Police ‘must look at why minister signed off Westferry housing scheme losing £40m public revenue’
PUBLISHED: 11:02 04 June 2020 | UPDATED: 15:23 05 June 2020
A leading Tower Hamlets councillor who quit the Tory Party over a top government minister pushing through the controversial £1billion Westferry housing scheme is calling on the police and the Cabinet Office in Downing Street to investigate the whole episode.
Cllr Andrew Wood has also written to the House of Commons select committee for housing to press for an inquiry into Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick overturning the council’s rejection of the Isle of Dogs scheme just 24 hours before new planning levies were due to start.
The move would save the site owner, billionnair press tycoon Richard Desmond, around £40million which would have mitigated the impact on already-overstretched public services in the area.
The minister later backtracked and admitted his move “would appear unlawful” when the council challenged his decision in the High Court last month.
“His decision and its timing are illogical and unexplainable,” Cllr Wood told the East London Advertiser. “Something else is going on that isn’t yet in the public domain.
“The Minister’s decision so clearly benefitted the developer at the expense of Tower Hamlets and needs to be investigated. The deliberate timing meant the developer avoided levies and only included 21 per cent affordable housing.”
The decision back in January was the last straw for Cllr Wood, a seasoned campaigner representing Canary Wharf at the town hall, who stepped down as the council’s Tory opposition group leader.
“It was the final reason why I quit as a Conservative party member,” he explained. “This was just too much after years of investigating Tower Hamlets corruption and fraud to then have to investigate it in my own party!”
Cllr Wood’s letter to the Met Police, the Cabinet Office and the Commons select committee sent last night demands to know why the minister “made the decision explicitly the day before the new levies” and why he went against the Planning Inspectorate’s advice.
Cllr Wood wants to know why the minister wouldn’t defend his decision in court which he then accepted was “unlawful by the appearance of apparent bias”.
"It was just too much after years of investigating Tower Hamlets corruption and fraud to then have to investigate it in my own party!"
The decision to push the scheme through came just weeks after the minister attended a Tory Party fundraising dinner in November at the Carlton Club, at the same table as Westferry’s owner Richard Desmond.
The Housing and Local Government department denies the suggestion “that there was any actual bias” in his decision to overturn Tower Hamlets Council’s planning rejection, but has agreed “that the application will be redetermined”.
The scheme was originally for 700 mainly luxury apartments on the Millwall waterfront which was actually agreed by the council in 2016.
But the developers, Mace, resubmitted a scheme double the size, following the GLA’s revised London Plan for increased housing which spurred speculative developments like Westferry.
The bigger scheme, however, met a brick wall from the local authority and the Planning Inspectorate — until the Secretary of State stepped in just 24 hours before the new planning levy which would have cost Richard Desmond’s company £40m.
Yet it may not be the end of the road for his “homes in the sky” dream.
The original scheme for 700 homes still stands. Ground clearance has already begun, much to the fury of families on the nearby Barkantine estate plagued by clouds of dust in the summer of 2018.
The incentive, even with only half the apartments to put on the market, is that it doesn’t carry the £40m planning levy payment up front.
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