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London borough launches challenge to grant of planning permission by Secretary of State for 1,500-home scheme

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets last week launched a legal challenge to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s decision to grant planning permission for the Westferry Printworks site.

The council said the minister’s decision had gone against the borough’s local development plan and the wishes of residents.

Tower Hamlets is seeking leave to challenge the decision “on the ground that it was biased and favoured the developer”.

It will argue the process the Secretary of State followed in determining his appeal was influenced by a desire to help the developer to avoid a financial liability, “notably the council’s revised Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charges”.

In July 2018, the council received a planning application to redevelop the former Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs with 1,524 new homes, almost doubling the 722 homes previously approved in August 2016 by the former Mayor of London.  

The scheme was to be delivered in a series of buildings ranging from nine to 46 storeys including five towers, some of which doubled the height of the previously approved scheme.

In March 2019, the developers lodged an appeal, arguing the council was taking too long to reach a decision on the application. The appeal was called in by the Secretary of State.

The council said that although its ability to decide on the application was taken away, its Strategic Development Committee considered the proposals in May 2019 and determined that had it been able to do so, it would have refused permission.

Following a public inquiry held in August 2019, a planning inspector agreed with all but one of the council’s reasons for refusal and recommended to the Secretary of State that the developers’ appeal be dismissed.

However, the Secretary of State did not agree with the inspector’s recommendations and decided to allow the appeal and grant permission.

Tower Hamlets said the Westferry Printworks decision was made one day before the council adopted changes to its CIL levels which would have obliged the developer in this case to pay significantly more. 

John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “It is disappointing that we find ourselves in this position. In granting this appeal, the Secretary of State went against the recommendations reached by a planning inspector after a lengthy public inquiry.

“We have concerns about the way he reached his decision and I hope the courts will now look closely at the circumstances. Our residents must be able to have confidence that where planning decisions are taken out of the hands of local authorities, robust and fair processes will be followed.”