I beg to move,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give a direction to Her Ministers to provide all correspondence, including submissions and electronic communications, involving Ministers and Special Advisers pertaining to the Westferry Printworks Development and the subsequent decision by the Secretary of State to approve its planning application at appeal to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.
The Westferry case, and the role of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in it, has blown apart confidence in the planning system. The only way to put that right is for the Secretary of State to publish the evidence about what really happened. If he has done nothing wrong, he has nothing to fear. I hope that he will welcome this opportunity to restore trust in a sector that will be so critical in rebuilding Britain after the lockdown.
In November last year, the Secretary of State attended an exclusive Conservative party fundraising dinner. He was seated next to Richard Desmond, the owner of Northern & Shell, and three of his senior executives. I understand that Mr Desmond’s lobbyists—a company called Thorncliffe—had been busy selling tickets to the event to people who wanted access to the Secretary of State.
Northern & Shell is the applicant behind the Westferry Printworks development in Tower Hamlets, a highly controversial live planning application on which the Secretary of State was due to take a final decision. Ministers are not allowed to take planning decisions if they have been lobbied by the applicant. Under the ministerial code, Ministers are required not to place themselves under an obligation by, for instance, helping to raise funds from a donor who stands to benefit from the decisions they make, because it raises questions about cash for favours, which would be a serious abuse of power.
Tower Hamlets Council was opposed to the Westferry scheme because it was oversized and lacked affordable housing, and the Secretary of State’s own planning inspector agreed with the council. However, on
The Secretary of State has not yet told us whether Conservative party officials knew and whether they sold tickets on that basis, as Thorncliffe seems to believe they did; he has not explained why, since he admits that the meeting gives rise to apparent bias, he did not ask to be re-seated elsewhere as soon as he realised who he was sitting next to; and he has given no reason why he did not immediately recuse himself from any further involvement in the decision.
The Secretary of State assured the House only last week that he did not discuss the scheme with Mr Desmond. Unfortunately for him, Mr Desmond says that they did. He has gone further and told us that the Secretary of State viewed a promotional video about the scheme on Mr Desmond’s phone—something the Secretary of State failed to mention to the House.
It is very hard to imagine that the Westferry scheme did not crop up during the three hours or so that the Secretary of State must have been sitting next to the owner of Northern & Shell and three of his most senior executives. Viewing Mr Desmond’s video is not cutting off the discussion, as the Secretary of State told the House; it is the developer lobbying the Secretary of State, and apparently with some considerable success.
The Secretary of State has still not confirmed when and how he notified officials in his Department about this encounter. Was it before he took the decision, or was it afterwards? What was their advice to him? It is hard to believe, if he was honest with them about viewing the video, that they did not advise him to recuse himself immediately—so did they, and did he overrule them so that he could do favours for a friend?
The Secretary of State took his decision to approve the Westferry scheme on
I think the hon. Gentleman may be unintentionally misleading the House on that point. It did not save the developers £50 million. If he reads the inspector’s report on this, he will see that it quite clearly says that the schedule 15 viability assessment can be rerun in the event that the appeal scheme becomes liable for community infrastructure levy. The report states:
“The adjustment is likely to reduce the amount of affordable housing.”
What the Secretary of State did was to make sure that the right proportion of affordable housing was delivered on that scheme. The hon. Gentleman is saying, quite wrongly, that that was not the reason. If he repeats that, or anyone else does, in this debate, they will therefore be intentionally misleading this House.
I am going to come on to the issue of the proportion of affordable housing that was included in the scheme. The timing of the decision is a further issue on which I am seeking clarification from the Secretary of State. He could easily provide that if he published the documents behind it. I hope that he will, and that Conservative Members will all be voting for that when this debate concludes.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the Secretary of State’s behaviour, viability assessments are used by developers around the country to frustrate the affordable housing targets of local councils and planning authorities. South Lakeland District Council, Lake District National Park and Yorkshire Dales National Park do their best to provide affordable housing in a place where average house prices can be well in excess of a quarter of a million pounds, but viability assessments are often used to frustrate that process. Would it not be better if the Secretary of State were to stand up in the interests of affordable housing and not in the interests of the developer?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and I agree with him. Indeed, the Secretary of State allowed the applicant to reduce the proportion of affordable and social housing in the scheme from the 35% supported by his own advisers to the 21% preferred by Mr Desmond. According to Tower Hamlets Council, that decision saved Mr Desmond a further £106 million. That is a considerable amount of money in total that the Secretary of State saved Mr Desmond—money that would have gone to fund things like schools, libraries, youth clubs or clinics in one of the most deprived communities anywhere in this country.
I represent one of the two Tower Hamlets constituencies. We have the highest child poverty rate in the country and the most overcrowding in the country. Denying that borough a combined total of £150 million is a disgrace. The Secretary of State ought to publish the documents and come clean today.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. If the Secretary of State will agree today to publish the documents, we can all see, with full transparency, what really went on. That is all we are seeking in this debate.
I am afraid I do not know Tower Hamlets Council’s budget in sufficient detail, but I do know that councils across the country face a funding gap of around one fifth of their annual revenue budget because the Government have failed to deliver on their promise to fund councils to do whatever is necessary to get communities through this pandemic. That is another issue that I hope the Secretary of State will deal with.
I would like to make a little progress, because an awful lot of Members—not just in the Chamber, but elsewhere—would like to contribute to the debate.
The Secretary of State admitted last week that he was fully aware that his decision helped Mr Desmond avoid these charges. Why was it so important that this decision was rushed through on
The Secretary of State’s own advisers from his Department believed the scheme was viable with the higher level of affordable housing, so on what specific grounds did he overrule professionals with relevant experience that far outweighs his own? Without a credible answer, the suspicion arises once again that the Secretary of State was bending over backwards to do favours for his billionaire dinner date.
Barely two weeks after the Secretary of State forced the scheme through, in the teeth of opposition from his own advisers and the local council, the beneficiary, Mr Desmond, made a donation to the Conservative party— what an astonishing coincidence! The Secretary of State can see, as we all can, how that looks: cash for favours—mates’ rates on taxes for Tories that everyone else has to pay in full. Do this Government really believe that taxes are just for the little people? No one will believe a word they say on levelling up until the Secretary of State levels with the British people over why he helped a billionaire dodge millions of pounds in tax after they enjoyed dinner together at an exclusive Conservative party fundraising event.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered that the urgency partly arose from the fact that the period for determination of the application had expired in November 2018? The opportunity of these valuable homes had already been waiting more than a year for a decision in the hands of Labour Tower Hamlets Council.
I understand that the Secretary of State has acknowledged the appearance of bias. My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. If, in fact, the Secretary of State is entirely innocent of everything that has been suggested, there is a simple way for this to be resolved, which is for him to provide complete transparency. If only he showed the documents, he could prove his own innocence, and we could all get on to other matters.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. There is, of course, a very simple way for the Secretary of State to show that he did absolutely nothing wrong—it really could not be more straightforward. Officials in his Department will have kept meticulous records of the entire process: how and when he notified them about his dinner with Mr Desmond, and whether he told them that he had viewed the video; whether they advised him to recuse himself, and whether he overruled them; why he needed to take the decision in a way that helped Mr Desmond cut his tax bill; and what advice he received about the viability of the scheme with a higher level of affordable housing. It is all there. If he has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear. He can just publish it, and I urge him to do that.
I think the hon. Gentleman is unintentionally risking the reputation of this House. Does he not accept the position that I stated earlier? It is not a question of saving the developer up to £50 million. As the inspector himself admitted, it is simply that a commensurate amount of money would have been reduced from the allocation of affordable housing. That is what would have happened. It was not going into the back pocket of the developer. The hon. Gentleman must accept that, or he risks the reputation of this House.
The hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to repeat the same point: let us see the documentation from the Department and the advice that was given to the Secretary of State—openly, transparently, for everybody to see—and then we will know exactly whether what happened was in breach of the ministerial code of conduct and the planning code.
Instead of being open and transparent, the Secretary of State has gone to great lengths to keep the documentation secret. Tower Hamlets Council took out a judicial review of his decision and was rewarded with a high-handed and arrogant letter from the Department accusing it of going on a fishing expedition, until someone realised that a judicial review would require the Secretary of State to release all the documentation and correspondence about the decision in open court for everyone to see. He then took an extraordinary step. Suddenly that “fishing expedition” did not look quite so speculative, because he quashed his own decision and declared it to be unlawful because of apparent bias. That is explosive. A leading planning barrister says that it is without precedent and raises questions about the integrity of the entire planning system. That prompts the question of what in the documentation is so embarrassing and so bad that it is better to admit taking a biased and unlawful decision than to publish the documents in open court.
There is only one way to clear this up. Let us see the documents. Let us see that there was no breach of ministerial code. If the Secretary of State continues to refuse, let us have a full investigation by the Cabinet Secretary. Without it, there can be no trust in the Secretary of State or the planning system over which he presides. Without that trust, who on earth will believe that the Secretary of State has the credibility to take the numerous decisions that he makes every day, let alone reform the entire planning system, as he has said he wants to do?
Does my hon. Friend agree that we do not need a detailed chronology or to go over the books with a fine-toothed comb to realise that this is redolent of the stench of sleaze? It brought down the Major Government. The suggestion of unfair advantage to donors or supporters is sleaze writ large. The wheels are coming off this oven- ready Government.
I very much hope that the Secretary of State will agree to publish the documentation, because if he is right, it will lay to rest the concerns that my hon. Friend has shared.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in my experience, every letter that emanates from the Department goes with the consent of officials? Ministers cannot write in a personal capacity. My experience of those officials is that they are expert and meticulous. It is important to reflect that in the debate. Does he also accept that when an application is called in for non-determination, there is, for obvious reasons, pressure to move quickly to determine it? Does he accept that point at least?
I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s experience in those matters, and of course there may well have been a need to move at speed. It is not so much the speed I am concerned about as what happened during that timeframe.
Westferry is not the only example of that kind of behaviour by the Secretary of State. Similar allegations were reported yesterday in The Times about a case in Surrey. There are fresh allegations just today that when Westminster City Council’s planning officers twice recommended refusal of the Secretary of State’s plans to refurbish his London home, Conservative councillors called it in and overruled their own officials for him, but, to my knowledge, nothing about that relationship was disclosed in any register of interests.
Westferry is not a one-off. It is part of a pattern of behaviour, and the questions do not stop with the Secretary of State. They reach right into No. 10 Downing Street to the Prime Minister. In his final days as Mayor of London, the Prime Minister pushed through an earlier version of the same development. He was photographed at numerous convivial meetings with Mr Desmond, but No. 10 has refused to answer perfectly legitimate questions about whether and how often the Prime Minister has met Mr Desmond since he took office and whether they discussed the scheme. We need to know.
Will the Secretary of State tell us whether any other Ministers or their officials contacted him about the scheme before he took his unlawful decision? Did he disclose those contacts to his officials as he is required to do? Honesty is the best disinfectant for the very bad smell that hangs around this decision. Today, the credibility of the planning system and of this Secretary of State hangs in the balance. We cannot allow the planning system to be auctioned off at Conservative party fundraising dinners. There cannot be one rule for the Conservatives and their billionaire donors, and another rule for everyone else. So I say to the Secretary of State: it is time to come clean. Publish the documents. Let us see what he was really up to and let us see if we are staring into a new era of Tory sleaze.
Before we continue this debate any further, let me say that hon. Members should be very careful about accusations made in this House. I am not suggesting that anything has been said that should not have been said—I would have stopped anyone saying anything that is not suitable for saying. I am just issuing a warning.
