Ministry denies claims of bias in approval of Richard Desmond’s development one day before levy kicked in
The housing secretary knew that a billionaire former media tycoon had only 24 hours to have an east London property development approved before community charges were imposed that would have cost him over £40m.
Robert Jenrick’s accepted that his approval of one-time Conservative-supporting billionaire Richard Desmond’s project at the Isle of Dogs was unlawful.
Documents related to the consent order for the development show that the minister was aware that a council-imposed community infrastructure levy (CIL) would have been introduced on 15 January this year.
Against the advice of his own planning inspector, the minister gave the go-ahead for the construction of more than 1,500 apartments in a 44-storey complex on 14 January. Jenrick’s decision was made just 24 hours before the Tower Hamlets CIL would have cost Desmond at least £40m.
CILs were to be used to tax large property developments at £280 per square metre with the cash raised channelled back into the council area for building schools and health clinics.
Point four of the consent order relating to the project states: “In pre-action correspondence, pursuant to the duty of candour, the first defendant explained the DL[decision letter] was issued on 14 January 2020 so that it would be issued before the claimant [Tower Hamlets] adopt its new local plan and CIL charging schedule.”
A Conservative critic who has resigned from the Tories over the issue said he believed the document proved that the minister took his decision “deliberately before” the council charges would have been imposed on Desmond’s Northern & Shell.
“This drove the timing of the decision in my opinion,” Tower Hamlets councillor Andrew Wood told the Guardian. “Point four of the order now makes that explicit.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government denied any favouritism towards Desmond’s proposed property development at the site of a former printworks.
“While we reject the suggestion that there was any actual bias in the decision, we have agreed that the application will be redetermined,” the ministry spokesperson added.
While welcoming the decision to put a freeze on the planning decision, Wood said giving the green light to the project would result in the “further Manhattan-isation of the Isle of Dogs, leading to residential building heights and densities not to be found elsewhere in the UK.”
Tower Hamlets council took legal action against the minister, claiming the timing of Jenrick’s decision appeared to show bias towards the former owner of the Star, Daily Express and Sunday Express.
The council asked the court to order the government to disclose all correspondence between the minister and government officials about the decision.
The minister accepted this decision letter did show “apparent bias” and recused himself from any future decisions over Desmond’s project.
One of those who had raised objections to the plans was the ministry’s own planning inspection officer who pointed out that the development would damage views of Tower Bridge.
Alongside the consent order, Wood has put in a freedom of information request for all the correspondence between officials and the minister relating to the Westferry Road printworks development.
“I think Robert Jenrick needs to publish all correspondence between himself and the developer Northern & Shell, and that it should be investigated by the appropriate authorities given the amount of money at stake,” Wood added. “The key question is: why did he make the decision when he did so against the inspector’s advice?”
Desmond sold his the Express and Star titles two years ago. The 68-year-old billionaire’s company Northern & Shell, which is behind the Isle of Dogs development, donated £10,000 to the Conservatives in 2017 and £1m to Ukip in 2015.