An article sent to Conservative Home on the 23rd Feb 2021 in advance of the Parliamentary debates on who pays to remediate fire safety to encourage Conservative MP's to support the Stephen McPartland & Royston Smith amendment.
Having quit the Conservative Party in February 2020 over a planning issue I was recently asked if I might re-join.
The immediate answer was no, and the first reason that came into my head was the cladding and fire safety debacle that many of my residents are suffering from (although we still do not know how many people are affected which maybe why the political consequences of this are not yet clear).
The government is now only offering financial help for cladding issues in tall towers not for all of the other fire safety related costs like fire barriers, waking watches, delayed home sales and increased insurance costs which have been caused by the same industrial, planning and regulatory failures as the cladding that failed at Grenfell in June 2017. And if your home is less than 18 meters in height you have to pay for any cladding issues via loans (that financial limit exists because nobody can agree a better definition of a tall building). Delays in resolving this issue have already resulted in some home owners declaring bankruptcy.
As a result it cannot be right that through other people’s failures including those of the government to properly regulate that homeowners have to pay to rectify other people’s mistakes as is still the plan for some categories of buildings, some categories of owners and many fire safety issues. They will also pay VAT or Insurance Premium Tax on these additional costs so government also benefits from this financial pain. That strikes me as profoundly unfair and the recent government announcement has attracted almost universal condemnation.
It is true that many of the affected buildings are in Labour areas like mine but I know many of those people affected, some of them would naturally move away and into safer Conservative around the cities over the long term (assuming they can still afford to do so) and probably have families already there. Some Conservatives have done an excellent job in response to this crisis but it strikes me as an unusual decision to inflict financial pain on a category of people who would normally support you electorally rather than developers and other parts of the building industry.
As a reminder according to Ipsos MORI’s figures at the 2019 general election, 57% of voters who owned their home outright voted Conservative, as did 43% of people with mortgages (same % as the Conservative vote share).
This is because the consequences of the fire safety crisis are as much financial as they are the concerns related to building safety and those financial consequences will last decades long after the buildings themselves are made safe.
Failure to resolve this issue will cause political issues for the Conservatives in the coming years, that damage will be at the margins but there will be marginal constituencies which contain affected buildings, or frustrated home-owners or their families who might laugh hollowly if told that the Conservatives are the party of home-owners. I wonder how Labour and the Liberal Democrats will take advantage of this in 2024, because I can hazard a guess.
The additional costs of fixing the cladding and all other historic fire safety issues should come solely from a tax on developer and other industry participants profits. This is not as damaging as some might fear not least because housebuilders have been making good profits in recent years thanks to government schemes like Help to Buy which by 2023 will have helped boost the housing market by £25 billion in loans. According to the Economist magazine property development companies in the UK make twice the operating margins of their peers in America, it is time they took greater responsibility for the problems they caused.
In 2015 Lambeth Council introduced a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO for short) to ban the use and sale of laughing gas also known as NOX. They are the little silver canisters that you will find littering streets all over Tower Hamlets. The canisters also have a legal use in the food industry usually in whipped cream canisters so can be bought legally. They contain a gas nitrous oxide (NOX) which when inhaled usually via a balloon gives the user a short high.
Taking nitrous oxide can cause feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and calmness, fits of giggles and laughter – hence the nickname ‘laughing gas’ and sound distortions and hallucinations. But they can also give you a severe headache, cause dizziness, stop you thinking straight, and cause short-lived but intense feelings of paranoia according to the website Talk to Frank, and can have other negative health impacts.
The reason why they are so many canisters is that users have to keep inhaling them to stay high. Why they don’t then pick them up and put them in a bin remains a mystery.