I will give way in a moment to the hon. Gentleman, but he could let me even begin my remarks, if he is truly interested in what I have to say. I will write to the Chair of the Select Committee outlining the timeline of events and the rationale for my decision making pertaining to the Westferry Printworks planning decision. Alongside this letter, and after a comprehensive review of what documents might be in scope of this motion and of the letter he sent me on behalf of his Select Committee, I will be releasing, later today, all relevant information relating to this planning matter, using the Freedom of Information Act as a benchmark. I recognise that there are higher standards of transparency expected in the quasi-judicial planning process, which is why I will also release discussions and correspondence that the Government would not normally release.
These documents show that, contrary to the wild accusations and baseless innuendo propagated by Steve Reed and restated today in a series of totally inaccurate statements and comments, this decision was taken with an open mind, on the merits of the case, after a thorough decision-making process. It was rooted in my long-standing and well documented view that we have a generational challenge as a country, which we need to meet and not shirk, to build more houses in all parts of this country and that whoever holds this office, whether it is me, another Member from my party or the hon. Gentleman, must make those tough decisions in order to build the homes that this country needs and to build a better future for the next generation.
The Secretary of State says that he is pleased to have this debate and started his speech by saying that he is going to release all of these documents. Why is he doing that today? He is releasing them because he has been forced to come here by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North. If the Secretary of State wanted some transparency, instead of having to have this dragged out of him, he would have done this weeks ago.
The hon Gentleman is completely incorrect in that respect. First, a lot of documents are already in the public domain, and I will come on to discuss that. The reasons for my decision are set out clearly in the decision letter. From the comments that we have heard from the hon. Member for Croydon North, I suspect he has not taken the trouble to read it. The inspector’s report is already in the public domain, with the representations made by the parties. Since my receipt of the letter from the Chair of the Select Committee, we have undertaken the process I have just described, which, as Members can imagine, is not one that one does in a day or two. It has taken us time. As Members will see when I publish the documents later today, and in the letter I have written to the Chair of the Select Committee, we have taken that process very seriously, because transparency matters, openness matters and settling this matter matters, because I certainly do not want to be the subject of the innuendo and false accusations that the Opposition are choosing to peddle.
I thank the Secretary of State for committing to publish that document and send it to the Select Committee, although it might have been helpful if we had had it before the debate today. The Committee will obviously want to look at it and may then want to enter into further communication or, indeed, even talk to the Secretary of State about it. I ask him one thing: will the documentation that he sends to the Select Committee include everything that he said to the Cabinet Secretary following his investigations into the matter?
It will include most of that information, subject only to the benchmark of the Freedom of Information Act, which I have just described. I think that is the right approach, and it is on the advice of my Department that I do that. If this debate truly is—I suspect it is not, because I suspect this debate is mainly motivated by party political considerations—concerned with the probity of the planning system, I am sure that the Chair of the Select Committee, for whom I have the greatest respect, would agree that it is absolutely right that we release documentation in accordance with the rules, bearing in mind that this is a live planning matter.
I will come back to the hon. Gentleman, but first let me make some progress.
For the benefit of the House, I take this opportunity to outline the facts of the case. As Members will be aware, the Secretary of State’s role in deciding called-in planning applications and recovered appeals is very long established. The vast majority of planning decisions are rightly determined at a local level by local planning authorities. However, Parliament has created provision whereby a small proportion of cases are determined by Ministers. The cases that fall to Ministers are by their nature highly contentious, frequently very complex and sometimes very subjective. There is no escaping that reality. It is not unusual for Ministers to come to a different conclusion from that of a local authority. Nor is it unusual, as has been said, for Ministers to disagree with the recommendations of planning inspectors, and I say that with no disrespect to the brilliant men and women who work in the Planning Inspectorate. My predecessors from both sides of the House have done so on multiple occasions.
I will in just a moment, but I want to make a bit more progress, because it is important to set out the facts. In the past three years, 14 substantive decisions have been made by Ministers in disagreement with the recommendations of the inspector. Such applications cannot be easily compared and each case must be determined on its own merits, and that is what I have done in all cases since becoming Secretary of State, as the documents that I intend to publish will, I hope, demonstrate.
I will come on to a description of those events in a moment, if I may, and answer the hon. Gentleman’s question at that point.
I will just make some more progress, then I will come back to the hon. Lady.
In July 2018, Westferry Developments submitted a planning application for a large development comprising 1,500 homes, including affordable homes, shops and office space. The case was with Tower Hamlets Council for eight months, and over that period, despite having five determination meetings arranged, it failed to make a decision. It is disappointing that the council failed to meet its statutory requirements, but it is not surprising. In the past five years, 30 planning applications have been decided at appeal because of non-determination by the council.
The council had considerable time to process the application. Indeed, a meeting of the strategic development committee was cancelled in January 2019 due to lack of business. Is it fair to say that there is a lack of business when we are in a housing crisis and the council has applications such as this before it? Does the Labour party believe that is fair? In our system of law, justice delayed is justice denied, and that is what Tower Hamlets Council was trying to do here.
I will in a moment.
This, I remind the House, is the council that has the highest housing deficit in England, according to the housing delivery test. Given Tower Hamlets’ failure to determine the case within the prescribed period, on
So before I give way to hon. Members, let us be clear. I did not call in this application; I was not the Secretary of State. The application was not called in; it came to the Department because of the failure of Tower Hamlets Council. Here we have a council, described by one of my predecessors as a “rotten borough”, failing time and again to make decisions and get houses built and a Mayor of London with a dire record on housing leaving us to step in and take the tough decisions that they refuse to make.
I wondered how long it would be before we got on to the deflections on to Tower Hamlets Council and the Mayor of London, but it is a fact, is it not, that the leader of the Conservative group on the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Councillor Andrew Wood, resigned from the Conservative party, not citing the Mayor of London or Labour Tower Hamlets Council, but citing the actions of the Conservative party and this decision, which he described as
“so shocking I knew immediately that I had to resign.”
Is that not a fact?
It is not a deflection to talk about Tower Hamlets Council because in all likelihood this decision would never have been made by the Secretary of State if Tower Hamlets Council had met its statutory obligations and taken the decision. With respect to the councillor the hon. Gentleman mentions, who I do not know but with whom I have no issue, he was standing up for the concerns of his local residents. I return to the point that I made earlier that in my job it is essential to make—[Interruption.]
What is rotten at the heart of this scandal is the Secretary of State’s behaviour. It is wrong for him to attack Tower Hamlets Council, which was negotiating a better deal for residents and trying to get more social housing. He should get his facts straight before he starts deflecting blame on to a council that has built houses under the last Conservative mayoralty, as well as the current mayoralty. He should sort out the rottenness at the heart of his Department and his Government.
There is nothing rotten in my Department. I have some of the best officials in Whitehall, with whom I am extremely proud to work. The hon. Lady cannot have it both ways. If she disagrees with my decision, she should go back to Tower Hamlets Council and tell it to start making decisions itself, not frustrating planning applications so that they come to me and I and my predecessors and successors have to make the tough decisions.
Given that the Prime Minister pushed through the original scheme for the same developer when he was Mayor of London, does the Secretary of State feel that the documents on any involvement of No. 10, or any conversation about the Secretary of State’s decision to grant approval should also be published?
I am publishing, as I have just said, in an almost unprecedented way, a very comprehensive set of documents, which I think Members on both sides of the House will be more than satisfied with.
I would just politely note to the hon. Lady that her name did come up in the correspondence and advice that I received from officials; the names of MPs do come up when I take these decisions. I asked my officials, “Did the local Member of Parliament make any representations with respect to this application because I want to take into account the views of Members on all sides of this House?” As she will see in the documents, they advised me that the Member of Parliament made no representations. The Member of Parliament—in their words, I think, but I stand to be corrected—took no interest in the application, and neither did her predecessor, so she may be outraged today, but I suggest that Members on both sides of the House who care about contentious planning applications should make representations to the Secretary of State, because I am not a mind reader.
Let me just make some progress, if I may.
It is on public record that in November 2019, during the general election campaign, I was invited to a Conservative party event. This is not unusual for a Government Minister. I was seated next to Mr Desmond at the Conservative dinner, although, as I have said, I did not know the seating plan prior to arrival. I was not familiar with the majority of the table, but I understand that it included the editor of the Daily Mirror, the editor of the Express newspaper, executives from Northern & Shell and a former Conservative Member of Parliament. I had not planned to have any contact with Mr Desmond prior to the event. That was the first time I had ever met him.
He raised the development and invited me on a site visit. I informed him that it would not be appropriate to discuss the matter, and the conversation moved on to other topics. After the event, we exchanged messages. Again, as the record will show, I advised him that I was unable to discuss the application or to pass comment. I informed my officials of my contact with Mr Desmond, and I will publish these messages for transparency. On advice from my officials, I declined the site visit. All decision makers in the planning process receive unsolicited representations from time to time. It would be perverse if any decision maker was barred from taking a decision because of unsolicited representations. Indeed, section 25 of the Localism Act 2011 clarified the law to protect against the overzealous application of the planning rules.
Not at this time.
Housing Secretaries of all parties naturally come into contact with those involved in housing, by which I do not simply mean developers; I mean councils, housing associations, builders and contractors. The key point is that the final decision is always made with an open mind based on the material considerations of the case.
I was a member of a local planning committee. There are strict rules and a code of conduct for councillors to declare either a private or a prejudicial interest, at which point they go out of the room and take no further part in the decision. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that a Secretary of State should live under different rules from local councillors?
Of course not. It is extremely important that we maintain the probity of the planning system, and that is what I believe I have done in this case. The hon. Lady can be a judge of that, if she wishes, when she sees the documents.
If I may, I will make some progress. I am conscious that a lot of time is passing.
In the same month, the planning inspector submitted his report to me recommending that the appeal be dismissed. As is usual, my officials reviewed the inspector’s report and prepared advice for me to consider. I reviewed this, along with advice on six other urgent planning cases, upon my return to the Department in December following the general election.
Not at this time. I need to make some progress.
Upon reviewing the advice on Westferry, including the inspector’s recommendation, I requested further advice on key questions—for example, asking the Department to source images to understand the potential impact of the scheme on historic Greenwich. Having reviewed all the evidence and taken a further in-depth meeting with senior officials to discuss the case in the first week in January, I determined to allow the appeal and grant planning permission. As I have set out in the letter to the Select Committee Chair, in coming to the decision I considered the significant contribution of housing in a part of the country that is particularly unaffordable, including almost 300 affordable homes, as well as the significant economic benefits from the development, including the hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs that it would have created. The House should remember that we are talking about a large brownfield site in a part of London that already has a high number of tall buildings, so in many respects it is exactly the kind of location where we should be building homes if we are serious about tackling London’s housing needs.
I will give way one more time, but let me make this point first.
I cannot say at this point which Minister will take this matter forward. We will ensure that it is someone who has no previous connection to the case or its parties, as we do in other instances. I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Croydon North to the fact that there are several planning Ministers in my Department, and although all actions go out in the name of the Secretary of State, by no means does the Secretary of State take all the decisions in the Department. For example, in the Sandown Park racecourse case to which he referred earlier, the decision was taken by another planning Minister and was one about which I knew none of the facts until it was incorrectly reported by The Times newspaper and propagated once again by the hon. Gentleman.
No; I wish to make this point, because it is important. The hon. Member for Croydon North also propagated another inaccurate story that is more serious and disappointing, and that is the one in respect of the application to build a new holocaust memorial for the United Kingdom in the grounds of this building. There has been a suggestion that in that case I used my powers as Secretary of State to call in the application. That is incorrect. The Secretary of State is the applicant for the holocaust memorial, and there is a clear Chinese wall whereby another Minister in the Department who has no interest in that application takes the ultimate decision. That is exactly what we did in that case, so I strongly urge Members from all parties, as well as the media who have reported on that issue, to tread carefully. We should not bring something as important as our national holocaust memorial into this party political discussion.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being very decent with his time.
