Minister under pressure over Isle of Dogs development controversy

Architects image of Westferry Printworks planned development. Pic: screenshot from Westferry Printworks 2020

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick is facing increasing pressure to resign over his decision to approve the controversial Westferry Printworks development on the Isle of Dogs and his contacts with developer Richard Desmond.

And Tower Hamlets Council might have to face further costs of hundreds of thousands of pounds if a new public inquiry needs to be held. Meanwhile Labour say the release of documents still leaves many questions unanswered, while Boris Johnson has made it clear he is standing by Jenrick.

The multi-million pound development on the site of a former printworks includes high rise housing, shops and leisure facilities. It is close to the sprawling Canary Wharf hub of offices and shops.

The newly released documents, made public after yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons, indicate that Jenrick had multiple contacts with former media magnate turned property developer Richard Desmond, the owner of the company responsible for Westferry Printworks’ development.

The documents released revealed that Jenrick gave Desmond his phone number, after they sat next to each other at a Tory fundraising dinner last November. Desmond also showed Jenrick, who was due to make a final decision on the scheme, a video of the development on his phone.

After the dinner, Jenrick sent a friendly message to Desmond. Desmond then lobbied the minister, telling him a decision was urgent because “we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!” This message occurred the day before the developments was approved by Jenrick in January and in time to avoid the new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). This would have cost the development an estimated extra £45m.

Labour say the documents show that Jenrick’s earlier suggestion that he had broken off contact with Desmond after the dinner was untrue.

The storm over the development began after it emerged Desmond had personally given the Conservative party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme for 1,500 homes was approved. Jenrick had later to quash his own approval, conceding that the decision was unlawful because of the perception of undue influence. He took the decision against the advice of his own officials and the decision of the planning inspector.

A Planning Inspectorate spokesperson told Eastlondonlines that ‘the decision to reopen the Westferry Printworks case after these new developments is with the Planning Casework Unit. If the case is to reopen, they would send a report to the Secretary of State for a decision’

A Government spokesman told ELL that they were not able to comment on whether a second inquiry might be needed.

Tower Hamlets Council had earlier urged the Government court to disclose the documents ‘that would show Jenrick was influenced by a desire to help the developer save money by avoiding the council’s revised CIL charges’.

The statement also said that ‘faced with the prospect of having to release documentation relating to the decision, the secretary of state chose to allow the planning permission to be quashed’.

Isle of Dogs councillor Andrew Wood, who resigned both as Conservative group leader on Tower Hamlets Council and from the Conservative Party over the issue, said: “Everybody now has to pay twice. 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 addition to housing, the site is planned to host a number of projects scheduled by the Tower Hamlets Council to help the community. 

Wood added: “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.”

Tower Hamlets Council had originally opposed the application for 1,500 homes with six towers, the tallest of which is 46 storeys, because of its impact on local amenities and lack of ‘affordable’ housing at just 21 per cent. The decision was upheld by the planning inspector after an inquiry.

Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs, said: “We will continue to press for a scheme that meets the needs of the community on the Isle of Dogs in terms of height and density, the provision of adequate affordable housing and infrastructure delivery.”

Desmond, who formerly owned the Daily Express and Channel Five, has long had interests in the Isle of Dogs. His earlier magazine empire, Northern and Shell was based near to the Westferry site.

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