Westferry Printworks Development

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:39 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury) 2:39 pm, 24th June 2020

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.