But six years after Lambeth and more than two years after Cllr Peter Golds
and I introduced a Council motion asking that we follow Lambeth in introducing one, Tower Hamlets Council is now consulting on introducing a Public Spaces Protection Order which will ban their use, the order will state:
a) Person(s) within the Restricted Area will not:
Ingest, inhale, inject, smoke, possess or otherwise use psychoactive substances (e.g. nitrous oxide) and which is causing or likely to cause harassment, alarm, distress, nuisance or annoyance to members of the public.
that consultation ends Monday so please complete it online here.
It is not currently illegal to possess NOX canisters so if the Police turn up and see you using them they cannot do anything (unless you are driving at the same time as some NOX users do). But a PSPO gives the Police and Council enforcement officers the powers to order people to stop these activities and fine them a £100 for each offense which is why we need your help in responding to the consultation.
Public Space Protection Orders were introduced in 2014 by the government and they have to be consulted on first, can only last for three years at a time (but can be renewed) and must set specific rules for a specified local area. PSPO areas can cover a local park or in this case the whole Borough. We know the Police struggle to know where the two other PSPO areas are or what the rules are so they rarely use them, only a Borough-wide PSPO is likely to be usable by the Police.
Tower Hamlets has the highest rates of anti-social behaviour (ASB) in London the Met Police recently confirmed and they are I believe also the highest rates in the country. We are now also the densest Borough in the country so ASB from NOX users often has a negative impact on our communities, especially from the parties that NOX users have in areas close to people’s homes. If NOX users picked up their canisters and found quieter places to enjoy themselves then perhaps we would not need to do this. Please complete the consultation to help give the Police and Council officers more powers to deal with it.
Attached below are two FOI responses to the four I have submitted
Note that the 29th May request was not fully answered, it amended a request made on the 27th May after new information was received but MHCLG missed 2 questions made on the 27th May. Although we have the answer to one of them.
FOI response to 1st July request here with original email request here. Its says meeting described in this Sunday Times article here did not happen.
FOI response to 29th May request here and 2 email requests here and here, question 3 & 4 in this first request were not answered.
I also submitted an FOI on the 22nd July, waiting for an answer, request here about when and how the Minister got access to the viability information.
Suggested questions for the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick MP from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee
An earlier version of this document was sent to the Committees official email and Clive Betts MP on the 13th July after I first heard there maybe a meeting this week. I have since amended Q1.3 and added more background to section 6 on viability. File in link here and below, may take a second to load.
Copy of questions and motions in link here and below
I have added to the two key documents released last night by MHCLG comments on the side of each one about the key issues.
I have done this in PDF so I am not sure how you can view my comments added on the side except by downloading and viewing as a PDF yet so may reload later as pictures.
The original documents here
I have uploaded my PDF documents into Dropbox to share, Annex A most useful despite repetition of pages.
Individual files if folder does not work
Westferry Printworks: why Robert Jenrick and the government are in trouble (and the complicity of Sadiq Khan)
Below is a detailed summary of the Printworks story updated with the latest Sunday Times revelations www.thetimes.co.uk/article/robert-jenrick-watched-housing-promo-video-on-richard-desmonds-phone-bqb0s8kz2
The Daily Mail last week had a front-page headline which said ‘Minister: I knew I was saving tycoon millions’, the saving we now believe to be about £80 million. But the story started in May when the Minister, Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government accepted that a planning decision he had made in January 2020 had been “unlawful by reason of apparent bias and should be quashed”. The planning decision had been to approve the Westferry Printworks development in my ward, Canary Wharf. The development is owned by Richard Desmond, a major press figure. I thought it might be useful to explain some of the background especially as it affects the Conservatives with stories of party donations, fundraising dinners, drinks with tycoons and it also involves Sir Ed Lister and the Prime Minister. I also think it should inform a much-needed reform in the way Ministers make planning decisions and also the experience required of them.
The Minister's decision was also the final reason why I quit as leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council and the Conservative party. I remain a member of the Conservative group as an independent Cllr (if I quit the group there would be no formal opposition group left in Tower Hamlets). But for me it was the final straw after months of doubts about the direction of and competence of the party.