The Secretary of State has made the case that he felt the need to intervene in this case to deliver housing. Does he understand my frustration and the frustration of many other Members present? In my part of the world, we have London house prices without anything like London wages. We regularly look to his Department to intervene to help to deliver affordable houses, yet his Department allows developers to get away with viability assessments that get rid of affordable housing. I wish he was also tough in cases when it comes to the Lake district and other parts of the country.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has asked to call in applications; he certainly has not come to see me about any applications during the past 12 months of my tenure, but I would happily meet him in the appropriate way if he wishes to do so. My record as Secretary of State is clear for all to see in the range of applications that I have considered and the difficult decisions that I have consistently made, which affect Members from all parties and their constituencies. If one does this job properly, one gets homes built. One does not necessarily make friends, and I make no apologies for that. Each decision must be made on its merits, but if we want to tackle the housing crisis, we need to build homes.
Let me let me make some progress, because many other speakers wish to participate in this debate.
Any accusation that my view on a highly complex and publicised development could have been swayed by an encounter with a developer is not just simply wrong, but actually outrageous.
Who the applicant was is immaterial to my decision, as it always is, and always should be. I knew nothing of the donation that was made and would never have allowed it to influence my decision, even if I had known about it. However, I am not blind to the fact that things could and should have been done differently. On reflection, I should have handled the communication differently—[Interruption.] Let me make this point, please.
It is unfortunate that some have sought partisan advantage in this, rather than having a serious discussion about Britain’s housing shortage. I stand by the decision that I made.
I believe passionately that Britain needs to build houses and that is what we are doing. Indeed, the Government’s track record on housing delivery stands in stark contrast to that of the Opposition. Last year, we delivered 240,000 homes, more new homes than at any point in the past 30 years, taking the total delivered since 2010 to 1.5 million. By comparison, under Labour, house building fell to levels not seen since the 1920s, with the number of first- time buyers down by 50% and the number of socially rented homes down by 420,000.
I have given way many times. I cannot be accused of not giving way—I have done it enough times. I need to make progress and I want to ensure others have their say.
The only thing that went up under Labour was social housing waiting lists, so I will not take lessons from Labour on housing, particularly on affordable housing. This development was going to build 282 affordable homes. That is actually more affordable homes than the Labour Welsh Government has built as council houses in the whole of Wales in five years. Last year in Wales the Labour party only built 57 council houses—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not think they actually want to hear an explanation.
We only have to look to London, which faces some of the most acute housing pressures in the whole country, to see examples of what a lack of leadership and ambition means on the ground. Under the current Mayor of London, housing delivery has averaged just 37,000 a year, falling short of the existing London plan and well below the Mayor’s own assessment of housing need. The average price of a new build home in London has gone up by 12 times average earnings. The need for bold action was clear earlier this year, when I was left with no option but to directly intervene in the Mayor’s London plan. I do not apologise for doing that, for continuing to push for homes to be built in our capital city, as across the country, to meet our ambition as a Government to build 300,000 homes a year and to give young people, families and the most vulnerable people in our society the opportunity and security that previous generations enjoyed.
In that endeavour, it is right that we seek to make the most of existing sites, particularly in urban areas, with jobs, transport links and other amenities close by— brownfield sites such as the one we are discussing today. That is why we as a Government and I as Secretary of State have consistently taken pro-regeneration decisions, in order to turn those sites into homes and into employment opportunities. This development would have done that, but every time a do-nothing Labour council and a do-nothing Labour Mayor plays politics with homes and jobs it is ultimately people who miss out. They miss out on homes and they miss out on jobs. That matters, because as we come out of covid and we are trying to recover our economy, we should be thinking about the brickies and the plumbers, the van drivers, the labourers—the people whose jobs and livelihoods depend on these projects. We will get building. We will build ourselves out of this crisis and create the jobs that we need in this country.
I hope that the publication of these documents and my remarks today will go some way to putting an end to the innuendos and false accusations from the hon. Member for Croydon North. He might just address the big issues, upon which he has been conspicuously silent since taking office. His predecessor, John Healey, used to raise rough sleeping, how we were responding to covid, and pressures on local council finances. He used to be constructive. He also used to probe and hold the Government to account. I cannot say the same for the hon. Member for Croydon North. He lives on his Twitter account, and he lives for smears and innuendos, not substance. He might speak to substance, not just party politics.
I will not; I am closing now.
This Government are determined to build the homes the country needs. We are determined to end rough sleeping, as the House will see today from the announcement of more than £100 million of funding to help local councils to provide better quality accommodation for the 15,000 rough sleepers that we have helped off the streets and protected from covid as a result of the pandemic. We will continue to help renters by reforming their rights and ensuring that they weather the economic storms to come as a result of the pandemic. We will promote beautiful, well-designed new communities, working with the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to radically change the way in which we consider our planning system.
We will speed up and reform the planning system to get those homes built, to ensure that infrastructure is laid at pace and that developers, housing associations, councils and everyone who cares about the future of this country and the homes that people deserve to live in can move forward with confidence and certainty. And we will invest in more affordable homes through the largest affordable homes programme this country has seen in a decade, building hundreds of thousands of new homes of all types and tenures in all parts of the country, so that families in Tower Hamlets, in London and elsewhere in this country can live with dignity and security and pursue their dreams and the opportunity, which many of us in the House enjoy, to have a high-quality home of their own. That is what the British people expect, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I intend to deliver.
Before I call the spokesman for the SNP, I should tell the House that we will have to have a time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches, because, as is obvious in the Chamber, a great many people wish to speak and it might not be possible to fit in everyone who is on the speaking list. The time limit of course does not apply to Mr David Linden.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not intend to speak for more than about five or six minutes, if that is of help to the House.
The seriousness of these allegations merits a high-profile and far-reaching investigation, so I thank the Opposition for tabling this motion on the Westferry scandal. In contrast, the Government appear to just hope that it will simply disappear. I am still not entirely clear from what the Secretary of State said whether the Government will oppose the motion in the Division Lobby tonight. The motion before us certainly has the full support of the SNP, and we will vote in favour of it if the Government are daft enough to push it to a Division, which I must suggest to them would not look good.
I must confess that I do not like the all-too-frequent fixture in our politics of calling for ministerial resignations left, right and centre. However, in this case the conduct of the Secretary of State is seriously called into question when he himself has acknowledged that this decision was made unlawfully. In any other circumstance, this would already be difficult territory for the Secretary of State to try to wriggle off the hook, but the fact that this £1 billion housing development is linked to a Tory donor means it stinks—and it stinks, frankly, to high heavens.
Put simply, this is a classic Tory sleaze scandal that involves money and the Conservatives scratching one another’s backs. For a minute, let us put to one side the fact that the development’s owner is Richard Desmond, a multibillionaire and former owner of the Daily Express, and look solely at the fact that the development was originally denied by the Planning Inspectorate for failing to deliver enough affordable housing. That should not be overlooked, because the Government’s record on building affordable housing, let alone social housing, is absolutely woeful. We respect the fact that the impartial Planning Inspectorate rejected the application on reasonable grounds. Most of us can follow the logic on that.
Here is the nub of the matter, and why the Secretary of State’s position is so weak. The decision of the impartial Planning Inspectorate was overruled by the Secretary of State on
I do not think any self-respecting Member of this House should twist an argument like that. It did not save the developer £40 million. That money would have been taken directly off the allocation for affordable homes. Has the hon. Gentleman read the document? Has he read the inspector’s report? That is exactly what it says.
I have, but part of the issue is that so few documents are in circulation. That is the whole point of the motion before the House and that is what we are calling for. If the hon. Gentleman wants people to read documents, he will be in the Lobby with us to make sure that those documents are published.
To make matters worse, we have also learned that Mr Desmond, who is, let us not forget, a property developer, and the Secretary of State, who has a quasi-judicial role in the planning process, were sat together at a Tory fundraiser in November. This is the point that I was trying to intervene on the Secretary of State about earlier, because he glossed over that.
“What I did was I showed him the video”.
They are not my words but the words of Richard Desmond, who says that the Secretary of State watched a promotional video for the development of Westferry for three or four minutes and:
“It’s quite long, so he got the gist.”
In the course of the Secretary of State’s remarks, hon. Members were trying to intervene to ask whether he had watched the video, but I do not think that he was clear. I am happy to give way to him now if he wants to come to the Dispatch Box and put it on record that he did watch the video.
As I have said repeatedly, I confirm that I was seated next to Mr Desmond. I did not expect to be seated beside him. He raised the application, as I said the last time that I came to the House on this matter. He said that he showed me part of the video and I do not recall exactly what happened, but he did bring out his iPhone and show me some images of the development. I was very clear the last time I came to the House that I informed the developer that it was not appropriate to discuss the matter and I could not comment on it, and I believe that Mr Desmond has confirmed that.
I wanted to put this question to the Secretary of State, who said he did not know that he would be seated next to Mr Desmond. He said that at the Dispatch Box and I will take him at his word. Are we seriously meant to believe, however, that Mr Desmond did not know that he was going to be sat next to the Secretary of State? Having talked to people I know who worked in professional fundraising and political fundraising, the question of cash for access is crucial. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Conservative party should publish all correspondence with Mr Desmond and his associates about the booking of the table at the dinner, and Mr Desmond’s expectations as to whether he knew that he would be sat with the Secretary of State?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Many of us, for very understandable reasons because of what is in “Erskine May” and the Standing Orders of this House, are trying very hard to stick to the rules in here, but the reality is that members of the public watching this debate on TV or reading it in Hansard will find it rather strange that a Conservative party fundraiser was organised and that the Secretary of State, who has a quasi-judicial role in the planning process, happened to be sat next to Mr Desmond.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the point I made earlier? For a local councillor on a planning committee, all red lights would have gone on to say, “This looks bad. I cannot take part in a decision when I have sat next to somebody who is putting in a very big planning application.”
The hon. Lady is right. She refers to her experience in local government. It is clear that anybody in this House who has served as a councillor—I have not—would realise that this is something from which they must absolutely run for the hills and at least flag it to their departmental officials—and, presumably, their political advisers too.
At that stage, without any shadow of a doubt, the Secretary of State’s position was compromised, but he ploughed on regardless. It was, I am afraid, a clear political decision that has directly enriched a Tory party donor and is worryingly close to being a textbook example of cash for favours.
The Conservative party, however, does not appear to care. Let’s face it: why should we hold our breath? This, after all, is the party reportedly nominating Peter Cruddas, a man who resigned from the Conservatives as co-treasurer in 2012 following a cash-for-access scandal, for a peerage. The Conservatives do not seem to see anything problematic about rewarding someone who donated £50,000 to the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign and £3 million to the Tory party since 2007. Why on earth, then, would we expect them to hold the Housing Secretary to higher standards? I think, however, that Opposition Members will.
Transparency is now imperative. It is important that the papers called for in today’s motion are released without delay and without obstruction. I am afraid I do not buy the point made by the Secretary of State that some papers would be published. If the Government want to publish the papers, they will not oppose the motion at four o’clock this afternoon. Anybody who hears Conservative Members yelling “No” tonight will find that there is something seriously to be hidden on their part and I do not think that that is a good look. If the documents released do reveal a direct link between the decision that the Secretary of State made and Mr Desmond’s donation to the Conservatives, then the Secretary of State must demit office.
