The government has backtracked on approving a 46-storey tower on the Isle of Dogs which was opposed by Greenwich Council, after Tower Hamlets Council look legal action alleging the decision was timed to save developers £50 million.
Tower Hamlets challenged the housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s decision to use his ministerial powers to approve more than 1,500 homes on the former Westferry Printworks site next to Millwall Dock.
The council opposed the application for 1,500 homes with six towers, the tallest of which is 46 storeys, because of its impact on local amenities and lack of “affordable” housing at just 21 per cent. Following a public inquiry held in August 2019, the planning inspector agreed with the council.
Greenwich Council was among the objectors, saying the development – on the site of the former Daily Telegraph printing works – would damage the view from Greenwich Park because it would be a distraction from the cluster of tall buildings around Canary Wharf.
However, Jenrick’s department called in the decision and granted permission for Westferry Developments to go ahead with the scheme. It was given the green light just 24 hours before Tower Hamlets was due to increase the sums it asks developers to pay towards local infrastructure, which are known as community infrastructure payments. The decision saved Westferry Developments between £30million to £50million.
Westferry Developments is controlled by Northern & Shell, the former owner of Channel 5 and the Daily Express. The company, founded by Richard Desmond, sold its media interests in the 2010s and is now concentrating on property development.
Tower Hamlets took legal action demanding the government release documents it said would prove the secretary of state was “influenced by a desire to help the developer save money”.
But this week the department refused to release documentation relating to the decision and the secretary of state chose to allow planning permission to be quashed.
John Biggs, the elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “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 siding with the developer, he went against not only the planning inspector but also the council’s strategic development committee and the residents whose lives would be directly impacted by this scheme.
“We will continue to press for a scheme that meets the needs of the community on the Isle of Dogs in terms of height and density, the provision of adequate affordable housing and infrastructure delivery.”
Andrew Wood, one of only two Tory councillors in the borough, resigned from the Conservative Party because of Mr Jenrick’s decision.
The Canary Wharf councillor said at the time the “decision was so shocking I knew immediately that I had to resign”.
A government spokesman said the minister outlined his reasons for approving the development in a letter in January. Mr Jenrick said in the letter that although he accepted some of the planning inspectorate’s reasons for refusal, he believed that the housing and employment benefits from the scheme outweighed any potential harm.
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local spokesperson said on Friday evening: “While we reject the suggestion that there was any actual bias in the decision, we have agreed that the application will be redetermined.”
Jenrick is yet to make a decision on two major planning appeals in Greenwich borough – for a 27-storey tower in Woolwich town centre and the controversial Rockwell scheme by the riverside at Charlton. A decision on the latter is expected next month.
Additional reporting by Darryl Chamberlain. Story updated late on Friday night to include ministry quote.
Rachael Burford is the Local Democracy Reporter for Tower Hamlets. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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