The government has accepted it acted unlawfully in a legal battle with Tower Hamlets Council over plans for the former Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs.
In January, plans to build 1,524 homes on the site were approved by Secretary of State Robert Jenrick despite a planning inspector recommending against granting permission. In March, the council initiated legal action against the secretary of state, alleging that the timing of the decision appeared to show bias in deciding to allow the appeal.
The council asked the court to order the government to disclose documents that it argued would show the secretary of state was influenced by a desire to help the developer save money by avoiding the council’s revised Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charges.
Developers are obliged to pay CIL to help fund the delivery of local infrastructure projects that are needed to absorb the impact of growth. The Westferry Printworks decision was made just one day before the council adopted changes to its CIL levels, which would mean the developer had to pay between £30 million and £50m more to the council.
Faced with the prospect of having to release documentation relating to the decision, the secretary of state chose to allow the planning permission to be quashed.
John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “We may never know what emails and memos the secretary of state received before making his decision and what influence they had, but his reluctance to disclose them speaks volumes.
“In siding with the developer, he went against not only the planning inspector but also the council’s Strategic Development Committee and the residents whose lives would be directly impacted by this scheme.
“I am grateful to our legal team for their work on this case and for successfully holding the government to account. We will continue to press for a scheme that meets the needs of the community on the Isle of Dogs in terms of height and density, the provision of adequate affordable housing and infrastructure delivery.”
In July 2018, the council received a planning application to redevelop the former Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs with 1,524 new homes, almost doubling the 722 homes previously approved in August 2016 by the former Mayor of London.
The scheme was to be delivered in a series of buildings ranging from nine to 46 storeys including five towers, some of which doubled the height of the previously approved proposal.
In March 2019, the developers lodged an appeal, arguing the council was taking too long to reach a decision on the application. Such an appeal would normally be decided by a planning inspector but in this case, it was called in by the secretary of state.
Although its ability to decide on the application was taken away, the council’s Strategic Development Committee considered the proposals in May 2019 and determined that had it been able to do so, it would have refused permission.
Following a public inquiry held in August 2019, a planning inspector agreed with all but one of the council’s reasons for refusal and recommended to the secretary of state that the developers’ appeal be dismissed.
However, the secretary of state did not agree with the inspector’s recommendations and decided to allow the appeal and grant permission. It was this decision that prompted the subsequent legal challenge.
Councillor Rachel Blake, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Planning, said: “This is great news for Tower Hamlets and I would like to pay tribute to the teams involved. We were shocked that in taking his decision, the secretary of state went against the government’s own planning inspector’s recommendation.
“The timing, which meant the developer would have been able to pay significantly lower infrastructure costs than if it had been made the following week, meant we had no choice but to challenge it through the courts.
“We feel strongly that these decisions should be taken locally but where they’re not, our residents must still be able to trust the integrity of the processes that are followed.”