Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick – accused by some of breaking the lockdown some weeks ago – is now in more hot water after the government accepted that a key planning decision he made was biased.
The controversy surrounds a £1 billion scheme on a former print works site in east London for 1,524 homes as well as shops, bars and offices; the approval was submitted by former newspaper tycoon Richard Desmond
Now the government has accepted that Jenrick acted unlawfully in a legal battle with Tower Hamlets council over the Desmond scheme.
In January, plans to build 1,524 homes on the site were approved by Jenrick despite a planning inspector recommending against granting permission.
In March, the council initiated legal action against Jenrick, alleging that the timing of the decision appeared to show bias in deciding to allow the appeal.
The council asked the court to order the government to disclose documents that it argued would show the Secretary of State was influenced by a desire to help the developer save money by avoiding the council’s revised Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charges.
Developers are obliged to pay CIL to help fund the delivery of local infrastructure projects that are needed to absorb the impact of growth.
The decision was made just one day before the council adopted changes to its CIL levels, which would mean the developer had to pay between £30m and £50m more to the council.
Faced with the prospect of having to release documentation relating to the decision, Jenrick has now chosen to allow the planning permission to be quashed, according to a council statement.
Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs says: “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 July 2018, the council received a planning application to redevelop the former Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs with 1,524 new homes, almost doubling the 722 homes previously approved in August 2016.
The scheme was to be delivered in a series of buildings ranging from nine to 46 storeys including five towers, some of which doubled the height of the previously approved proposal.
In March 2019, the developers lodged an appeal, arguing the council was taking too long to reach a decision on the application. Such an appeal would normally be decided by a planning inspector but in this case, it was called in by Jenrick.
Although its ability to decide on the application was taken away, the council’s Strategic Development Committee considered the proposals in May 2019 and determined that had it been able to do so, it would have refused permission.
Following a public inquiry held in August 2019, a planning inspector agreed with all but one of the council’s reasons for refusal and recommended to Jenrick that the developers’ appeal be dismissed.
But Jenrick chose instead to allow the appeal and grant permission. It was this decision that prompted the subsequent legal challenge.
Now the courts have agreed to a consent order quashing the decision, and the government is not contesting that decision.
Over the weekend the Housing Secretary was again in the headlines as the Dominic Cummings affair saw some newspapers resuscitate his own controversial movements during the lockdown.
At one Coronavirus daily press conference in April, led by Jenrick – who has homes in both London and Herefordshire – he was asked if he should apologise for the claim that Herefordshire is his family home as his children attend school in London and his wife works in the capital.
He said last the time: “I joined my family at our home in Herefordshire as soon as I was able to do so, as soon as we made the decision that it was no longer necessary to work in person in Westminster. I’ve been there since, I’ve been working from home and returned to Westminster last night to do this press conference because Parliament returns next week.”
Jenrick has come out in support of Dominic Cummings’ description of events in this latest controversy.