Robert Jenrick’s department waved through a Tory donor’s controversial development knowing full well that it didn’t provide adequate affordable housing, email chains have revealed.
With the project set to be hit by a levy of millions of pounds if a decision was made a day later, a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government official said of the affordable housing concerns: “We don’t have time for that.”
The Westferry Printworks development was to contain 21% so-called affordable housing, of which about 220 would be for “affordable rent” – up to four-fifths of market rate – and the rest, just over 90, would be for “intermediate rent”, more expensive still. The average market rent in the borough by the end of 2017 was £1,733 a month, nearly double the national rate and significantly out of reach of those most in need.
Housing secretary Jenrick is under fire after releasing documents over his decision in January to approve the east London development driven by multi-millionaire Richard Desmond.
The timing of the planning approval came just a day before a new community infrastructure levy (CIL) came into force, which could have cost Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50m – cash that would have gone towards local infrastructure in one of the country’s most deprived boroughs.
Before Jenrick’s intervention, plans for 1,500 flats on the former Westferry Printworks site on London’s Isle of Dogs had already been rejected by the local Tower Hamlets Council and a planning inspector over concerns about that same lack of affordable housing.
The council was unhappy about the proposed number of so-called affordable homes: a 21% proportion rather than the 35% minimum expected by local leaders. There were also worries about the mix of flat sizes, and the lack of family homes.
Within a stash of letters and texts published on Wednesday night by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, reference is made to an “acute need for affordable housing in Tower Hamlets”. More than 20,000 households are on the borough’s waiting list, with some families expected to wait more than a decade to be given a property.
Officials questioned in the correspondence on January 14, the day Jenrick announced his decision and a day before the CIL came into effect, whether there was the opportunity to increase the proportion of affordable housing in the plan – desperately needed to help with the borough’s 20,000-long wait list, which stretches past a decade for some types of home.
But another responded: “It would not be possible to introduce a condition on the provision of affordable housing without going back to the parties to ask them for their views on such a condition – and we don’t have time for that.”
The need to reach a decision ahead of the levy’s introduction is evident throughout the cache of papers.
In another document, a ministry official indicates the secretary of state (SoS) wanted Westferry to be signed off and approved the following day so that it would avoid the CIL.
It stated: “On timing, my understanding is that SoS [secretary of state, Jenrick] is/was insistent that decision issued this week ie tomorrow – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime.”
Jenrick published information after Labour tabled a motion – which was approved – directing the government to release all documents relating to the controversial approval.
The housing secretary has faced accusations of “cash for favours” after it emerged ex-Daily Express owner Desmond had personally given the Conservative Party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme for 1,500 homes was approved.
Jenrick has since had to quash his own approval, conceding the decision was “unlawful” because people could see it as biased – even though he denies any bias actually existed, and says the scheme was signed off on its own merits.
The newly-released documents show texts between Jenrick and Desmond after spending time together at a Tory fund raising event event.
In one text, apparently referring to Labour-run Tower Hamlets Council as “Marxists”, Desmond said: “We appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!
“We all want to go with the scheme and the social housing we have proposed and spent a month at the Marxist town hall debating, thanks again, all my best Richard.”
Jenrick replies that it is “important not to give any appearance of being influenced by applicants of cases that I may have a role in”.