Richard Desmond's dodged levy could have covered much of the council's coronavirus shortfall, writes Tower Hamlet's Mayor John Biggs.
Last week, following weeks of pressure from the Labour frontbench and intense media scrutiny, Communities and Local Government secretary Robert Jenrick finally appeared in the House of Commons to face the music.
It follows real concern this past couple of weeks about Robert Jenrick’s decision to go against the views of Tower Hamlets Council – and his own planning inspector – in approving Richard Desmond’s planning application for the Westferry Printworks site.
Serious questions have been raised about the timing of the decision (as well as the subsequent donation to the Conservative party), made just one day before the council adopted changes to its Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) levels. It would have meant the developer had to pay between £30 million and £50m more to the council.
Mr Jenrick’s performance in Parliament was less than impressive and he left many questions unanswered. He was however forced to finally release documents relating to his decision.
The documents are astonishing, damning and I would argue have blown apart confidence in our planning system under Mr Jenrick. The papers that have been released do indeed suggest he rushed through the decision to help save the developer money and short-change residents in Tower Hamlets.
What’s more, he referred to our borough as ‘rotten’, and published messages from Mr Desmond called our council ‘Marxist’. This name calling says more about them and their disregard for my residents whose borough it is, and who rightly want much needed affordable homes and money for local services.
It’s hard to say what I find about this whole scandal most troubling, from the alleged ‘cash for favours’ aspect and the undermining of trust in the planning system, through to the millions of pounds of lost CIL money that would have been spent improving vital infrastructure in one of the most deprived parts of the country.
That’s not to mention the allegations that Mr Jenrick and Mr Desmond worked together to reduce the number of affordable homes in the development at a time when we are doing our very best as a council to provide new affordable and council homes.
The allegation that Mr Jenrick’s well-timed decision saved Mr Desmond millions in CIL contributions will perhaps be most concerning to residents in Tower Hamlets. The purpose of CIL is to ensure that infrastructure can be improved and upgraded to address increasing demands that developments place on an area.
We aren’t anti-development but developers can’t simply make a quick buck; they have to contribute to the area. The Isle of Dogs is a heavily developed area, and in need of new affordable homes, so it would be devastating to have a development as large as Westferry without ensuring we had the money needed to upgrade our infrastructure.
It is this behaviour and the attitude that Mr Jenrick and Mr Desmond take to Tower Hamlets that I find the most offensive. Tower Hamlets is a wonderful, hard-working borough and one of the fastest growing places in the UK where people want to come and live. As a council we want to ensure that developments enhance our borough and support our residents. I’m not sure that makes us the ‘Marxists’ that Mr Desmond seems to think we are, but we do contain high areas of deprivation. As a council we have been forced to make £190m in savings since 2010 through the Tory government’s austerity agenda, with a further £39m required by 2023.
On top of all this comes the additional weight of our response to the coronavirus crisis: Tower Hamlets Council estimates for the full year (2020-21), it will spend an additional £24.4m due to pressures caused by COVID-19, while income will reduce by £34.6m. Way back at the start of the crisis, Mr Jenrick told local authorities to spend what they needed and that it would be reimbursed by the Government, but as time has gone on this pledge seems to have been brushed aside and local authorities are being left to dangle.
At the heart of all this, from the Westferry decision to the Covid-19 response and Government’s respect for our local councils, is the matter of trust. Trust that the Government would at least follow its own rules, and trust that Mr Jenrick will act fairly, and being seen to act fairly and with proper accountability in accordance with his duties as one of the most powerful people in Government.
He has said that he acted properly but at no time did his decision show any consideration for the concerns and desires of local people. Not once did he appear to show any interest in the principle, for which his department is responsible and on which his party in Government has legislated, for community interests to be considered in determining an application. For him, it looks like ‘favours for mates’ is far more important.
The Prime Minister may consider the Westferry scandal to be a ‘closed matter’, but I can assure him it is anything but.
John Biggs is Mayor of Tower Hamlets.
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