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Secretary of State quashes decision letter approving controversial development after allegation of “apparent bias” in favour of developer

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has agreed to a redetermination of a 1,524-unit housing development proposal for the former Daily Telegraph/Daily Express printworks site in East London following legal action from Tower Hamlets Council and the Greater London Assembly (GLA).

Both the Mayor of Tower Hamlets and the GLA had challenged the Secretary of State’s decision to grant planning permission for the development of the site at Westferry on the Isle of Dogs against the recommendation of the planning inspector, following a three week public inquiry.

The Inspector had found harm to the setting of Tower Bridge and that the scheme failed to provide the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing.

In pre-action correspondence, the Secretary of State’s conceded that the date of his decision letter authorising the development, 14 January 2020, was issued the day before Tower Hamlets Council adopted its new local plan and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charging schedule, which would have cost the developer an additional £30 - £50m.

The timing of the letter, he accepted, would lead the fair minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility that he was biased in favour of the developer.

The Secretary of State agreed that the decision letter was unlawful by reason of apparent bias and should be quashed.

In a statement, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs said: “We may never know what emails and memos the secretary of state received before making his decision and what influence they had, but his reluctance to disclose them speaks volumes.

“In siding with the developer, he went against not only the planning inspector but also the council’s Strategic Development Committee and the residents whose lives would be directly impacted by this scheme.

“I am grateful to our legal team for their work on this case and for successfully holding the government to account. We will continue to press for a scheme that meets the needs of the community on the Isle of Dogs in terms of height and density, the provision of adequate affordable housing and infrastructure delivery.”

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 double the 722 homes previously approved in August 2016 by the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

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

Although its ability to decide on the application had been removed, the council’s Strategic Development Committee considered the proposals in May 2019 and determined that 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, allowing the appeal and granting planning permission.