As a Councillor I spend too much time in Tower Hamlets investigating corruption, fraud, dodgy decisions etc etc etc as my fellow Councillor Peter Golds has repeatedly highlighted on this site. As an example, the investigation into our current MP, Apsana Begum over allegations of housing fraud started last November but has not yet concluded.
So when a Minister makes a decision so inexplicable which benefits a developer to such an extent it was too much to take. In my attempts to understand why the Minister made his decision, to reverse it and to ensure nobody repeats it, it looks as if damage is being done to the Ministers reputation and by extension the Conservative Party, that was not my intent but his original decision to approve the development remains inexplicable despite weeks of public discussion and my residents and I need to understand it what happened and why. So it might help if I summarise what happened and explain the various mysteries which remain unanswered although the recent Sunday Times story starts to fill in some key gaps.
Westferry Printworks owned by Richard Desmond ceased printing operations in 2012. It is a prime location, next to the Millwall Outer dock, with good views of central London and Greenwich, ten minutes’ walk to Canary Wharf. In 2014 a consultation started on a new 722 home scheme, up to 30 storeys in height + a secondary school. In 2015 Tower Hamlets Council failed to make a decision within statutory time limits. Desmond then asks Boris Johnson, Mayor of London to make the decision instead. The press now reports several meetings between Richard Desmond and Boris Johnson in 2015/16. But he delegates the decision to Sir Ed Lister, his Deputy Mayor at the time, who in April 2016 approves the development. Sir Lister though made two important changes. After the developer dropped the affordable housing share from 14% down to 11% Sir Lister hired an external consultant who calculated that the site could deliver 20% affordable homes, not 11%. In retrospect and in comparison to other schemes nearby 20% was low especially as, unlike many other nearby sites the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) was set at £0 per square meter of development. The levy (CIL) is a tax on development to pay for new infrastructure much needed here as the Isle of Dogs and South Poplar has to deliver a minimum of 31,209 new homes in fifteen years and office space for 110,000 new jobs. But Sir Lister made the decision in public, opponents could speak against it, he also partially dealt with my then main objection to it, that wind flow onto the adjacent Dockland sailing centre made sailing more difficult for novice sailors in the spring. Although we did not like the decision, at the time we understood it, not true of Jenrick’s later decision.
Demolition work started in 2017 and the basement is dug, both causing major air quality and noise issues for my residents living next to the site.
Then according to the Sunday Times interview with him, Richard Desmond described meeting Mayor Sadiq Khan at the 21st April 2018 Queen's Birthday Party, he said “Khan rushed up to me . . . ‘You haven’t got enough buildings on your site. Would you like to have more buildings?’ And that’s where it all started.”
Both Sadiq Khan and the Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs were then working to increase housing targets on the Isle of Dogs, Sadiq Khan later set a target for the Isle of Dogs of 29,000 new homes plus office space for 110,000 workers, up from 10,000 new homes set previously (& delivered). John Biggs ended up allocating 57% of all new housing in Tower Hamlets to the Isle of Dogs and South Poplar, about a 1/10 of the Borough.
In July 2018, Richard Desmond submits a new larger planning application, doubling the size to 1,540 homes, up to 46 storeys (later two floors are removed at the request of London City Airport, now 1,524 homes). All of the buildings are now taller and a new extra tower is added, reducing the size of the proposed green space.
The Sunday Times then says Richard Desmond told them that at midday on October 22, 2018: “Sadiq’s people [Rajesh Agrawal, deputy mayor for business, and James Murray, then deputy mayor for housing] came into my office and started waffling. I said: ‘Are you backing me on this f***ing development!?’ His planning man, James Murray, said ‘yes’. I said, will you confirm to me you’re backing this?’ Yes, yes, it was all fine. Then they U-turned.”
