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.