Housing minister mistakenly says secretary of state has refused yet-to-be-decided bell foundry revamp plans

The planning minister Christopher Pincher has mistakenly told the House of Commons that the secretary of state has already refused plans to redevelop a historic former bell foundry in east London, despite the fact that the application is still awaiting determination.

Housing and planning minister Christopher Pincher. Pic: www.christopherpincher.com
Housing and planning minister Christopher Pincher. Pic: www.christopherpincher.com

Pincher was speaking during last Thursday’s debate on probity in the planning process. The debate was triggered by the ongoing controversy surrounding housing secretary Robert Jenrick's decision in January to grant consent for 1,500 new homes in London's Docklands.

After the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, supported by the Greater London Authority, legally challenged the decision, the consent was quashed by the High Court last month after Jenrick agreed that it was "unlawful" due to "apparent bias".

In response to a question from Scottish Nationalist Party MP Alan Brown during Thursday's debate, Pincher referred to the timing of January's decision and to another application for a proposed development in Tower Hamlets.

He said: “In the same week, in an application to the same authority, my right honourable friend came to a very different conclusion when he refused a planning application made by and supported by the local authority to demolish the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the one that created Big Ben and the Liberty bell.

“The local authority, the well-known tribunes of the people in Tower Hamlets, wanted to demolish it and build a luxury boutique hotel.”

The minister was referring to an application to redevelop the Grade II-listed historic former foundry into a mixed-use scheme containing new workshops/workspaces and a cafe.

The developers also sought consent to demolish an unlisted building at the rear of the foundry to allow for the construction of a hotel, a restaurant/bar, and additional workspace.

Jenrick issued a holding direction in December telling Tower Hamlets that it could not press ahead with determining the application, which the east London authority had already resolved to grant.

However the case is currently with the Planning Inspectorate (PINS). A PINS spokesman told Planning that that a decision has yet to be issued.

A spokesman for Tower Hamlets said the council had been informed in January that the decision was being called in but no date has been set for the public inquiry yet given the “current circumstances” surrounding the lockdown.

Commentators raised concerns that the minister's mistake could raise risks that the eventual decision is seen as 'predetermined'.

Simon Ricketts, a partner at specialist planning law firm Town Legal, said: “In these circumstances, even if there were to be some formal retraction by the minister of what he said, this would certainly raise legal issues as to whether in reality the decision had been predetermined.”

The chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee, Labour MP Clive Betts, has called for MHCLG ministers to step back from any further involvement in the ongoing determination of the application.

Describing the minister’s statement as a “complete mess”, Betts said: “This is a matter of concern.

"Hopefully, the minister simply got his facts wrong but it would be appropriate if the secretary of state indicated that after the inquiry has happened any further involvement from ministers was from a different department to make it absolutely clear that the matter has not been pre-judged.”

The MHCLG said that all queries on the application should be directed to PINS as it was handling the case.

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