The Westferry affair and planning reformPosted: June 29, 2020
Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 29.
A cartoon in a national newspaper last week showed a pig about to dive into a trough from a springboard marked ‘Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’ saying ‘I declare this development officially open’.
It was an indication if any were needed of how the Westferry Printworks affair has left the impression that the planning system is a ‘Tory funny money’ game of Monopoly (another cartoon two days later).
Richard Desmond’s £12,000 donation to the Conservatives may be small change but the timing shortly after housing secretary Robert Jenrick approved his plans for a £1 billion housing development still stinks.
It leaves the housing secretary looking – in the most generous interpretation of events – naïve in his dealings with the billionaire.
Naïve that he did not see that Desmond would look to use any dealings with him to further his own financial interests.
Naïve not to see the danger in being sat next to him at a fundraising dinner and in viewing a promotional video about a project that up for a planning decision.
Naïve not to realise that the site’s associations not just with Desmond but also with the printing of the Express and the Telegraph would make the story irresistible for the rival Mail and Times groups.
Naïve not to use his encounter with Desmond as a reason to recuse himself and pass this hot potato on to another minister in his department.
But the more details that emerge the worse it gets for the housing secretary. The latest allegations in yesterday’s Sunday Times are that he brushed aside warnings from his civil servants that the decision was 70-80 per cent likely to be judicially reviewed.
That is exactly what happened after he rushed the decision through a day before Desmond would have been liable for up to £50 million in Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) payments (or ‘give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing’, as Desmond put it in a text to Jenrick).
After a legal challenge by Tower Hamlets council, the housing secretary was forced to withdraw his approval for the scheme, accepting that the decision was ‘unlawful’ due to ‘apparent bias’.
Last week he released a clutch of emails and text messages about the project that were enough for cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill to write that ‘the prime minister considers that the matter is closed’.
But they also raised new questions, most damningly for me about the provision of affordable housing (needless to say, not all of it actually affordable) on the site.
The original scheme had been for 700 homes with 35 per affordable, in line with the London Plan, but an amended version was for 1,500 homes in total with 21 per cent affordable.
In his recovered appeal decision in January, Jenrick accepted that the 21 per cent did not represent the ‘maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing’.
An email exchange makes it clear that MHCLG was trying right up to the last minute to find ways to increase the affordable percentage before accepting that this would not be possible without going back to the parties to ask them for their views ‘and we don’t have time for that’.
It added the figleaf that viability and affordable housing provision can be reviewed under a Late Stage Review once 75 per cent of the homes are sold or let.
The upshot seems to be that the rush to a decision has potentially saved Desmond up to another £106 million on affordable housing in addition to the £40-50 million on CIL.
All this would be bad enough if it only affected one big development in London or even if it only encouraged other developers to expect similar treatment.
However, it comes at a time when the government was about to announce a major shake-up of the planning system driven by Jenrick and the prime minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings.
A white paper to make it ‘fit for the future’ will reportedly feature zoning, a fast-track for ‘attractive’ buildings, development corporations and more permitted development and form part of the government’s post-Coronavirus stimulus package.
Many of these ideas are controversial and some will expose the inherent tensions between the deregulation advocated by right-wing think tanks and pleas from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to ‘reject ugliness’ and replace the ‘vicious circle of parasitic development’ with long-term stewardship of land.
If they mean better homes get built quicker they are worth considering – except anything the government now proposes on planning will look tainted by that image of pigs in troughs.
To the housing secretary’s woes over planning for Westferry, add a minor detail of Cummings’s lockdown trip to Durham.
Once he was back in London, it emerged that the house in which he stayed on his parents’ farm did not have planning permission. Happily for him, the time limit for enforcement measures had expired.
Reports last week suggested that Downing Street is having second thoughts about reforms that would give more power over planning to the housing secretary and that Boris Johnson has dropped plans to mention them in his ‘build, build, build’ speech tomorrow.
As one of the newspapers once printed at Westferry might have put it: ‘You couldn’t make it up’.