The Government need to accept that this scandal is not going to go away. We can all quite clearly see, without the need to take a day trip to Barnard Castle, that this episode further damages the credibility of a Government who are losing trust faster than Dominic Cummings can run out of Downing Street to escape for his Durham bolthole. A little over a decade ago, David Cameron said, “We’re all in this together”. Except we’re not, are we? Whether it is rewarding party donors with life peerages, a different set of rules for the Prime Minister’s special adviser or the Westferry Printworks scandal, time and again the Tories are proving that it is one rule for them and one rule for everybody else.
Let me start by drawing the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
My purpose in speaking in this debate is because, like the Secretary of State, I share the view that the important thing here is the integrity of the planning system, and that context is all important for any planning application, since an application is decided on the basis of its own merits. I want to start by looking at the behaviour of Tower Hamlets Council.
In 2016, the original application was referred to the Mayor’s office because Tower Hamlets Council had not determined it within the time set out. In 2018, the revised scheme was referred on that same grounds—that Tower Hamlets had not determined the application in time. We can all have sympathy with councils when they are faced with massive and complex developments. In this case, however, we are told that having been forced, somewhat late in the day, to make a decision, it decided it would have refused it. Why could it not have done so earlier? That does not show the planning system in a good light and it does not show Tower Hamlets in a good light either.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not give way.
We are all aware of councils who seek to hold up an application by delaying the hearing, but here the reasons given for dismissing the application by the inspector were not complicated: the impact on heritage sites, the unacceptable level of affordable housing and conflict with existing policies.
The next element in this debate is the intervention of the Secretary of State. He has the powers to make a decision and I do not think anyone has questioned that. In this case, he decided to do so largely, as he has explained, on the basis of the housing benefits that come from the scheme. This means setting aside the character and appearance of the area. We can disagree with the Secretary of State over this, but it is his job to make these decisions in a system that is all about achieving a balanced opinion.
The timing of the decision immediately before a community infrastructure levy regulation came into force has created another issue. The Secretary of State has agreed that his decision should be quashed and he has agreed to release the papers. The new inquiry and a decision by a planning Minister will be brought forward. This is because the perception of bias was there, not because any bias actually took place. The trade press got it right. It said:
“Following an agreement between all parties”— that included
“the secretary of state, the developer, the GLA and Tower Hamlets”— they have agreed to quash the decision. Therefore we see nothing but the preservation of the integrity of the planning system in this debate. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has already been quoted as saying that it rejects the accusation that there was any actual bias.
I will raise two other points. On affordable housing, if we have a rigid system of quotas for affordable housing, we get less affordable housing, and if regeneration is stalled, no one gets any affordable housing. Why was no appeal made the second time to the Mayor of London? It was because of the London plan. The previous Secretary of State threatened to take the London plan to an inquiry because it did not comply with the national planning policy. The Mayor cannot stand outside the national planning policy framework. It is part of the planning system of this country that applies to him as much as to anyone else.
The Secretary of State is obviously going to respond to the letter I sent to him from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. We may well come back to some of the issues, depending on what he says to the Committee in that regard. I said previously in the House that these matters are dealt with best when we have the facts in front of us, rather than supposition and conjecture, because that leads us into very difficult territory. I have also said that I am not accusing the Secretary of State or anybody of wrongdoing. I want to see the facts and look at the situation, along with the Committee, and then come back to any further questions we may have.
In the absence of the documentation—even if it has been sent to the Committee by now, I have not had a chance to read it before the debate—I say to the Secretary of State that there will probably be some questions about the precise nature of conversations at the dinner. Whether someone sees a video or not, I would have thought, would have been fairly well stuck in the Secretary of State’s mind. However, when he had been to the dinner, did he immediately inform his officials that he had been present at the dinner, that he had sat next to Mr Desmond, that the matter of the application had been raised with him and that he had refused to discuss it? If so, when was that confirmed with officials? Did he put that in writing to officials, and, if so, did they then advise him whether it was appropriate for him to carry on considering the application and making a judgment about it? If so, was that put in writing to him? If officials had reservations, was that put in writing to him as well?
Did officials and the Secretary of State at any point, therefore, consider whether in the light of the conversations at the dinner and a pretty well documented and considered attempt by the applicant to influence the Secretary of State at the dinner, it might have been appropriate for him to withdraw from the decision made at that time? When the case was going to court and the Secretary of State decided to withdraw his decision, because of the appearance of bias with regard to the financial liability on the developer that would be removed, was any part of his decision to withdraw also based on the possibility of an appearance of bias in relation to the events at the dinner that he or officials concluded might be an issue that came up in court at the time?
In planning, perception can be just as important as the facts. Even if the Secretary of State refused to discuss the matter at the dinner—I completely accept his word on that—should not the fact that the developer with an interest had sat next to him at the dinner and raised the matter with him have alerted him to the possibility of an appearance of bias and of accusations following if he made the decision in favour of the developer? Again, appearances are really important.
It was a pleasure to serve for four years on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee under the hon. Gentleman’s chairmanship. When he was interviewed recently by the BBC—it might have been Sky—did he not say that there was no information that the Secretary of State was guilty of any wrongdoing? Will he confirm that that was his position then, and is his position now?
We talked about that yesterday. Yes, of course I said there was no evidence. I have not seen any evidence, and I repeated just now that I am not accusing anyone of wrongdoing, What I am saying is that perception and appearances in these matters are almost as important as the facts themselves.
Although the Secretary of State recognises that an informed and fair-minded person might come to the view that there was bias on his part in terms of the liability to the developer that was removed by his decision, did he at any point consider that an informed and fair-minded person might conclude that the events of the dinner could also lead to bias on his part? That seems crucial. If that is the case, when he reflects on the matter now, does he think that he might have done better had he decided not to take part in the decision-making process, once the developer had, quite wrongly—I repeat, the developer had, quite wrongly— tried to influence him at the dinner?
It is an immense honour to be elected as the Member of Parliament for Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale. I thank my brilliant campaign team and my wife and children for sticking with me after losing six elections, to finally see me delivered as a Member of Parliament. A local newspaper once dubbed me “the perennial loser”, much to the amusement of my campaign team, my friends and my family. It is a huge relief for me, and hopefully for them, to have lost that tag at last.
Before I talk about my remarkable constituency, I want to mention the most wonderful person in my life: my mother. At the age of three, I was abandoned by my father, forcing my mother to move with me to a council estate in Thornhill Lees in Dewsbury, and then the Wilton estate in Batley. At first, it was a real struggle for my mother to raise a child as a lone parent while working shifts at Batley hospital and eventually at the newly opened Dewsbury hospital. There are significant challenges facing any single mother when raising a child, let alone one as difficult as me. Despite the heavy burdens, my mother forged a career, going on to become senior sister at the Dewsbury casualty department.
My mother made monumental sacrifices to provide for me and to see that I wanted for nothing. As she rose through the nursing profession, we began to enjoy some of the good things in life. I was even fortunate enough to go on caravan holidays and day trips to fantastic places like Scarborough and Skegness, leaving me with fond, albeit slightly scarring, memories of being ill after staying in the sun too long and overindulging in candy floss—although you can never have too much candy floss. Witnessing the dedication, hard work and sacrifice of my mother has ensured that I take nothing for granted. She showed me the value of hard work and compassion, which she put into action every day on the hospital ward.
She showed me the value of hard work and compassion, which she put into action every single day on the hospital wards. My mother instilled in me the values that I have now and which I am putting into action as the Member of Parliament for Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale. Ultimately, she demonstrated that even in the most difficult circumstances you can progress to where you want to be in this country. If it was not for my mother, I would not be here today. She is my hero.
If this were a normal maiden speech, made during normal times, I would be elaborating on my constituency’s rich history and its landmarks, including the towering figure of the Emley Moor mast, which, by the way, is taller than the Shard and the Eiffel Tower and twice as tall as Blackpool Tower in the constituency of my hon. Friend Scott Benton. I would have been able to turn to him and say, “ Mine is truly bigger than yours.”
However, these are not normal times. Coronavirus has meant that we have all had to adapt to a new way of doing things. I would have liked my mother to be here today, the rest of my family and my amazing team as well, but this inconvenience pales in comparison to the enormous sacrifices that all our constituents have been asked to make to keep the nation safe and the country ticking. It has been a truly heroic effort.
Growing up, I had a number of heroes who I looked up to. One of them was Leeds United centre back, Lucas Radebe. Lucas had a tough upbringing, growing up under the despicable Apartheid in South Africa, surrounded by violence and racism, but he battled against the odds to reach the top, inspiring young footballers to overcome the barriers in front of them. Lucas Radebe was, and still is, my hero.
After our experience with coronavirus, the definition of “hero” has grown. We have seen heroes emerge all over the country. Alongside our NHS and emergency staff, there are the people who have kept us fed, cared for us, operated our public transport and those who have ensured we can still access the goods and services we rely on. I would like to pay tribute to some of those heroes in my constituency, people who have made great sacrifices and gone above and beyond throughout this emergency. I think of groups such as Elim church, the Moonlight Trust, the Zakaria Education Centre, Darul-Ilm mosque, Shelley community association and many more who have been working tirelessly for the benefit of others.
Across my constituency, there have been countless individuals carrying out potentially unnoticed acts of kindness to help out their neighbours. These people are heroes. I have been proud to work alongside some of these wonderful volunteers and community groups who continue to help the vulnerable through this difficult time. There are those I have not yet had the privilege of working alongside, but I am immensely grateful and thankful for all they have done.
I also pay tribute to my predecessor, Paula Sherriff, who worked hard for her constituents and campaigned tirelessly on issues, including women’s right. I understand that Paula is now facing her own heroic battle, and I send her my best wishes at this difficult time.
On the topic of housing and planning, I have often been called a nimby, among other things—[Laughter.] We won’t go into that—but I think it is unfair. I simply believe that we ought to protect our landscapes and take advantage of the scores of brownfield sites waiting to have life brought back to them. I have a proud record of working to protect our countryside from inappropriate developments on green belt and farmland, working closely with groups across my constituency—groups such as my own, Chidswell action group, Cumberworth Road action group in Skelmanthorpe, Save Mirfield and Upper Dearne Valley Environmental Trust, among others. They do great work standing up for their communities and I look forward to working closely with them in the future.
I finish by thanking the people of Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale for giving me this opportunity. I will not let them down.
First, I congratulate Mark Eastwood on his excellent maiden speech. He will understand when I say I dearly wish he had not been here to deliver it; Paula was a great friend and colleague to so many of us on the Labour Benches, remains a great friend, and we hope will be a colleague again in the future. The hon. Gentleman made a wonderful and personal maiden speech which was enjoyed by Members on both sides of the House.
Turning to the matter at hand, let us begin with the facts. The Secretary of State has accepted that his decision to approve the Westferry Printworks plan was unlawful due to apparent bias. That in itself is a serious issue. The second fact is that the Secretary of State’s decision went against the advice of his own Department’s planning inspector, who had recommended permission be refused; that is a fact, and it is not in dispute. During the process, the developer reduced the percentage of affordable housing in the proposed development; again, that is a fact. The timing of the Secretary of State’s decision was such that it was made the day before a new community infrastructure charging schedule was introduced in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets; again, that is a fact.
It is also a fact, and not disputed, that the Secretary of State attended a Conservative party fundraising dinner where he was seated next to Richard Desmond, the developer behind the scheme. It seems that we are expected to believe that that was a coincidence. I find it hard to believe that the fundraising department of the Conservative party—which is far too successful in my opinion—is so unprofessional that table plans were not prepared in advance, that briefing was not prepared for attendees about who was on their table, and that factors such as the political sensibility of the guests and the Ministers they were dining with would not have been taken into account. As I have said, I perfectly accept the Secretary of State’s account that he did not know Mr Desmond would be at the table until he arrived. What I would like to know, though, is whether Mr Desmond knew he would be sitting with the Secretary of State; whether he was given any expectation that he would be seated there; and whether he made any request to be seated there. Furthermore, on the matter of the Secretary of State’s judgment, why, when he saw Mr Desmond there, did he not run a million miles?
