Minister tells MPs why he pushed through Isle of Dogs’ £1bn Westferry scheme to beat new levy
PUBLISHED: 10:00 23 July 2020
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The housing Secretary of State has publicly admitted for the first time his role in deliberately giving the controversial £1billion Westferry housing scheme the green light to beat a new levy on developments by just 24 hours.
The move denied the East End badly-needed funds for public services, say MPs, while saving billionaire developer Richard Desmond £40-£80 million on the Isle of Dogs luxury housing scheme.
Robert Jenrick, the minister who hurriedly passed the scheme, made a scathing attack on Tower Hamlets Council for “sitting” on Desmond’s planning application for two years because it “didn’t like the scheme” or “didn’t like the developer”.
But he came under fire from MPs when he told the parliamentary housing committee yesterday (July 22) that he was aware of the levy coming in when he gave the go-ahead and even went against the planning inspectorate’s rejection.
“You try to make a decision before a material change in circumstances might occur,” he told MPs.
“The inspector’s report stated the project’s viability might be compromised by the levy.
“So it was a fair decision to make in time before that change, to get this done one way or another before the change came in.”
Tory backbench MP Mary Robinson challenged him on the timing — just 24 hours before the new levy — and to explain why he believed it wouldn’t save Desmond £40m or why it wouldn’t have denied Tower Hamlets that extra funding.
“It’s not our role to interrogate finances of the project,” the minister replied. “The most important thing is to get the decision done before a material change in circumstances” (referring to the new levy).
“Who that benefits is of no interest to me. I’m interested in making a fair decision before a material change of circumstances occurs.”
The advice he received from Whitehall civil servants on his first day reappointed as housing secretary, after Conservatives swept back into power in December’s general election, had made clear that the council was due to adopt the new levy on all developments, MPs heard.
“The most important thing is to get the decision done before a material change in circumstances,” he repeated.
Mr Jenrick put the blame squarely on the council because it spent months sitting on the Westferry scheme from 2018.
“They could have made the decision — but chose not to,” he pointed out.
“A few councils fail to determine applications in breach of the law which I think is mal-administration. Tower Hamlets chose to sit on this application because they didn’t like the application or didn’t like the applicant.”
Another Tory backbench MP, Bob Blackman, accused the minister of mishandling Westferry which reduced the ratio of affordable housing from 35 per cent now down to 21pc by granting it, rather than rejecting it and upholding the inspectorate’s decision.
“It would be reasonable for the applicant to go back to the council and revise the scheme,” Blackman told the minister. “That would have allowed it to proceed with a substantial increase in affordable housing. The applicant always has a choice to resubmit the scheme.”
The minister also came under fire, yet again, for having been at the same table as the developer at a Tory Party fundraising dinner just weeks before giving Westferry the go-ahead and had exchanged private emails and text messages with him. It originally all came out in a blistering Commons row last month.
He told MPs this time round yesterday that he regretted exchanging the messages in hindsight and had later distanced himself from Desmond’s approaches. The messages weren’t released in public originally as “meeting Desmond wasn’t formally a meeting” — but Jenrick was forced to reveal them anyway.
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