Westferry Printworks Development

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:21 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 1:21 pm, 24th June 2020

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 14 January, just weeks after he had dined with Mr Desmond, the Secretary of State overruled them and forced the scheme through. He claims that he had no idea he would be sitting next to Mr Desmond and his senior executives.

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 14 January. That was one day before a new community infrastructure levy came into force. The timing of the Secretary of State’s decision saved Mr Desmond up to £50 million.