The second thing we are expected to believe is that the Secretary of State could not discuss the development and did not discuss it. In fact, the Secretary of State is quoted as saying:
“I advised the applicant that I was not able to discuss it.”
It has since transpired, as the facts have been dragged out of the Secretary of State, that he was shown a promotional video, and that Mr Desmond’s account, as we have already heard from the shadow Secretary of State, is rather different:
“What I did was I showed him the video”,
Mr Desmond said. He had a video of the site. He said the Secretary of State “got the gist” and thanked him with no protestations. That was what was relayed to The Sunday Times by Mr Desmond.
We are also expected to believe that the Secretary of State is committed to transparency, which is why he is producing almost all the documents—doing so, conveniently, following this debate, so that we cannot scrutinise and debate and ask him further questions now.
We are also led to believe that this is all about the Mayor of London and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, when the fact is that the only resignation we have seen on this matter so far has been that of the leader of the Conservative group in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, who says that the police should be called in to investigate the judgments applied in this case. [Interruption.] I did not say the police should be called in; he did.
The reason why this issue is so serious is twofold. First, it is about the integrity of the planning system. Secondly, in December, for the first time in 32 years, the people of this country gave the Conservative party a significant majority and, looking at this, they will be concerned that straight away the Conservatives are back to their old tricks: one rule for them and one rule for someone else—scrap the Department for International Development and do not pay public sector workers fairly. On this particular issue, the question of cash for access and the influence of donations is a reminder of the Tory sleaze of the 1990s. I deeply hope we have not gone back to those days.
They say that an Englishman’s home is his castle, and the vision of owning one’s own home inspires the dreams of many. My family came from a large council estate, where many took the opportunity to buy their own home from the local authority when the Conservative Governments of the day created that opportunity to get on the ladder. As I grew up, the ladder appeared to be moving out of reach and houses had become unaffordable under Labour.
Between 1997 and 2010, the ratio of median incomes to median house prices rose from 3.54 to 6.85. At the same time, house prices rose by 214% between 1997 and 2007, before Labour’s great recession. Coupled with that, the number of first-time buyers fell by 61% between 1997 and 2009. In 1997, there were more than 500,000 first-time buyers, which fell to only 196,000 by 2009. That is scandalous. Under the Labour Administration, we also saw a drop of 420,000 in our social housing stock, which has only been reversed since 2010, with 79,000 more now. Why did that happen? The truth is that Labour simply did not build enough houses. The fact of the matter is that the Secretary of State should not even need to intervene, because local authorities have a responsibility to provide homes, and Tower Hamlets failed to make a decision on this application on six occasions. That is a neglect of its duties and responsibilities.
My hon. Friend talks about Tower Hamlets, and is not what is missing from this debate knowledge? That borough is so rotten that commissioners were brought in by the Secretary of State’s Department to run it for a period of time. If it is still not capable of taking decisions, perhaps it is time to bring back those commissioners to take over the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The attitude towards developers in Tower Hamlets could be summed up well using the term from a local football club that “No one likes us, we don’t care”. Thankfully, this Government care. The Secretary of State says that we need to be building more homes and I agree. Yes, they must be the right sort of development in keeping with the area and of a reasonable size, but they need building and failure to do that is to fail all those people who need a home.
Today’s approach is scandalous. It is a smokescreen to deflect from Labour’s poor record and the public will not fall for it. This is a storm in a teacup. It is a matter of public record that Mr Desmond gave £100,000 to the Labour party in 2002 and, at the time, the Prime Minister said that there was no reason why Labour should not accept it. Mr Desmond has also had dinner with the Mayor of London and Members from the Opposition Benches.
The Secretary of State was absolutely correct in his assertion that, while fairness and due process were followed at all stages, it is important that there must be no perception of bias, and he was right to follow the ministerial code on this matter. This is a transparent and open Government who are not afraid to make decisions and to justify them. This development would provide 1,500 new homes and 282 affordable homes. It will also provide jobs at a time when our economy is looking to bounce back from the coronavirus.
This Government can be proud of their record on housing. Indeed, the Prime Minister built more affordable homes in two years as Mayor than the current Mayor managed in his whole first term. In Wales, just 12—yes, 12—council houses were built in the whole of 2019. That may be enough to house the entire Liberal Democrat group in this House, but it is woeful for the people of Wales. Steve Reed presided over the forced evictions of long-standing residents from housing co-operatives in Lambeth, but if we are not going to build any houses, where are these people going to live?
Last year, we built 241,000 homes, the highest level for 30 years. That is 1.5 million since 2010. The affordable homes programme has also delivered nearly half a million homes since 2010. I commend the Housing Minister for his recent work on this. This Government are really building for Britain and we stand by our record. If local authorities will not do their duty, then we will.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, but, alas, I fear the Opposition have misjudged the mood of this House and the country by using parliamentary time for their own political flare-up and indignation. Last December, the Labour party lost vast swathes of support across the country because it came across as completely disconnected from the people and communities that traditionally turned out en masse to support it. Far be it from me to offer political advice to the Opposition, but this debate’s very existence demonstrates that that disconnection is terminal. The Labour party has completely forgone the opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s economic plans to recover from coronavirus.
It is a pleasure to follow Opposition Members, but I fear that they all have a foggy memory and a worrying lack of understanding about the planning process. It is not unusual for Housing Secretaries to call in planning decisions, just as the last Labour Government regularly did, nor is it new or unusual to overrule the Planning Inspectorate on careful and balanced consideration. As for the decision under scrutiny today, the only reason why this issue required a ministerial decision at all was that Tower Hamlets Council repeatedly failed to make a determination in the first place, cancelling five meetings to ensure that they did not make a decision. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the planning system has robust protections and safeguards in place to ensure the rule of law and the absence of bias.
I am not going to give way.
Ministers involved in the planning process take advice from officials with full disclosure. The insistence from Opposition Members that a ministerial decision was taken after a circumstantial meeting is without basis and totally absurd. Above all, is not today’s debate a missed opportunity for the Opposition to discuss policy, not politics, and delivery in the housing system—something they failed to do time and time again? Should not the planning system be reformed to ensure that planned development for new homes, such as in Tower Hamlets, is encouraged rather than discouraged and not fudged around like it is by Opposition Members? Should we not modernise the planning system to make it easier for councils and developers to deliver more of the homes we need?
I am acutely aware that the Opposition have tried to hold this debate in a narrow political vacuum, but they would be wise to consider their own record when in power—although it was quite a while ago—and the real concerns of the country at large. The country expects us in this House to debate how to tackle the greatest economic and fiscal challenges of our lifetime, including how we are getting the economy going again, how we are safely relaxing restrictions and how we are protecting lives and livelihoods. Yet here the Opposition are trying to weaponise planning decisions to score petty political points—nul points.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that many in my constituency, where the Westferry Printworks site is located, will be watching this debate closely. In May, it became clear that there are serious questions as to whether the Secretary of State is the right person to continue to oversee planning applications and the housing portfolio. Events have continued to unfold, and the picture painted keeps getting worse, as my hon. Friend Steve Reed laid out.
Having lived in the area all my life, I am acutely aware of the strong local feeling that developers should be accountable to residents and that local communities must be empowered and centrally involved in decision-making processes around local planning and building regulation. The Secretary of State is supposed to be making homes safe and holding developers to account, not simply socialising with them. For example, I am alarmed that the Government’s monthly building safety statistics reveal that hundreds of high-rise buildings covered in Grenfell-style ACM cladding still have not had it removed and replaced, including many in my constituency.
The Secretary of State should be delivering truly affordable and secure long-term housing, including council housing, not undermining local efforts to address the complex needs of an area with the highest rate of child poverty in the entire country. In the real world beyond dinners with billionaires, many of my constituents struggle with the near impossible situation of having soaring monthly rents, which all too often mean that people—particularly those on low incomes—face an increased risk of homelessness.
Transparency is not only critical in providing confidence in the integrity of major decisions; it is about making sure that the right decisions are made. The debate thus far has been vital in highlighting the need for full openness on communications concerning the Westferry Printworks development. The circumstances that gave rise to the Housing Secretary’s decision, including a meeting between him and the developer at a party fundraising event, point to serious weaknesses in the rules governing lobbying, access and influence in the UK. It is therefore only right and proper that all documents —and I emphasise, all documents—relating to the approval of the application in January 2020 are made public and that our constituents are empowered to hold those in power accountable, as should be their right.
First, I thank the Opposition for using one of their days to give Conservative Members a chance to talk about the Government’s excellent work on housing in the past 10 years.
Since 2010, 1.5 million new homes have been built across the country. Last year, as my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith mentioned, 241,000 homes were built—the highest level for 30 years. It is a fundamental tenet of good and responsible aspirational Government to give people the opportunity to own their own homes. Home ownership is not only good for the individuals concerned but good for the economy more broadly—it creates jobs and stimulates economic growth. This principle must continue to be at the heart of any Government policy.
I must turn, however, to the political motivations for calling this debate today—namely, the Westferry Printworks development. In recent years, Tower Hamlets has become synonymous with inefficiency, poor governance, corruption and financial mismanagement. The direct intervention of the Secretary of State in the affairs of this council is not isolated to this incident. I must therefore put it to the Opposition that the only reason this permission was put to the Secretary of State in the first place was that Labour-run Tower Hamlets refused to make a decision. In 2018, Tower Hamlets Council cancelled five meetings of the strategic development committee—in March, April, May, June and August—and a further meeting in January 2019. This is the committee that should have considered the development. With the necessary levels of accountability, scrutiny and oversight, decisions about housing rightly reside with local authorities and, where they exist, combined authorities. Considerable powers have been devolved to those bodies, and it is the responsibility of local leaders to ensure that where developments are approved, not only do they reflect the wishes of local communities but there is a proper infrastructure to support them.
We should be united across this House in welcoming the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade.
This year, a record £12.2 billion in grants will support the creation of affordable homes. I welcome the extension of the affordable homes programme, which has delivered 464,500 new affordable homes since 2010. The recent announcement of a boost in funding by £9.5 billion over five years will help to unlock billions more in public and private investment.
Despite the excellent efforts of the Government, not only in increasing the supply of affordable housing but in truly trying to enshrine the best traditions of localism into the planning system, communities can still be at the mercy of local leaders who ignore the wishes of the people they serve. Nothing illustrates this better than a story—one I like to refer to as “A Tale of Two Andys”. Since Andy Burnham became Mayor of Greater Manchester Combined Authority, just 1,715 affordable homes were completed in 2017-18 and 1,619 in 2018-19. That represents a 19% and 24% reduction, respectively, compared with figures for 2014-15, showing that the supply of affordable housing has gone backwards in Greater Manchester. Yet in the smaller West Midlands Combined Authority area, 3,801 affordable homes were built in 2018-19 alone, under the watch of Andy Street.
I believe it is entirely possible to support the building of affordable homes and garner the support of local communities at the same time. Therefore, I cannot fathom the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s strategy to seemingly jettison the sensible policy of “brownfield first”, whereby permissions are more likely to carry the support of local communities and to support important regeneration products in our towns and cities, and warrant the destruction of our green belt instead.
I have been working with local campaign groups in Heywood and Middleton such as Save our Slattocks, Save Bamford Green Belt and campaigners at Crimble Mill to resist the disastrous Greater Manchester spatial framework. I will continue to do so. Andy Burnham’s plan, at present, demonstrates a woeful lack of community engagement. I will use my privilege as a Member of this House to urge him to reconsider. Dickens himself would have described the approach taken in the west midlands as “the age of wisdom”. I am afraid that in Greater Manchester, with Labour’s Mayor, we are witnessing “the age of foolishness”.
