Why Jenrick's acceptance of 'apparent bias' in his decision-making matters, by Richard Garlick

The secretary of state for housing is the most senior decision-maker in the planning system, outside of the courts. For him to accept that one of his decisions should be quashed on grounds of his own “apparent bias” is an extremely serious matter.

But, as anyone who reads a national newspaper now knows, that is what Robert Jenrick did in late May. He had approved the 1,524-home Westferry Printworks scheme in Tower Hamlets, submitted by Tory party donor Richard Desmond’s development firm, after rejecting the advice of the planning inspector. He had knowingly issued his decision two days before the council’s new Community Infrastructure Levy schedule took effect. This, he has subsequently said, was to avoid the scheme being hit by delays and viability problems.

But the council estimated that the decision cost it £40 million in infrastructure contributions from Desmond. Jenrick had come to accept that the timing of his decision “would lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility” that he had been biased in favour of the developer. Accordingly, although he denied actual bias, he accepted his decision was unlawful, and should be quashed and redetermined by another minister.

To have a decision quashed on these grounds is damaging for Jenrick, and bad for the planning system. Lack of public trust in the system is one of the biggest problems that blocks desirable development. When good applications come forward, they have to overcome widespread suspicion that planning serves the interests of developers, not local people. This episode is only going to accentuate that lack of trust.

Crucially, it also undermines the secretary of state’s credibility as a radical reformer of the planning system.

Jenrick has repeatedly said that he wants to rethink English planning “from first principles”. Recently there has been a series of press reports that the government will soon overhaul the system, implementing ideas Jenrick had announced earlier this year. Many of the predicted changes, such as the widening of zonal planning, further expansion of permitted development and changes to use classes, would involve stripping local authorities of planning power. That is never easy for a secretary of state to sell to his or her party’s local councillors. But for a secretary of state who has publicly acknowledged “apparent bias” towards a developer, it will be doubly hard.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning // richard.garlick@haymarket.com

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