Embattled housing secretary Robert Jenrick is to face a grilling in front of live TV cameras on his decision - later overturned - to overrule a local council and planning inspectors to approve a £1bn property development by a billionaire Tory donor.
Mr Jenrick accepted an invitation to answer questions on the Westferry plan at the House of Commons Housing Committee, but rejected their proposal to hold the on-camera evidence session on Monday next week, offering instead to fix a date in the week of 20 July, in the final days before parliament breaks up for the summer.
In a letter agreeing to attend, the housing secretary took a swipe at the local authority at the centre of the row, suggesting that it deliberately slowed down the handling of Richard Desmond’s planning application in order to benefit financially.
And he suggested he may provide little new information about the controversial east London project, telling the cross-party committee: “With regard to this particular planning case, it has already been discussed at length in recent weeks and, while I am happy to discuss the matter further with you, I continue to be mindful of what is appropriate to discuss (for me or other ministers) on what remains a live planning case.
“We need to ensure that the fresh re-determination is undertaken with due process and a fair hearing for all sides.”
The appearance comes after chair Clive Betts wrote to Mr Jenrick to inform him that the cross-party committee does not regard the Westferry issue as "closed" and presented him with a list of 26 outstanding questions which the MPs want answered, relating to the decision itself and the dinner and subsequent contacts with Mr Desmond.
Internal documents on the decision released last month show that civil servants said the cabinet minister was “insistent” that it should be pushed through before the introduction by Tower Hamlets Borough Council of a new community infrastructure levy (CIL). It was eventually concluded on the eve of the CIL coming into force, potentially saving Mr Desmond as much as £50m. But Mr Jenrick later quashed his own decision after accepting that it was unlawful because it might give rise to the impression of bias.
In a letter to the House of Commons Housing Committee, Mr Jenrick insisted there was nothing improper about him taking into account the timing of the introduction of the CIL when making his decision.
“I am sure that the committee would agree that there is a manifest unfairness for any applicant to be financially disadvantaged because of poor administration by a local planning authority,” he wrote.
“In this case, the local authority failed to consider the application within statutory deadlines. It would be against public law principles of natural justice and fairness for a public authority to benefit financially by deliberately slowing down planning applications.”
The Housing Secretary repeated his previous statement that he had refused to discuss the application with Mr Desmond when the pair shared a table with representatives of a construction company involved in the scheme at a Conservative fund-raising dinner in November. And he said he had not discussed the issue with Downing Street and that No 10 had no involvement with Mr Desmond or his representatives.
Defending his decision to approve the plan to build 1,500 homes on a former print works site, Mr Jenrick told the committee: “The revised scheme would have provided more than double the number of affordable housing units than the consented scheme.
“If the appeal were dismissed it was unclear that that would lead to new proposals for affordable housing. Indeed, the appellant may have reverted to the original consented scheme with 142 fewer affordable homes. Alternatively, the project may have continued to have been delayed, with no affordable homes coming forward in the foreseeable future.
“The judgement I made therefore was an entirely reasonable one, to ensure a housing scheme proceeded with all the incumbent housing and economic benefits to the area involved, including a large new school.
“A significant number of social homes would have been delivered rather than subjected to delay or doubt. All the issues raised by the GLA (Greater London Authority), the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and my Inspector were fully taken into consideration in reaching my decision.”
A Tower Hamlets council spokesperson said: “Our record is good on planning decisions in the agreed timeframe. We are one of the best boroughs when it comes to housing delivery. On average we approve about 6,000 units a year. Many of the major applications we receive are the largest and most complex of any in London, they will have huge implications and it is right that time is taken to ensure the schemes are delivering for Tower Hamlets and are delivering against the local plan.
“Government stats show that 87.2 per cent of applications are within the timeframe; and a peer review in 2018 found that our planning service is performing well against all of the government’s national planning performance indicators.”
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