In November 2018, the Council miss the 16-week deadline to make a decision ( 2nd time on this site). Then in March 2019 Richard Desmond with no sign of Tower Hamlets Council being ready to make a decision asks the planning inspectorate to make a decision, within an hour of being notified the Council agrees to an inquiry. It is then decided that the Secretary of State will decide it, Robert Jenrick from July 2019.
In May 2019 Richard Desmond withdraws the offer of 35% affordable housing and in June 2019 offers 21% instead, at this point CIL is still set at £0. But other nearby sites are being approved offering 35% affordable housing, schools, and paying CIL. The value of that 14% drop in affordable housing was later estimated as broadly around £40 million. Or the revenue value of the 14% if sold privately equals approximately £106 million as some newspapers have quoted.
The public inquiry was in August 2019. Tower Hamlets Council, the Greater London Authority, and residents for once are united on a planning issue and all object to it. It went well, we think we are winning the planning argument. We ask late in 2019 when the Minister will make a decision, we are told by the 20th February 2020, so we think we have some time.
We then have the mystery of the Conservative fund-raising dinner in November 2019.
The Daily Mail on the 30th May this year report that a dinner was held at the Carlton Club in November 2019. Richard Desmond, his commercial director and several senior figures from Mace, the construction company overseeing the scheme (Richard Desmond has no development experience). Robert Jenrick is sat at the same table. This is how Harry Cole of the Daily Mail reported it “Mr Jenrick said Mr Desmond had talked about it, albeit briefly. His spokesman said: 'They were put on the same table, although Mr Jenrick was not aware of this prior to arriving at the venue. 'The developers did raise their application, but Mr Jenrick informed them that it would not be appropriate for them to discuss the matter with him, or for him to pass comment on it.”
The Sunday Times on the 21st June says the dinner was held on the 20th November at the Savoy Hotel, with the Prime Minister making a speech. The attendance details are more detailed. Three named senior figures from Northern & Shell, which Richard Desmond owns. One person from Mace. Henry Bellingham, an MP turned lobbyist, and the Daily Express and Mirror editors, were also there. But Richard Desmond says the Minister watched the first 3 to 4 minutes of a video presentation about the Printworks at the dinner on his personal phone but after that the Minister refused to discuss the scheme further (but at least 5 of 9 people at the table were linked to the development so what was discussed?). It is claimed that neither knew who would be at the table so who placed them on the same table?
On the 28th of January 2020, Richard Desmond made a personal donation of £12k to the Conservative party but we now know that was payment for the table at the dinner. His company had previously donated £10k to the Conservatives, he had also helped the Labour party but most of his political donations went to UKIP.
We assume it is the same dinner being described with a mix up over the location. But was there more than one dinner?
But we now know from court documents that I published, that Jenrick decided to approve the planning application in late December 2019, 4 weeks after the dinner, decision letter issued on the 14th January 2020. The Minister says he told his officers about the dinner. But the Minister goes further than just approving it, he agreed to make the decision before Tower Hamlets Councillors voted on a new CIL charging regime on the 15th January 2020, that lifted CIL on this site from £0 to £280 per square meter. Worth circa another £40 million. He overturned his Inspector's recommendations to reject the scheme on a number of planning grounds. It is the only time he had overturned an inspectors recommendations. We had won the planning arguments but the Jenrick decided to ignore them.
So the total benefit was around £80 million from the Minister making the decision a day early and accepting only 21% affordable homes contrary to his own Inspectors advice that the scheme could deliver a higher % which the Minister accepted to be true (a reminder that Sir Ed Lister, when presented with the same scenario in 2016, got external consultants to calculate a better number). For some unexplained reason in late December the Minister/MHCLG say they were concerned about the viability of the site. But that was contradicted by a separate public examination around the same time in late autumn 2019 that confirmed that sites in the area could pay the new CIL rates and deliver a policy-compliant 35% affordable housing as others had already done. In theory a late stage review might have reduced the £40 million affordable homes benefit but even the Minister accepted that it would have “some benefit although its effect would be limited”.
