Robert Jenrick – 2020 Speech on Westferry Printworks Development

Below is the text of the speech made by Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in the House of Commons on 24 June 2020.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House today on this matter. I will write to the Chair of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts)—

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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 the hon. Member for Croydon North (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.

Mr Perkins

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.

Robert Jenrick

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.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)

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?

Robert Jenrick

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.

Nick Smith rose—

Robert Jenrick

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.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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.

Nick Smith

Did the Secretary of State view the promotional video at the Conservative party fundraiser, and did he tell his officials in his Department the next day?

Robert Jenrick

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.

Wera Hobhouse

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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.

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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 26 March, the developer exercised their right to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate and, after advice, my predecessor—not me, as has been said on many occasions by many individuals, including the hon. Member for Croydon North—took the decision to recover the appeal. All the parties were notified about this in a letter dated 10 April 2019.

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.

Wes Streeting

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?

Robert Jenrick

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.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. Stop shouting at the Minister. It is not how we do things here.

Robert Jenrick

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Rushanara Ali rose—

Robert Jenrick

I will give way to the hon. Lady, as she is one of the Tower Hamlets Members of Parliament, and then I will make some progress, if I may.

Rushanara Ali

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.

Robert Jenrick

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.

Apsana Begum (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

I will give way to the hon. Lady, and then I must make progress.

Apsana Begum

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?

Robert Jenrick

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.

Wera Hobhouse

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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.

Wera Hobhouse

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

No.

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.

Wera Hobhouse

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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.

Wera Hobhouse

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

I will give way to the hon. Lady because she had been trying very hard.

Wera Hobhouse

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?

Robert Jenrick

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.

David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) rose—

Robert Jenrick

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.

Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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.

On 14 January, my full rationale was published in the usual way, through the decision letter, with the full inspector’s report. In this case, Tower Hamlets and the Mayor of London challenged the decision in court, as happens in many cases. The irony, of course, is that, as we have already discussed, they could have made the decision themselves but chose not to do so.

On 21 May 2020, my Department proposed that the decision be quashed and redetermined by another Minister in the usual way. The other parties to the matter—Tower Hamlets Council, the Mayor of London and the developer—agreed and the court duly consented. My rationale was that although there was no actual bias whatsoever in the decision making for the application, inferences, even of the appearance of bias, could harm the integrity of the planning system. I did not want that to happen.

Nick Smith

Will the Secretary of State give way??

Robert Jenrick

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.

Sarah Jones

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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.

Tim Farron

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.

Robert Jenrick

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.

Nick Smith

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Sarah Jones

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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.

Nick Smith

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Sarah Jones

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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—

Sarah Jones

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

I am not giving way to the hon. Lady. I think I have made that perfectly—

Sarah Jones rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. The hon. Lady must sit down. She cannot be standing up in the Chamber. If the Secretary of State wants to give way, he will give way, and she must not heckle.

Robert Jenrick

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, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (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.

Wes Streeting

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

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.