MP cites ‘rottenness’ at heart of Isle of Dogs £1bn Westferry scandal in Commons row

PUBLISHED: 09:53 25 June 2020 | UPDATED: 22:02 01 July 2020

Shadow housing secretary leads Commons debate on controversial £1bm Westferry luxury housing scheme. Picture: Parliament TV

Shadow housing secretary leads Commons debate on controversial £1bm Westferry luxury housing scheme. Picture: Parliament TV

Parliament TV

The Housing Secretary has been told in parliament to “sort out the rottenness at the heart of his housing department” over his controversial decision to push through the £1billion Westferry development on the Isle of Dogs.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenryck... Housing Secretary Robert Jenryck... "There was no actual bias, but inference even in appearance of bias could harm integrity of the planning system." Picture: Parliament TV

Robert Jenrickwas under fire from MPs today (June 24) for overruling Tower Hamlets Council in January to push through the scheme for 1,500 luxury flats just 24 hours before new planning levies kicked in that would pay for essential services.

The move saved billionaire developer Richard Desmond an immediate £40million and a further £105m by reducing the ratio of “affordable” homes which could now go on the premium property market.

He denied being influenced by sitting next to Desmond at a Tory party dinner just weeks before where he was shown a Westferry promotion video.

Mr Jenrick insisted his decision was made on the merits of the scheme and blamed having to make the choice because the council failed to decide themselves after in eight months.

Rushanara Ali... Rushanara Ali... "Minister should sort out rottenness at the heart of his housing department." Picture: Parliament TV

But Opposition Labour MPs were having none of it.

“The minister should get his facts right before deflecting blame on the council,” Bethnal Green and Bow MP Rushanara Ali told MPs.

“What’s rotten at the heart of this scandal is the secretary’s behaviour and attacking the council that was negotiating a better deal to get more social housing.

“He should sort out the rottenness at the heart of the government and its housing department.”

Shadow Secretary Steve Reed... Shadow Secretary Steve Reed... "The minister rushed through Westferry scheme deliberately to help avoid £50m levy to Tower Hamlets." Picture: Parliament TV

MPs were pressing for the secretary to release documents and emails on Westferry, accusing him of holding back until pressure from today’s Commons debate.

But the real shock came hours later, during another Commons debate, when it was revealed that the documents show the minister rushing through the decision ahead of the levy.

Labour Shadow Secretary Steve Reed said: “There appears to be discrepancies on what he told the Commons (earlier) that rather than close down discussions (at the dinner) with the developer, instead initiated contact with him the next day which confirmed that he rushed it through deliberately to help avoid a £30-50m levy to Tower Hamlets.”

Mr Reed had earlier accused him of “cash for favours” because Desmond gave a £12,000 gift after the Tory fundraising dinner.

He told MPs: “He allowed the developer to reduce the affordable radio from 35pc to 21pc which saved Desmond millions.

“That money would have gone to fund things like schools, libraries, youth clubs and health clinics in one of the most deprived communities anywhere in the country. Denying the borough £150m is a disgrace.”

This was the second Commons row in just two weeks with MPs accusing the government of a deal with billionaire developer Desmond to push ahead with a scheme that the East End opposed tooth and nail.

Apsana Begum, whose Poplar and Limehouse constituency includes Westferry and the Isle of Dogs, said: “The housing secretary is supposed to be making homes safe and making developers accountable and not simply socialising with them. He should not undermine efforts to address the needs of an area with the highest child poverty in the country.”

One MP pointed out that Tory councillor Andrew Wood had resigned as opposition group leader on the council citing the actions of his own party over the scheme. He quoted Cllr Wood who had told the East London Advertiser last week that pushing the scheme through “was so shocking that I knew immediately that I had to resign”.

The minister accepted that Cllr Wood was standing up for the Isle of Dogs residents on the issue, but insisted: “There was no actual bias in the decision whatsoever.

“Richard Desmond raised the development at the dinner and I told him it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss the matter.

“But inference even in the ‘appearance’ of bias could harm the integrity of the planning system.”

The housing department later quashed his decision on May 21 because of the “unlawful apparent bias”.

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