Robert Jenrick and Westferry planning row: What's really at stake?

By Steve Swann
Investigations reporter

Image source, PA Media

A political row has erupted over Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick's decision to grant planning permission for a new housing development to Conservative donor Richard Desmond - what's really at stake?

Ask local resident Ruth Bravery and she'll tell you there's nothing new about property development on the Isle of Dogs.

She moved here eight years ago. Her family lived in this neighbourhood from the 19th Century until her grandparents fled the wartime bombing raids.

In the shadows cast by a couple of old cranes on Millwall Dock, Mrs Bravery said: "If you want your city to look better and to have the right community for people to live in then stuff's got to be built."

But local resources are already stretched to the limit.

"You can't get on a bus in the morning. You can't get a GP appointment for weeks, people haven't got enough water pressure to turn their washing machines on. We have tiny little roads that are hundreds of years old. They're not designed to accommodate developments of this massive scale."

A sign outside the 15-acre Westferry Printworks site boasts of a "vibrant new waterfront neighbourhood."

Next to it someone has graffitied an obscene message about gentrification. Inside workers from utilities companies are driving a digger and a low loader.

Image caption, Ruth Bravery says local people 'are going to lose out'

Mace Developments, who are acting on behalf of Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell company, want to build more than 1,500 homes in five tall blocks on the edge of the dock, alongside restaurants and bars.

The local council and the government's own planning inspector objected, saying the towers were too high and would be harmful to the character of the area.

When London Docklands was conceived in the 1980s, the tallest buildings were to be centred around Canary Wharf and then drop off in scale southwards to Millwall Docks.

Suddenly, in mid-January this year, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced he was backing the planning application.

Image caption, The 15 acre site is in the shadow of Canary Wharf

It is the timing of that decision which is the greatest cause for concern among those living close to the site.

It came the day before a new community infrastructure levy was introduced, saving the developer an estimated £40m that could have been spent on schools, transport, hospitals and sports facilities.

"I really feel that I've been a bit cheated to be honest with you," says Ruth Bravery, who runs a charity that helps the destitute in East London.

"That meant that the local people are really going to lose out as a result."

In addition, only 21% of the flats would be affordable homes instead of the 35% minimum target.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, Robert Jenrick says he did nothing wrong

That's a big issue in Tower Hamlets, London's poorest borough and one of Europe's most densely populated areas. The council estimates this would save the developer as much as £106m.

John Biggs, the Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: "It's right that the secretary of state's decision is fully investigated so the public can have confidence proper processes are in place to stop cosy deals between politicians and developers."

Robert Jenrick told Parliament he stood behind his decision, saying: "We want to see more homes built in this country and in particular in our capital city. This development would have led to 1,500 homes and 250 affordable homes."

Image caption, Councillor Andrew Wood resigned from the Conservatives over the issue

In May, he accepted the decision gave the appearance of bias so he quashed it and agreed to step aside from future decision-making on it.

Mr Biggs says he hopes "any scheme that proceeds is decided on openly and transparently and considers the needs of my residents'.'

Richard Desmond has not replied to our request for an interview. He told the Sunday Times "all we want to do is build more homes in London in a first-class development".

Andrew Wood, an independent councillor who resigned from the Conservative Party over the affair, is pushing for the release of all the paperwork in the case.

He believes it's possible that the housing secretary saw the scheme as a means of meeting national house-building targets.

But, he adds, that does not explain "why he chose to help the developer financially…I'm assuming there's some kind of smoking gun somewhere that explains the logic of this decision. Or else it may be that some people made some really big mistakes."

"We have this hole in the heart of the story that we do not understand yet."