There seems to be to be a bit of a theme developing here. The Government seem to think that the rules that apply to everyone else do not apply to them. First, we had the Prime Minister’s chief adviser flouting the lockdown rules that he himself helped to create, and now we have the Housing Secretary seemingly deciding that planning regulations are flexible—as long as it is your friend asking and he has a spare £12,000.
I welcome the fact that we are having this debate, because, as they say and as we have heard, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Accountability should be at the heart of this place, but, sadly, it is often lacking. With that in mind, it was a shame that the Secretary of State refused to submit himself to parliamentary scrutiny the other week. Whether a Government have a majority of eight—[Interruption.] It is a shame that he did not present himself for scrutiny the other week when it was an issue—the issue was raised. Whether the Government have a majority of eight or 80, the same scrutiny should apply.
To me, and in the minds of many of my constituents, it is clear what has happened here. Two influential figures in the Conservative party have gone out of their way to approve a development project, headed by a Conservative party donor, that blatantly broke regulation and was strongly opposed by the local authority. Following that, the same developer made a £12,000 cash donation to the Conservative party, before the Secretary of State admitted an apparent bias and that he knew he was saving the developer millions. Whatever else we call that, it is clearly morally wrong.
The legalities are one thing, but this is also about local democracy, and I want to talk about who the Secretary of State was really short-changing: the people of Tower Hamlets. As someone who has served as a councillor for 14 years and who knows the hard work that the desperately underfunded county council does in Durham, I know the importance of that money to local authorities. I also know the importance and value of social housing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as I have been trying to get in for a very long time. Does she agree that what is shocking about what we have heard today is that the Secretary of State watched the promotional video on the night of the Conservative fundraiser? The rules on a Secretary of State’s decision making on planning state:
“Privately made representations should not be entertained unless other parties have been given the chance to consider them and comment.”
It is clear from what we have heard so far that that has not happened. We need answers on that exact point from the Secretary of State.
I thank my hon. Friend for that and totally agree with what she says. The fact that the Secretary of State knowingly made a decision that reduced affordable housing, and deprived a local council and its communities of much-needed funding, is a disgrace. It is deeply worrying, if not surprising, that the Secretary of State appeared more concerned with the interests of the wealthy property developers than the Tower Hamlets community. As Members of Parliament, we serve the public, not the powerful—at least we do on our side of the House. This is not just about leadership; it is about honesty, integrity and transparency. The public must be able to trust that the Government are making decisions in the people’s interest, not in their own personal interests or those of their wealthy friends.
It is going to be difficult for the Secretary of State to regain the trust of the public. He has promised to immediately publish all documentation and correspondence that relates to this matter—that really should have already happened. I hope that that clears up why he decided to overrule his own inspectors and provides the justification as to why, despite having a bias by his own admission, he actively brought the decision under his own control. The Secretary of State still has serious questions to answer, and I hope that we get the answers, because the voting public deserve better than this.
As I look across the Chamber, I am struck by the sheer desperation on the Opposition Benches. This is clearly the age of trial by Twitter and conviction in the court of public opinion. Rather than using their time to discuss things that really matter to people in this country, such as building more homes and greener communities, the Opposition seek to score political points.
In the Opposition’s view, it is outrageous for Ministers involved in housing to meet housing developers such as Mr Desmond. Presumably the Health Secretary will soon be raked over the coals for daring to sit with a doctor, or the Home Secretary for meeting a senior police officer. It is a scruple that they do not apply to themselves. They have nothing to say about the fact that the shadow Justice Secretary has met Mr Desmond or that Mr Desmond has dined with the Labour Mayor of London.
Actually, Mr Desmond says it was the Labour Mayor of London who lobbied him to reduce the affordable housing target connected with the development. Such facts do not matter to the Opposition, as they clearly have not even read the planning inspector’s documentation that is in the public domain. Instead, we are setting sail for the island of political point scoring, a tiresome voyage that we seem to go on regularly.
Perhaps the Opposition want to avoid talking about their record on affordable housing because it is not good. Under the last Labour Government, the number of first-time buyers fell by 61%. The current Labour Mayor of London has built fewer affordable homes in the whole of his first term than the previous Mayor—our Prime Minister—did in two years. Under the shadow Secretary of State’s leadership, Lambeth Council’s affordable housing completions plummeted by 68%. What a total shambles.
Conservative Members are proud of our record on housing. In the past 10 years, we have built 1.5 million homes, 460,000 of which are affordable. In this Parliament, we have pledged to build 1 million more homes.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State will release some of the papers related to the case, but in short, the rigmarole has become a farce. If, as the Secretary of State claims, he acted in good faith, we must get answers to the following questions. Did he, as Mr Desmond says, watch the promotional video at the Conservative fundraising dinner and then thank him? Did the Secretary of State inform his officials of that the next day? If so, what advice did they give him on receipt of that information? Those three questions lie at the heart of the rights and wrongs of the matter. They tease out whether, to use the Secretary of State’s words, the bias was apparent or real.
In the Secretary of State’s introduction, he was silent, then ambiguous about whether he watched the video. I invite Mr Desmond’s team, who surrounded the Secretary of State that night at the Conservative party fundraising dinner, to corroborate what Mr Desmond has said. If the Government really want to put the case to rest, the public deserve answers to those questions.
Mr Desmond has had business dinners with lots of people and lots of parties on different occasions and made donations to many political parties over the years. I simply say that I have always found my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State one of the most professional Ministers I have worked with. I wholeheartedly support him today.
My reading of the application is that the council delayed time and again, increased community infrastructure levies and did not make a decision. Ultimately, decisions need to be taken. Although I acknowledge today’s debate, I would like to focus attention on what really matters for families around the country.
In the light of covid-19, we need comprehensive and far-reaching changes to our planning laws. Radical planning reform needs to increase supply across our countries to support our working people. On general principles, the current system is broken. The principles enshrined in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 are no longer fit for purpose. Even recent changes to the national planning policy framework and neighbourhood development plans, while absolutely laudable, do not deliver the housing that this country needs. We need a much more liberal approach to development, and we need to get planning into the economic development arm of local authorities as soon as possible.
I would like the team on our Front Bench to focus on two priorities: the reform of town centres and the right to build. On town centres, we need to drop the change of use rule that currently exists in high streets to free up potentially 3 million or 4 million properties that people could move into. As high streets change in the light of covid-19, we must change our policies too. High streets are social hubs. We need to prioritise converting shops into older people’s flats, helping with loneliness, access and more high street viability. The Government should allow private pension funds to invest in new build residential properties. In fact, I am on a call with the mayors in my patch tonight, and I hope we will be able to discuss how we might make some changes in North Cornwall to facilitate some of this. I urge those on our Front Bench to be bold with our planning reforms for town centres.
Secondly, and lastly, I would like to touch on the right to build. We have had a plan-led approach, but it is not delivering. Although we have done well, it is not delivering the homes that people require. Town planning needs to sit with the economic development arm of local authorities, rather than with the planners. My surgeries have been full up, as have those of other Members, with local people who have spent thousands of pounds getting an application ready for committee in order for it to be determined, only to have it turned down by the local authority. The authorities view planning as a problem to be resolved, rather than an opportunity for a home for a person or a local opportunity for employment, and we need to change that. In conclusion, it is my view that we need to facilitate smaller developments. We need to be much more supportive, and we need to invest in our high streets and ensure that we can change those properties to make those high streets more viable.
Like many who have spoken in the debate today, I arrived at this place as a councillor, having served for six years. I am glad we are having this debate, because the issue cuts to the heart of what is wrong with some aspects of our democracy and the way that some decisions are made. It is probably fair to say that very few of my constituents would have found out about the Westferry Printworks development if it had not been for the Secretary of State’s intervention in the planning process and the fact that it was then splashed all over the headlines. It is true that this is about a site in London, and my hon. Friend Apsana Begum has expressed eloquently the impact on her community, but it is also a familiar story to us all. It is a story about the power and influence of big property developers, the struggle to build affordable housing and address the housing crisis, and the needs of communities being ignored.
It is already well established that there is a housing crisis in the UK today. Recent research conducted on behalf of the National Housing Federation has estimated that 3.6 million people are living in overcrowded housing, that 2.5 million people cannot afford their rent or mortgage—
I will not give way.
The research also found that 2.5 million people are in hidden households that they cannot afford to move out of; 1.7 million people are living in unsuitable accommodation; 1.4 million people live in poor-quality housing; and 400,000 people are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The Conservatives talk about the Labour party’s record, but we went on to fix poor-quality housing. Thousands of homes were upgraded under the Labour Government, and there was a low level of homelessness. We should be doing all we can to create better-quality, environmentally sustainable, affordable homes, given the dire situation.
It was more than reasonable for the planning inspector to say that 21% affordable housing in this scheme could be improved, as the Secretary of State agreed in his letter of approval. He admitted that the planning inspector was right:
“He agrees with the Inspector that, on the balance of the available evidence, it is likely that the scheme could provide more affordable housing and that 21% does not therefore represent the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing within the terms of” the London plan. The letter goes on to say that
“for the purpose of his assessment of the proposal…the Secretary of State proceeds on the basis that the maximum amount of affordable housing that could be reasonably delivered is uncertain, but may be up to 35%”.
Yet he still thought it was appropriate to approve the application. To make matters worse, he rushed it through 24 hours before the increase in the community infrastructure levy. The decision meant the council was losing £40 million towards affordable homes, at a time when local authorities up and down the country are already struggling to do this.
I want to mention briefly, if I may, Madam Deputy Speaker—
It was a pleasure to hear the much anticipated maiden speech of my hon. Friend Mark Eastwood. He has made his mum proud, and I am sure he will make his constituents proud and serve them well in this place.
A safe habitable home is not a want; it is a need—one of the most basic needs that we have as human beings—and all of us in public life have a duty to work towards the goal of making that a reality for everyone in the communities we live in. The sensationalist allegations that have been made over the last few weeks in order to deflect from a political failure of delivery at a local level serve no one well, least of all those who need housing. Those of us in public life also have a duty to uphold our code of conduct at all levels of government and to abide by the Nolan principles of public life, including integrity, honesty and openness. In releasing the correspondence later today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing has also displayed accountability, another of these fundamental principles.
Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was a local councillor in the thriving village of Cranleigh, and sat on the neighbourhood planning committee and the planning committee, where we heard applications large and small. Deciding the best way to use our space is an important role and one that impacts on everyone. Hand in hand with planning and building new homes, be they large or small developments, this needs careful and joined-up thinking as to how to mitigate impact, protect our environment and have the necessary infrastructure in place in utilities, schools, medical facilities, green spaces, allotments, green technology and so on.
Even though our principles instruct us to always be open and transparent, which is fundamentally right, as someone who ventured into public life with no knowledge of planning, I found and still find that the language of planning can be opaque and obscure. It is littered with acronyms such as SHLAA—strategic housing land availability assessment—or, if you like your BAPs, biodiversity action plans. Those who inhabit the world of local councils speak in this language, which, rather than being inclusive, can leave residents feeling excluded.
Our role as public servants should be to demystify the process all the way from the application for planning permission through to and including how, why and when an application makes its way from where it sits with the local authority to determine, in accordance with its local plan, all the way up to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, including understanding that the Secretary of State has no fear of stepping in when a local authority puts off determining an application, as in this case, and runs out of time.
