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Westferry highlights everything wrong with planning

I’ll always remember the moment on 14 January 2020, I heard that Robert Jenrick had approved Richard Desmond’s application for Westferry Printworks: 1,524 new homes with only 21% affordable housing.  The news came through on my way into work, preparing for the Full Council meeting that very night, that would adopt our new Local Plan ‘Managing Growth and Sharing the Benefits’ and a new Community Infrastructure Levy schedule. As soon as the decision was announced, the importance of the timing could not have been clearer. 

The publication of the decision that day, saved the developer £30-50 million and took that funding away from the residents of Tower Hamlets who, through the democratically led Local Plan process, had established infrastructure needs for the area: primary schools, health centres, community centres and green space and more.

At the heart of this very long and complicated story are 2 basic questions which still need answers.

First why did the Secretary of State approve the application against his own inspector’s and officials in his own department’s advice?

Secondly why did he approve the application the day before the development would have been eligible for £30-50 million infrastructure payment?

The decision had been a long time coming.  After Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, approved the first application in 2016, the developer chose to almost double the size of the scheme in a further application.  Before the local Strategic Development Committee had a chance to make a decision, the applicant ‘appealed against non-determination’ arguably a tactic to avoid local decision making. 

During a parliamentary debate on the matter, Tory MPs fell over themselves to suggest that the fault in the process lay with Tower Hamlets Council – how painfully ironic that the delay was in part due to negotiations over the level of affordable housing.

In Tower Hamlets, we had been working on our new Local Plan for over 3 years (much of that time was spent waiting for the Government’s Planning Inspector to schedule our inspection – a required part of the process).  At its heart the Planning System – established in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 – was designed to democratise the use of land and give people a say in the development which comes forward. 

Through months of consultation, we listened and heard our community want to see more genuinely affordable homes and confidence that new development brings with it the schools, GP surgeries, public transport and shared space needed to support a thriving community. 

The most concerning responses to the consultation were those which said residents did not feel connected to new development and that residents could never afford live in new homes.  And so, Tower Hamlets Council established a vision: ‘Managing Growth and Sharing the Benefits’- introducing new policy on genuinely affordable rents, access to open space, health impact assessments and more.

The same night that we approved our Local Plan, Tower Hamlets Full Council set a new Community Infrastructure Levy.  This was a progressive policy meaning developers had to pay their fair share to invest in infrastructure. The new levy established the Westferry Printwork sites as eligible for a Community Infrastructure Levy payment. 

For years, the owners of Westferry Printworks had benefitted from not having to pay this Levy on the grounds that the complexities of the site would make development ‘unviable’ if the payment was required. Thanks to the careful evidence gathering and analysis from officers, Tower Hamlets Council successfully argued that this was not the case and so the site became ‘liable’.

Amongst the deeply depressing and some frankly embarrassing contributions from Tory MPs in the debate last month, it was the hollow arguments on housing supply that really grated.  The suggestion that in some way, Jenrick was doing us a favour by allowing such inappropriate development to take place would be laughable if the consequences of his actions were not so serious. 

Tower Hamlets has a track record of approving high levels of housing and office development, is consistently home to the highest levels of affordable housing development by housing associations and has one of London’s most ambitious Council home building programmes. 

The Secretary of State and his cheerleaders really were grasping at straws to suggest that this development was making a contribution to housing in Tower Hamlets – Desmond already had a planning consent that he refused to build out and the vast majority of homes provided in this development would have been way out of reach for most of the UK, let alone residents of Tower Hamlets.

As a proud representative of Tower Hamlets, it hurt to hear our community attacked and undermined in the House of Commons by Conservative MPs who were reading lines from a script. After several weekends of revelations in the papers, Jenrick had tried to dodge scrutiny and when he finally had to face the music it was lazy to trot out lines about a ‘rotten borough’ which are out of date or blame the Mayor of London.

This was pure deflection and tribal politics. 

I invite everyone of them who tribally stayed ‘on message’ in the chamber to come and sit with me or any of my Councillor colleagues in our surgeries where we listen to and work with our constituents who desperately need a new home and action on health inequalities. 

The suggestion that Jenrick made this decision in the interest of overcrowded and homeless families is grossly insulting, at best.  I hope that they will think on their positions and consider whether they are prepared to stand by their statements in the weeks and months to come which I expect – through the Select Committee and the next decision taken by a different Minister – will reveal further irregularities  

This whole saga reminds us just how much needs to change about housing and planning in the UK.  For communities to accept and welcome new development, they have to have confidence in the planning system.  The ‘viability assessment’ process should be taken out of the regulations.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has made great progress in London with the ‘35% threshold’ process but many other councils still report viability assessments and the regulations which allow developers to vary their affordable housing contributions as a huge barrier to securing sustainable development.  Local Authorities still need more effective powers to intervene when sites are not being developed. 

The Secretary of State’s decision on Westferry Printworks casts a long shadow over the Government’s new proposals for ‘cutting red tape’ and encouraging ‘permitted development rights’ which give communities very little say over levels of affordable housing their high streets and neighbourhoods

The Westferry decision highlighted everything that is wrong with planning. But let’s try to make it a moment to galvanise us all to work towards delivering the homes, offices, community buildings and public open spaces that residents need.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Rachel Blake</span></strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is the Deputy Mayor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. She was elected to represent the Labour Party for Bow East Ward in May 2014 and appointed to Cabinet in July 2015.

Rachel has held Cabinet Member roles for Regeneration, Planning, and Air Quality. Rachel is now the Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Well-being.

She has previously been called in as an expert witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on its inquiry into the long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.

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