Housing secretary's 'biased' Westferry consent 'should prompt review of ministerial decision-making'

Legal experts have called for far-reaching changes to the process of ministerial decision-making following an admission of "apparent bias" by the housing secretary in his "unlawful" consent for a 1,500-home scheme.

A visualisation of the Westferry development. Pic: Westferry Developments/PLP Architecture
A visualisation of the Westferry development. Pic: Westferry Developments/PLP Architecture

Last month, planning permission to redevelop the former Westferry Printworks site in East London into a 1,500-home scheme was overturned when secretary of state Robert Jenrick admitted "apparent bias" in his decision to approve the application against the advice of his own inspector.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets had launched a legal challenge to the consent, which was issued in January, because the timing of the controversial decision allowed the applicant – a business owned by media mogul and alleged Tory donor Richard Desmond – to avoid having to pay between £30-50 million in community infrastructure levy (CIL) payments. 

These would have been due given the planned introduction by the council of a new CIL charging schedule, which included new rates for the application site area, just three days after the decision letter on 14 January.

Planning lawyers and local authority bodies told Planning that it should prompt changes in ministerial decision-making in order to avoid a loss of faith in the whole system.

Planning barrister Sasha White QC of Landmark Chambers, who acted on behalf of Tower Hamlets in the judicial review, said: “Absolutely, there should be a review. It’s a very sad situation. 

"We don’t know what interaction there was between ministers and civil servants. Warning bells should have been ringing left right and centre. 

"They should also consider the impact of the minister’s decision on the Planning Inspectorate. 

"Inspectors must be horrified as it calls in to question the credibility and legitimacy of the head of the planning system.”

Nicola Gooch, a planning partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell said: “If there is something nasty lurking in the disclosures [the emails requested by the claimants in the court case], then the department will need to have a complete overhaul of the decision-making process.

“They could ask ministers to declare all lobbying. It could be something that is added to the list of things referred to in decision letters." 

Planning barrister Christopher Young QC, of No5 Chambers, said: “There needs to be a full internal inquiry into why this went wrong and ensure this will never happen again.

“The department needs to look at what needs to change, and find out what the level of intent was here. I can’t imagine officials were happy with this."

Mike Kiely, chairman of the Planning Officers' Society, said: “It might be a good idea for the ministry to reflect on this and put in place a process to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. "You could have a statement at the beginning of ministerial decisions.

Kiely and Gooch pointed out that council committee meetings have standard procedures where members make declarations of any contact with applicants or third parties, and recuse themselves if advised to do so. 

Kiely added: “The secretary of state can learn a lesson from council committees who get all this stuff out in the open.”

The MHCLG has denied that there was any actual bias by the minister in taking the decision. It declined to comment on the suggestion that it should overhaul the decision-making process.

An analysis article exploring the implications of the Westferry case can be found here.

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that it is assessing an "allegation" made in relation to the consent.

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