Tower Hamlets Council and the Greater London Authority in February challenge the Ministers decision through a judicial review process, each submitting their own challenge, Tower Hamlets request full disclosure of all internal documents as part of their case, the Minister calls that a fishing expedition in pre-trial discussions. But in May the Minister folds, he decides not to defend his decision (which means those documents never get disclosed, what was in them?) and accepts that his decision was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias and should be quashed”.
Of interest is that the Mayor of London and the GLA have never publicly discussed or comment on the court case despite them being party to it, the decision and what has happened in recent weeks. Tower Hamlets Council with the exception of a few quotes from Mayor John Biggs are also unwilling to make a fuss about it after winning the court case, later a journalist describes to me the Councils response to requests for information as “bizarrely unhelpful”. Did they all have something to hide as well? I had to pay go to the Courts and pay £56.50 to ensure that the court documents were put in the public domain, these documents had been submitted by Tower Hamlets Council and the GLA, both public bodies.
I won’t go into the later detail given the numerous press reports. But the Cabinet Office has been asked by Clive Betts MP, to investigate and documents have been passed on by MHCLG to the Cabinet Office, the first Freedom of Information requests are also due out shortly.
What happens next is unknown, the government's opponents smell blood, the press is interested (eleven articles in The Times in three weeks) and we now await the next steps from MHCLG, the House of Commons Select Committee and the Cabinet Office. The planning decision also still remains to be made, this time by a different MHCLG Minister probably after a 2nd new inspectors report (each inspection = £0.5 million approximately of costs to the public purse).
Some of the key lessons from this are that Ministers should not be making decisions like this alone and in secret. They should be made in public as the Mayor of London does and ideally as a Committee with others. That planning inspector reports need to be published when complete not after a decision. That all other advice is made public in advance of a decision. Ministers with planning powers also need to be left out of the normal party fundraising process. But as a local Councillor, I have been bemused by how poor the planning process is at MHCLG.
Most people with local government planning experience would have recused themselves from the decision after meeting the developer at a dinner 4-5 weeks earlier. Which leads to a more personal point. When I look at Robert Jenrick's background I see almost no planning nor local government experience. I believe he has made mistakes that a more experienced person would not have done (Sir Ed Lister for example). The Party really needs to think about how it recruits candidates with not just brains and a Cambridge education but some practical experience in the rough and tumble of politics. And I have been astonished how poor the response has been to this story so far allowing it to grow with each new revelation.
PS Can we get the desperately needed new secondary school built on this site, we do not need Jenrick’s errors to delay that any further.
lockdown is over / why covid has so badly affected tower hamlets, our leaders do not take it seriously
I have formally reported sixteen elected Tower Hamlets politicans to the Police and Tower Hamlets Council for breaking lockdown regulations. The report is also below and here as a PDF. The politicians include the most senior politicians in Tower Hamlets, the Mayor, one Deputy Mayor, four other Cabinet members, eight Councillors with additional responsibilities including the Speaker, and finally two backbench Councillors.
I was prompted to submit these reports by these social media comments.
The local MP, Apsana Begum two weeks before this event said on Twitter;
“I am inundated with emails from constituents angry with the Prime Minister & Dominic Cummings. Some lost their loved ones & missed funerals. Some missed their first birth with family. Others had arranged care for their elderly parents from other cities. They all obeyed the rules.” this was in relation to Dominic Cummings allegedly breaking lock down rules. (I believe he did). It received 299 likes and 85 retweets
A Tower Hamlets Councillor Kevin Brady also said on Twitter;
“Really quite fucked off about #cummings. I didn’t get to go to a dear family friends funeral which was devastating; I haven’t seen my mum & dad despite him having been in hospital for surgery; they haven’t seen their kids & grandkids in months. 1 rule for us-another for them!”
