Planning Process: Probity

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:34 am on 11th June 2020.

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Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 10:34 am, 11th June 2020

The Secretary of State will not have the public confidence that he needs to overhaul the planning system until we have full transparency over his unlawful decision to force through the Westferry development. He gave consent to the scheme on 14 January, in the teeth of opposition from Tower Hamlets Council and his own planning inspector, who both considered the scheme oversized and lacking in affordable housing. When Tower Hamlets took up a judicial review to challenge the Secretary of State, he took the extraordinary step of admitting that his decision was unlawful because of apparent bias. That meant that he avoided publishing in open court all correspondence revealing the true reasons behind his decision. Will the Minister tell us what that apparent bias was?

The developer, Northern & Shell, is owned by the billionaire Conservative party donor Richard Desmond. Mr Desmond sat next to the Secretary of State at a Conservative party fund-raising dinner just two months previously, and he admits that they discussed the scheme. The ministerial code requires Ministers to act with integrity; did the Secretary of State disclose his conversation with Mr Desmond to the Department before he granted permission? As the circumstances clearly raise a question of bias, why did the Secretary of State not immediately recuse himself from taking the decision?

The Secretary of State gave the scheme consent one day before a community infrastructure levy came into force; did he know that he was helping Mr Desmond to dodge a potential £50 million tax bill? Will the Secretary of State now disclose what contact he or his representatives had with the developers about that tax?

By an astonishing coincidence, just two weeks after the Secretary of State took his decision Mr Desmond made a generous donation of £12,000 to the Conservative party. This sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favours. If he wants to restore trust, the Secretary of State must immediately publish all documents and all correspondence relating to this decision. The public need reassurance that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fund-raising dinners.