This Conservative Government are determined to maintain public confidence in our planning process and, most crucially, deliver on the housing we need. I stood on a manifesto commitment to deliver on housing, and I stood locally on a pledge to make sure we could have the right homes in the right place at the right price for local people, and to tackle homelessness. I welcome the announcement today of an additional £105 million to help with rough sleeping, and I am determined to help build bounce-back Britain and see us thrive once again.
I am having difficulty believing that we are having the debate, as the story of the Secretary of State and Mr Desmond reads like something straight out of a Frederick Forsyth or John le Carré novel. A fabulously wealthy former pornographer and major Conservative party donor happens to sit next to the Secretary of State at a £900-a-head Conservative party dinner just weeks before that Secretary of State makes a decision on a £1 billion property deal of Mr Desmond’s.
At the dinner, Mr Desmond leans over to the Secretary of State to show him a video. I bet the Secretary of State now wishes it was from one of Mr Desmond’s former television channels, but as we now know, it was a promotional video of the luxury development. Mr Desmond openly admitted this, saying:
“What I did was I showed him the video”.
Mr Desmond revealed that the Secretary of State watched it for three to four minutes.
No, I will not give way. We have very limited time in this debate.
Mr Desmond added:
“It’s quite long, so he got the gist.”
The advertised prizes on the night of the dinner included a dinner with Michael Gove and Sarah Vine; a flight in a Lancaster bomber with the Secretary State for Transport; a trip to a Tory donor’s house, with shooting opportunities; and a night out with a former Prime Minister—although whether or not she would be wearing kitten heels was not revealed. The prize of a planning decision from the Secretary of State was not advertised.
Mr Desmond challenged the Secretary of State’s claim just two days ago that he did not discuss the decision in any way at the £900 dinner. Just two days ago, the Secretary of State was saying that he did not discuss it, and he has now admitted that he did and that he watched the video. He has backtracked on all his claims.
At the time of the decision, on
Of course, the real saving for Mr Desmond was the fact that the decision was approved just a day before the council approved the CIL. I take on board the Secretary of State’s view on that, but that CIL still would have bought three high schools, 10 new libraries, 50 new pocket parks or 200 new pedestrian bridges for one of the poorest authorities in the country. That is the cost of such decisions.
I was a councillor for six years. If the chair of my council’s planning committee had done what the Secretary did, he or she would have been referred to standards for a serious breach. That is what we are now facing, and the Secretary of State knows it. He knows that he has not acted with propriety or honour. He should recuse himself and there should be a full investigation on standards, because it is clear that there is a question as to whether he broke the ministerial code.
I was going to say, “Isn’t it interesting that the Opposition do not want to talk about the donations from Mr Desmond to the Labour party?”, but I congratulate Alex Sobel on having the courage to bring that up. Although I am far too young to remember it, some Members may remember the former Prime Minister’s slightly farcical 2002 interview with Jeremy Paxman on “Newsnight”, in which he defended the donation to his party from Mr Desmond and said it was perfectly reasonable.
It is clear that the Opposition want to use this debate as a distraction from their own embarrassing record on house building. Is it not true that the only reason the application was referred to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was that Tower Hamlets Council refused to make the decision itself? That is shameful, given the lack of affordable housing in the borough and in London as a whole.
By contrast, the Conservative party and this Government are overseeing the highest levels of house building in the past 30 years. Home building in the West Midlands has doubled over the past decade, guided by the wisdom of the combined authority and our fantastic Mayor. We are delivering affordable homes with a brownfield-first policy. At the same time, we are training local people in the skills needed to build new homes. Now, is that not important at this time?
My constituents in West Bromwich East want to see us building affordable homes. I am not sure that the Opposition do. We are taking action and getting on with delivering for people, not dragging good Ministers through the mud during a global pandemic. The Secretary of State has already answered questions on this issue in the House and will publish further papers today. Let the matter rest and let us get back to serving the people we represent.
Westferry has all the hallmarks of some of the murkiest cash-for-favours scandals we have sadly borne witness to over the years. Despite the Secretary of State’s denials, the facts remain that he approved the Westferry printworks scheme just 12 days before the developer donated £12,000 to the Conservative party, and the approval came just two weeks after the Secretary of State sat next to Mr Desmond at a party fundraiser at which—the developer subsequently admitted—he had raised the scheme with the Secretary of State.
In a moment, perhaps.
There then followed a private screening of a promotional video for the development—that completely undermines the Secretary of State’s claim that he and Mr Desmond did not discuss the screening prior to his decision. The favours do not stop there.
As we know, the decision was made just 24 hours before the new community infrastructure levy came into force, saving Mr Desmond’s Northern & Shell company up to £50 million. All of that was compounded by the Secretary of State overruling his advisers—including his own Department’s planning inspector, who recommended that permission be refused in what was reported at the time as a “damning” 141-page report—to reduce the amount of affordable housing required in the development, saving Mr Desmond a further £106 million.
It is not the first time that Mr Desmond has had the development approved. My hon. Friend Steve Reed made reference to how in the final days in office of the then Mayor of London, now Prime Minister, the then Mayor approved a 30-storey scheme on the same site, despite objections from the local council and just months after sharing drinks with Mr Desmond in a five-star hotel. Sadly, it all has a very familiar ring to it.
Given that the Prime Minister pushed the original scheme for the same developer when he was Mayor of London, did No. 10 have any involvement in the events or conversation leading to the Secretary of State’s unlawful decision to grant approval? It is completely immoral and, furthermore, illegal for a Government Minister to show such bias on such a matter. In this instance, it appears that the Secretary of State’s price was a £12,000 donation to the Conservative party just weeks after the decision was made.
A lack of affordable housing remains a significant challenge in Greater Manchester. To overcome the situation, the planning system needs a complete overhaul, and that starts with ensuring that developers meet the needs of their communities, not the Government meeting the needs of developers.
At the outset, some points that have emerged during the debate need to be reiterated. First, it is not unusual for politicians in senior positions to overrule local authorities. My old friend Sadiq Khan has done so repeatedly as the Mayor of London. The second point, which needs to be emphasised, is the role of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in this particular application. We would not be here at all if it had exercised the duty it was legally obliged to exercise in the timeframe in which it was obliged to do so. Twice it failed to discharge that duty, and twice the decision had to be referred to higher authorities.
Steve Reed referred in his opening remarks to the fact that Tower Hamlets opposed the application. Why did it not decide it? It had the opportunity to do so. Wes Streeting referred to the fact that the affordable housing element was reduced after the matter was referred to the Secretary of State. The council had the power to approve the development when that element was set at 35%. There could have been 35% affordable housing on that development if the council had simply exercised the powers it legally had.
The third point is that much has been made of Richard Desmond’s donations. In common with my hon. Friend Nicola Richards, I am almost speechless at the bravery of Alex Sobel in referring to Tony Blair. I know that Tony Blair’s name is one that the Labour party do not like to hark back to. Richard Desmond is on record as having donated substantial sums of money—way more sums of money than this—to multiple political parties. He is also known for socialising with senior politicians, including Sadiq Khan and leading members of the Opposition.
Nor is it unheard of, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his speech, for Ministers to take decisions that contradict the advice of planning inspectors. John Prescott did so in 2005 when he approved the new stadium for Brighton and Hove Albion football club. Hazel Blears did so in 2008 when she approved a 43-storey tower block on London’s south bank. Nor is it unheard of for those decisions to be overturned by the High Court, as that decision by Hazel Blears was and a recent decision by Sadiq Khan was when the High Court ruled in March that permission he had given to a housing developer should be overturned.
This is a desperate attempt by the Opposition to blow enough smoke to make people believe that there is a real fire.
I do not have time, I am afraid. The Opposition are doing this simply to deflect from their own woeful lack of delivery on affordable housing. If they really care about this issue, perhaps their next Opposition day debate will be on the woeful record of Sadiq Khan in delivering only 12,000 affordable units in exchange for a £4.82 billion grant from this Government.
Zoe McKendree, 33, told the BBC that she spends more than a third of her pay on rent for her shared flat. She dreams of having the keys to a home of her own, but for her and most people of her generation, let alone my generation, that remains a distant prospect. Instead, Zoe has to contend with what she describes as “callous” landlords and escalating costs. She has also experienced numerous no-fault evictions, where private landlords evict tenants at short notice without good reason.
This country is deep in a housing crisis of the Government’s own making. Not only are people spending more than a third of their income on rent, but the number of rough sleepers in England has, shockingly—shamefully —increased by more than 250% since the Conservative party was elected in 2010. It was in that context that the Secretary of State overruled his advisers to reduce the amount of affordable housing required in the Westferry development.
Let us take this slowly, because this point cannot be laboured enough. With an increase in street homelessness of more than 250% since 2010—
The Secretary of State is shaking his head, but those are the facts. With that increase, and with a generation of people trapped in precarious and poorly regulated rented housing, we have a Secretary of State in charge of housing fighting to reduce the number of affordable housing units in a development. How on earth do the Government justify that move?
It seems baffling to me, considering that fact alone, that the Secretary of State should be deemed fit to represent the wider public interest as part of his brief. Reducing the ratio of affordable dwellings from one in three to one in five saved billionaire developer and Tory donor Richard Desmond another £40 million by enabling him to sell those units on the premium property market instead.
Transparency International defines corruption as
“the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”
It has said of corruption in the UK:
“Although corruption is not endemic in the UK, it is correct to say that in some areas of UK society and institutions, corruption is a much greater problem than recognised and that there is an inadequate response”—
Those on the Opposition Benches have a long track record of trying to create issues where none exists, and the rest of the country can see it. Just as last December, they continue to be out of touch with the general public with their faux outrage. The idea that the Secretary of State for Housing does not receive correspondence from housing developers is farcical. If that were the case, nothing would get done—but that seems to be the operating model for Labour Administrations.
My parents bought their first house in their early 20s. That is what people did then, but why could I not do that? Why did I find myself part of generation rent, unable to get on the housing ladder? Because the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010 did not build enough homes. They abandoned people with aspiration. The shadow Chancellor has admitted that herself. In 2018, she said:
“Labour didn’t get a grip on the issue. We didn’t build enough homes”.
They dithered, they delayed and they abdicated responsibility.
In 2010, the Conservative-led Government did get a grip on the issue. We have delivered more than 465,000 affordable homes. Schemes such as Help to Buy have allowed young families to buy their first home, which they would have been unable to do otherwise. Let me translate that locally.
Between 2001 and 2010 in Burnley, the number of homes increased by 300. Between 2010 and 2019, that number was 1,000.
Dealing with that Labour failure, then and now, means calling applications in, finding the schemes that will deliver the homes of the future and getting them going. This scheme, which Tower Hamlets council sat on for month after month after month, was one such scheme.
Let us not forget that the area of London we are talking about has been transformed, thanks to people on this side of the House. In 1982, it was a Conservative Government who created the urban enterprise zone on the Isle of Dogs, pulling in private investment and turning it into the international financial centre that it is today. We on these Benches will not shy away, as Labour does, from the need to build more homes and we will continue to hold Labour administrations to account where we need to—calling in applications that they sit on, because sitting on them is depriving our young working families of homes. As with most things from Labour, this debate is all about smoke-screens and diversion, because it consistently fails on policy.
I gently remind Conservative Members that in the past 10 years of Tory austerity rough sleeping has seen extraordinary increases. Fewer social homes were built last year than at any time since the second world war, and the Grenfell fire atrocity revealed a huge issue with bad buildings. Numerous blocks with Grenfell-style cladding are still in place three years after the Grenfell fire. I just ask Conservative Members to take care with the attacks that they make, because they do not have a record to stand on.
Last week I asked the Secretary of State if he knew, when he signed the planning consent for Westferry, that the very next day the new levy would come into effect, which would have cost the developers tens of millions of pounds. The Secretary of State said that that was a matter of public record.
