Westferry Printworks: Housing minister Robert Jenrick denies bias
PUBLISHED: 15:00 27 May 2020
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The housing secretary has denied he showed “any bias” when he unlawfully signed off a controversial £1billion development proposed by a Conservative party donor.
Tower Hamlets Council challenged Robert Jenrick’s decision to use his ministerial powers to approve more than 1,500 homes on the former Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs, claiming its timing had saved the developer between £30-£50million.
The site is owned by Richard Desmond, the founder of Northern & Shell which publishes the Daily Star and Daily Express, and who in 2017 donated £10,000 to the Conservative Party.
The development had previously been rejected by the council and the government’s planning inspectorate. Mr Jenrick’s decision to overrule the rejections was made just 24 hours before the council increased the financial penalties it asks developers to pay for infrastructure, known as CIL payments.
Last week Mr Jenrick agreed that approval could be quashed after the council initiated legal action against him.
Appearing on Sky News this morning, Wednesday, May 27, Mr Jenrick 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.”
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Last year Tower Hamlets Council failed to reach a decision on the scheme before its legal deadline but said it would refuse the development citing that the new homes would damage views of Tower Bridge and did not provide “the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing”.
Following a public inquiry held in August 2019, the planning inspector agreed with the council’s reasons.
However the minister said the inspector’s concerns were outweighed by the benefits of the plans, including overall provision of housing.
The council took legal action demanding the government release documents it said would prove the secretary of state was “influenced by a desire to help the developer save money”. But the department refused and allowed planning permission to be quashed.
Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs 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.”
Andrew Wood, one of only two Conservative councillors in the borough, resigned from the party over Mr Jenrick’s decision.
He said: “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 interests of my residents. The reasons for the minister’s decision and his correspondence with the developer should be put 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 replace a nearby temporary secondary school and that this site is developed at the appropriate scale to provide new homes.”
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