Secretary of state permission quashed after he accepts ‘bias’ charge

The High Court has told housing secretary Robert Jenrick to go back to the drawing board on his decision to grant consent for 1,524 new homes in London’s Docklands, after finding that it was ‘apparently biased’.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Pic: Getty Images
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Pic: Getty Images

In a judgment handed down yesterday (Thursday), Mr Justice Holgate of the Planning Court said that the decision to grant permission for the redevelopment of the former Daily Express printworks at Westferry must be redetermined.

The secretary of state permitted the 1,524-home scheme, which had been submitted by an offshoot of the newspaper’s former parent company Northern & Shell, even though his inspector David Prentis had recommended refusal.

Tower Hamlets Council, supported by the Greater London Authority (GLA), launched a judicial review last month on the grounds that the timing of the decision was influenced by a desire to help the developer to avoid a ‘substantial’ financial liability arising from the council’s revised Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charges.

The council has estimated that the new CIL levels would mean that, had the decision been taken later, the developer would have had to pay up to £50m more to the council.

A consent order issued by the High Court states that in pre-action correspondence, the secretary of state explained that the decision letter was issued on 14 January 2020, rather than the following day, so that it would be issued before Tower Hamlets was due to adopt its new local plan and CIL charging schedule.

Under the new charging schedule, the previously zero-rated development was liable for a ‘significant’ payment of CIL, the judgement said.

According to the judgment, the secretary of state accepts that the timing of the decision would lead to the ‘fair minded’ conclusion that there was a ‘real possibility’ that he had been ‘biased’ in favour of the applicant.

Accordingly, he accepted that the decision letter was ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’ and therefore should be quashed.

He has also accepted that another minister should redetermine the application.

In his decision letter, Prentis said the proposal would fail to preserve the settings of the Old Royal Naval College, Tower Bridge, and the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.

The planning application to redevelop the former Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs had been submitted in July 2018. It proposed almost doubling the 722 homes for the site previously approved in August 2016 by the former London mayor Boris Johnson.

The scheme was to be delivered in a series of buildings, the tallest of which would have been 44 storeys, doubling the height of the previously approved scheme.

In March 2019, the developers lodged an appeal, arguing the council was taking too long to reach a decision on the application.

The council’s strategic development committee resolved in May 2019 that had it been able to do so, it would have refused permission.

Responding to the judgment, Tower Hamlets deputy mayor and cabinet member for planning cllr Rachel Blake said: “This is great news for Tower Hamlets and I would like to pay tribute to the teams involved. We were shocked that in taking his decision, the secretary of state went against the government’s own planning inspector’s recommendation.

“The timing, which meant the developer would have been able to pay significantly lower infrastructure costs than if it had been made the following week, meant we had no choice but to challenge it through the courts.

“We feel strongly that these decisions should be taken locally, but where they’re not, our residents must still be able to trust the integrity of the processes that are followed."

The GLA's deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, Jules Pipe, said: “We’re very pleased the High Court has quashed the secretary of state’s decision to allow this application.

"The Planning Inspector agreed with the Mayor that more affordable housing could be delivered and that the plans would harm views of Tower Bridge.

"We remain concerned about the scale of the scheme and its proposed development of locally-designated open space.

"We expect any future decision by ministers to take all our concerns into account and hope permission will be refused.”

An MHCLG spokeswoman said: “While we reject the suggestion that there was any actual bias in the decision, we have agreed that the application will be redetermined."

Melissa Murphy, a barrister at Francis Taylor Building, represented the GLA in the case. Law firm Eversheds Sutherland acted on behalf of the developer Westferry Developments.

NOTE: Comments from the GLA and MHCLG were added to the article at 10am on Wed 27 May.

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