, Jenrick argued that the inspector’s concerns were outweighed by the benefits of the plan and granted permission.
Mufeedah Bustin, Labour councillor for Island Gardens, said: “Having the Secretary of State overrule the planning inspector’s recommendation was a kick in the teeth for local residents.
“Robert Jenrick’s [tacit] admission that his decision may show bias comes as little surprise to the residents of the Isle of Dogs, given the way the consented scheme was approved.”
After Tower Hamlets refused planning permision, the developers appealed to the planning inspectorate, who recommended to the secretary of state that the appeal be dismissed. However,in January, Jenrick argued that the inspector’s concerns were outweighed by the benefits of the plan and proceeded to allow the appeal and grant permission.
Tower Hamlets council decided to take legal action in March, demanding the release of documents behind Jenrick’s decision. His ruling came the day before the council’s new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charges came in.
Desmond would have had to pay between £30 to £50 million to the council after new Community Infrastructure Levy charges; that obliged developers to help fund the delivery of local infrastructure projects that are needed to absorb the impact of growth; and in turn help improve local services.
Jenrick, being faced with the prospect of having to provide documentation relating to the decision regarding the Westferry Printworks development has allowed the permission he himself approved to be quashed.
He appeared on Sky News last Wednesday, May 27, and said: “I can assure you we took this decision, as we do all decisions, on the merits. We absolutely refute any suggestion of bias. The legal process sets out that the way the decision was taken could give rise to the appearance of bias.
“But obviously we reject that there was any actual bias and that is why for complete fairness the department decided the decision could be retaken by a different minister and that may well happen if the applicant decides to do so in the future” he added.
One of only two Conservative councilors in the Tower Hamlets borough, Andrew Wood, told East London Advertiser: “I welcome that this decision has been quashed, it was the final reason for me to quit the Conservative Party that a minister would make such an apparently biased decision against the interest of my residents. The reasons for the minister’s decision and his correspondence with the developer should be out in the public domain and investigated by the appropriate authorities given the amount of money at stake”
“Hopefully, Tower Hamlets council can now make a move on building the Westferry Printworks secondary school which is desperately needed to a replace a nearby temporary secondary school and that this site is developed at the appropriate scale to provide new homes” he added.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spoke to The Guardian and denied any favoritism towards Desmond’s proposed property development at the site of a former printworks.
“While we reject the suggestion that there was any actual bias in the decision, we have agreed that the application will be redetermined” the ministry spokesperson added.
Cllr Rachel Blake, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Planning said: “This is great news for Tower Hamlets, and I would like to pay tribute to the teams involved. We were shocked that in taking his decision, the secretary of state went against the government’s own planning inspector’s recommendation”
“We feel strongly that these decisions should be taken locally but where they’re not, our residents must still be able to trust the integrity of the processes that are followed”