On the 12th June 2020, three days after the event Mayor John Biggs in an official email to residents said;
“Finally, coronavirus has not gone away and we are continuing our efforts to support local people. I’d like to remind you that as government guidance on coronavirus is regularly being updated, we all need to keep adhering to social distancing and strict hygiene practices to help keep ourselves and each other safe and well.”
These comments (I underlined key bits) all clearly indicate how important it was to maintain social distancing and follow the rules (allowed to meet up to six people – provided that those from different households stay two metres away from each other). The first response of the Council to my concerns were that they were unlikely to be covered by the Council code of conduct but I have submitted a forrmal complaint.
They were also reported to the Police last week, ref RGO-3568-20-0101-C but they have confirmed they won't act.
I have not attached the 80+ pictures I have but there are a lot of pictures/videos on social media like this one from Mayor Johns Biggs himself
These social media pictures were semi-conscious of the need to avoid pictures of the crowd, the private pictures I have are worse in terms of the numbers, lack of social distancing, lack of masks etc.
If you truly believe Black Lives Matter and that it is more then just a political stunt then you need to demonstrate in your personal behaviour that you wish to protect the vulnerable by maintaining social distancing at a time when 0.5% of the Tower Hamlets population was estimated to be showing symptoms of COVID (many more would not be showing symptoms).
But if elected politicians won't follow the rules and the Met Police won't enforce them then lockdown is over.
This 1st picture is from Mayor John Biggs own tweet, it clearly shows how close together people were but it was OK to publish this picture?
This public video shows how close people were, I have access to other private pictures which show this even more clearly.
Westferry Printworks - detail of requested investigations by sir Mark Sedwill & Clive betts MP + a summary
I have sent two letters on the 15th June to:
Sir Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary repeating my 3rd June request for an investigation, letter here and below
Mr Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, detailing why his Commitee at Parliament should investigate this, letter here and below, my previous lettter to him can be found in an earlier post
Finally a 12 page summary of the key issues, background and history, here and below. I posted drafts of these documents on the 14th June but I made a few minor tweeks to all of them.
Westferry Printworks combines political scandal (fundraising dinners with a developer 5 weeks in advance of granting their scheme planning permission plus party political donations), concerns over corruption in the absence of any other information to explain why the Minister would financially benefit a developer to such an extent but also fundamental issues about how Ministers make planning decisions in secret. The involvement of the Prime Minister in the earlier smaller planning application on this site in 2016 adds further political interest although in my opinion the decision made by Sir Ed Lister then was more transparent and logical than the 2020 decision.
The Minister Robert Jenrick deliberately timed a decision to benefit a developer by around £40 million. In doing so he went against the wishes of his own Planning Inspector, the local Council, and the Greater London Authority. He also accepted the developer dropping the affordable housing from 35% down to 21%. Last August two separate planning experts judged the scheme could deliver more affordable housing and pay the £40 million for new infrastructure which the Isle of Dogs desperately needs. He thought differently, that the development could afford neither, why? I do not believe direct corruption took place, neither party was that dumb (I assume) but what happened feeds the narrative of corruption and therefore full disclosure is required.
When first challenged with a judicial review of his decision in February 2020 he claimed Tower Hamlets Council was on a fishing expedition but then weeks later changes his mind and accepts his decision ‘was unlawful by reason of apparent bias and should be quashed’.
A related mystery is why Tower Hamlets Council twice on this site failed to make a decision within the statutory time period, in 2018 they missed the deadline by six months. That appears to have been a conscious decision.
The Cabinet Office and the House of Commons Select Committee now need to investigate. The Police won’t investigate further without more information. The Minister needs to release all of the relevant documents and declare other meetings or donations. I believe that there is still something missing from this story to explain why he made the decision that he did which is why I resigned from the Conservative Party in February. Having spent years investigating alleged corruption in Tower Hamlets having to investigate a dodgy decision by a senior Minister in my own party was too much.