In the ministerial code published last year, the Prime Minister said that to
“win back the trust of the British people, we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety…no actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”
The code goes on to say that it
“should be read against the background of the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law”.
The Secretary of State has admitted that his decision was unlawful.
The code says:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
The Secretary of State told us that he advised the applicant that he was not able to discuss the issue. He now implies that he watched a video about it, and he has not qualified the facts.
The code says:
“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.
The Secretary of State has only today, after several weeks, said he will publish some papers after the debate.
The code says:
“Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.”
The Secretary of State has admitted that a fair-minded person would conclude that his decision was biased in favour of the developer.
The code says:
“Ministers must not use government resources for Party political purposes”.
Richard Desmond gave the Conservatives a large donation shortly after the Secretary of State made his decision. We think that the Secretary of State has admitted that he watched the promotional video, although he was unclear, and the rules on the Secretary of State’s decision making in planning state:
“Privately made representations should not be entertained unless other parties have been given the chance to consider them and comment.”
We cannot legislate for integrity, but surely we can ask the Secretary of State to tell us whether he watched the video, did he tell his officials the next day, and does he now think—
In that case, I reiterate that I will keep my comments short—I have no choice. This is a personal one for me because, as I have said before, I know what it is like to be in social housing and need it. I know what it is like to fear for your life, when you think that you are going to die, because your dad is going to come and kill you. I know what it is like to languish on Labour’s housing list for 12 months and have to live off sofas—sofa surfing at five years old—and watch your mother cry her heart out because she cannot get a home because there are not enough of them. They have the gall to lecture and pander about housing lists. How dare they?
The reality is that we could have talked today about how we revolutionise our planning system, how we ensure that kids like that do not have to fear for the future and how we truly level up, but instead all that seems to have happened is a smear on my right hon. Friend the Secretary for State. It is an absolute disgrace.
We could go back through the figures that my hon. Friends have gone through today and the arguments that have been repeated time and again, but Tower Hamlets did not do its job. It seems to be a habit with Labour councillors that they do not do their job for some reason; if hon. Members saw my case bag, they would probably see why.
We need to make sure that we have a planning process that works; that we build affordable homes that people can aspire to and buy; that we ensure that kids in places such as Tipton, who fear for their lives and do not have a stable home can have that; and that we invest in social rent housing, which I am afraid the Mayor of London in particular has an abysmal record on. He was given £4.82 billion by the Government. He failed to build social housing in nine London boroughs. The facts and figures speak for themselves.
I want to ensure that we have a planning system that truly works so that we can level up. I want to be able to turn to kids in my constituency, in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, who have gone through the same circumstances as me, and say that with the right housing, the right home and a roof over their head, just like me, they can be the council house lad that got to Westminster.
In this afternoon’s debate, we have heard strong and powerful interventions from parliamentarians, particularly from the Opposition Benches, that were centrally about restoring faith and trust in our planning system. In fact, it is about the integrity and honour of our Ministers and the moral authority of the Government—an authority that has been undermined by the actions of some, which imply that the rules, and in some cases even the laws, do not apply to them. From Dominic Cummings to, seemingly, the Secretary of State, it is a case of do as I say, not as I do.
I thank many of the MPs who have spoken today in defence of the standards required in the ministerial code and an accountable transparent planning system. I thank the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Steve Reed, for opening the debate. I thank David Linden, my hon. Friend Mr Betts, the Chair of the Select Committee, who spoke eloquently as always, and Mark Eastwood, who gave a personal and touching maiden speech on which I congratulate him. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum), for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones).
I also thank Government Members for their creative attempt to defend the indefensible. At the heart of their argument, the defence of the Secretary of State is that he was merely caught in a timeline of an extraordinary set of coincidences. There was the coincidental seating arrangement at a dinner, with Richard Desmond as well as four senior executives from Northern & Shell and Mace; the coincidence that the Minister was shown a four-minute promotional video for the £1 billion development by the said guests on the table; the planning approval that coincidentally occurred the day before a £50 million levy—I stress: levy—would be charged; and the coincidence that a £12,000 donation was paid into Tory coffers just two weeks later. Just coincidences.
What is not a coincidence—Tory Members skated over this one—but is a fact of the matter is that the Secretary of State overruled the planning inspectorate, was taken to the High Court by Tower Hamlets Council, and has admitted acting unlawfully, with apparent bias. I stress in big bold capital letters: unlawfully, with apparent bias. Fact. What is also a fact is that the Secretary of State has resisted every request and every attempt to disclose all correspondence leading up to this unlawful planning direction, up until this debate today. I know that, as we have been speaking in this debate, the media have been well briefed about what is going their way. If the Minister had nothing to hide, he knew what to do, and he has had weeks to do it, so why wait until now and go through all this pain and grief and claim that these are cheap political points? Unlawful. Broke the law.
At least we know now, unlike when I first called for an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary, that Mr Desmond donated to the Minister’s party after his application was approved. We know that the Minister watched a video all about the development at a fundraising dinner. In fact, Richard Desmond has been quoted by Opposition Members as saying, “He got the gist after three or four minutes.” Those were his words, not those of Labour or Scottish National party Members. The Secretary of State not only saved Mr Desmond £50 million in money that would have gone into community development by approving the application when he did—
Yes, it was a levy, as the hon. Member is right to point out, so it would not have been his personal money out of his pocket, but it was undoubtedly a saving. After the development was given a direction— I will not say called in, but given a direction, given after the decision was overruled as unlawful—Mr Desmond saved another £106 million or so by including fewer affordable houses. Those are the very homes that many of our key workers require. We have all clapped for them every Thursday. Every Thursday, we hear “Homes for the new heroes!” Surely they need and deserve those homes.
The Housing Minister, at a recent meeting of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, was pressed and pressed again on social housing. How many social houses? What is the target for social housing? How many are going to be built? He was asked four, five or six times, but when we check Hansard to see if there was an answer, we find there was no answer at all—he said there were no targets for social housing, none at all. Under Labour, an average of just under 28,000 social houses to rent were built per year; last year, under this Government, the number was 6,600, although I might be being a little bit generous there. [Interruption.] Don’t talk to me about the definition of affordable housing—the vandalised version, which is no real definition at all. It is not true.
To conclude, the Prime Minister, outlining his expectations in the ministerial code, is very clear that there must not be any misuse of taxpayers’ money and no “actual or perceived” conflicts of interest, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central. If the Prime Minister is so confident that the Secretary of State has abided by the code and has nothing to hide, we would expect that he and Government Members will support this Humble Address and publish in full—I stress, in full—all documentation and emails associated with this application. That includes correspondence from the advisers, the lobbyists and the Prime Minister himself—in full. It will be interesting to see what has been spun to the media while we have been having this debate.
I think there is one thing in this debate upon which we can all agree: that my hon. Friend Mark Eastwood made a fantastic, powerful and personal maiden speech. He is right to say that, when we are first elected to this place, we sit in the Tea Room and talk to each other about the relative merits of our constituencies. He will know that, regrettably, when we turn to talking about majorities, size really does matter.
I should also like to congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell), for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), for East Devon (Simon Jupp), for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for Guildford (Angela Richardson), for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) and for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham) on their powerful contributions to the debate.
Let me be clear: we reject any allegations of impropriety either in relation to the appeal at Westferry Printworks or more widely. Today, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, our Department has published the documents on the record regarding the Westferry decision. They are now in the public domain for the full scrutiny of Members and the wider public. Those documents show what we knew from the outset: that no improper action was undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
As my right hon. Friend made clear in his remarks, it is far from uncommon for Ministers to disagree with a planning inspector’s recommendation. The involvement of Ministers in the planning system is clearly guided by both the ministerial code and the guidance set out by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. That guidance details the duty to behave fairly and to approach matters before us with an open mind. As my right hon. Friend has made clear abundantly again and again, the reason for granting planning permission for the proposed development at the Westferry Printworks are detailed in his letter of
The Minister is quite right: it is not unusual for the Secretary of State or another Minister to make a planning decision, even in contradiction of a planning inspector’s recommendations. Can he think of another example where a Secretary of State has made a planning decision and then ruled his own decision to be unlawful?
There are such examples. Indeed, I remember that the former Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Prescott, overruled his own Planning Inspectorate in order to build a tower like the one proposed at Westferry. The reasons for the granting of permission are fully set out in the sealed order of
I will answer the question that I think the hon. Gentleman is about to ask and save him the trouble. In the last three years, there have been 26 challenges made to Ministers. Of those, 16 were withdrawn or successfully defended, eight were conceded or lost, and two are yet to be concluded.
On the question that many Members have raised regarding the meetings between my right hon. Friend and Mr Desmond, it is a matter of public record that the Secretary of State met the scheme’s proposer, the chairman of Northern & Shell, in November 2019. Ministers meet many people in the course of their duties —it has even been known for shadow Ministers occasionally to get out of the bubble and meet people—and my right hon. Friend has made it clear that that meeting was not planned. He did not discuss the case; Mr Desmond himself has said that. Indeed, my right hon. Friend advised his officials of Mr Desmond’s approach and of his own response, and at no time were his officials advising him that he should recuse himself from this matter.
I am sure that Mr Desmond is a very effective businessman, and I am sure that he is honestly and sincerely determined to see more homes built. I do not know Mr Desmond. I have not met him, but the Mayor of London has met him; he has been to dinner with Mr Desmond, yet has Sadiq Khan being arraigned before the north Croydon magistrate to answer his case? The Mayor of London took money from a Manchester tycoon who was prosecuted for putting people’s lives at risk—putting people’s lives at risk! Is the Mayor at risk of the wrath of the people’s tribunal sitting on the Opposition Front Bench? It does not appear so.
What about Mr Lammy, who enjoyed, apparently, a cosy Christmas chez Desmond? Will he be dragged before the Starmer “star chamber” to answer for any potential indiscretions he may have had over the turkey and the trimmings? The Leader of the Opposition, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, is remarkably silent on this matter: not a jot or tittle do we hear from him. There they sit, po-faced and prim, as if butter would not melt in their mouths, yet on housing their crimes are such that they should be blushing to the core; they should be as red in their face as they are in tooth and claw.
This House, the Gallery and the public, in so far as they are watching, can see this for what it really is: a tawdry charade to distract attention from their own party’s lamentable failure to decide the Westferry case themselves when they could have done so, and the dismal failure of the Mayor of London to build the homes that Londoners want and need. The crime, if there is one, is the failure of Sadiq Khan to build in four years what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister built in two years—his failure to deliver more than 322 homes on TfL land when he promised to deliver 10,000, a risible 3% success rate on his pledge. The truth is that they do not like the truth; they cannot handle the truth, and it is because of that failure that they have tabled this spurious motion today.
We make no apology for our bold ambition to build the homes that this country needs. My right hon. Friend and this Government were elected on a mandate to build a million new homes in this Parliament, and that is what we are going to do. We will build more affordable homes and boost the housing supply so that it comfortably meets and beats growing demand. We were elected on a mandate to champion and take up brownfield sites, so that neglected and abandoned land can be transformed into homes for people.
Let us be in no doubt that the Westferry Printworks development would have created hundreds of new, affordable homes, which would have helped our nation’s capital. We will build and build, and build again, to back the people who need homes in this country and in London. We will build for Britain as we emerge from this pandemic. The Secretary of State stands four-square behind that commitment, and we stand four-square behind him.
Question put and agreed to.
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give a direction to Her Ministers to provide all correspondence, including submissions and electronic communications, involving Ministers and Special Advisers pertaining to the Westferry Printworks Development and the subsequent decision by the Secretary of State to approve its planning application at appeal to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.