Robert Jenrick says he regrets sitting next to and texting Tory donor at heart of Westferry row as he defends planning shake-up
The Housing Secretary was grilled on the east London planning row as he unveiled a major shake-up of England’s house-building rules. (PA)
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has said he regrets sitting next to and exchanging messages with a Conservative donor at the heart of a major planning row, as he outlined a raft of changes to England’s home-building rules.
The Cabinet minister said he wished he “hadn’t been sat next to” property developer Richard Desmond, whose Westferry Printworks project was later given the green-light by the Government, at a Conservative dinner.
Mr Jenrick, who on Thursday launched a fresh consultation on shaking up England’s planning system, was plunged into a political controversy earlier this year after approving the development despite objections from the local council and planning inspector.
Mr Desmond, the former owner of the Express newspaper, later donated thousands to the Conservative Party, and was seated next to the Communities Secretary at a Tory fundraiser dinner in November.
A raft of documents released by Mr Jenrick also detailed interactions between the pair, as well as messages from officials in the minister's department on the printworks plan.
They included a complaint from Mr Desmond about paying a potential £45m levy to the “Marxist” Tower Hamlets council.
Speaking to the Today programme on Thursday morning, Mr Jenrick was pressed on why the public should trust him to oversee the raft of changes to England’s planning rules following a ruling that the Westferry decision had been unlawful.
“Well I think they should look at the proposals that I've spent a great deal of time producing,” he said.
“And at the heart of them is a plan, not only to build more homes of all types in 10 years for all people across the country, but a serious proposal to help small and medium sized builders.”
And, asked what he had learned from the Westferry row, Mr Jenrick said: “I've set out the events around that decision and there definitely lessons to be learned.
“I wish I hadn't been sat next to a developer at an event and I regret sharing text messages with him afterwards.
“But I don't regret the decision because I think it was right to get housing built on a brownfield site in a part of London that desperately needs it.”
The Communities Secretary added: “The system that I've helped to design... and the proposals we're publishing today will actually move us forward significantly on some of the challenges that that case rose.”
'NEW PLAN WILL BENEFIT LOCAL PEOPLE'
The sweeping reform of planning rules outline by Mr Jenrick on Thursday will see three new categories of land earmarked in a bid to speed up the creation of new homes — alongside the scrapping of current local affordable housing rules.
Developers will be granted “automatic” permission to build on sites marked out for ‘growth’, in a move the Government says will allow new homes, schools, shops and business spaces to be built “quickly and efficiently, as long as local design standards are met”.
A second category — ‘renewal’ — will allow sped-up development if a project is “well-designed in a way which reflects community preferences”.
Meanwhile land marked as ‘protected’ will be restricted from development, with councils retaining the ability to decide whether building can go ahead.
The Government is promising that local communities will be consulted from the start of the planning process, with online maps and data used to make the process more accessible.
More building on brownfield land will be permitted, it says, and local housing plans will have to be developed and agreed in 30 months, down from the current average of seven years.
A “clearer, rules based system” will replace the existing planning process, ministers say.
But housing charity Shelter has slammed the Government’s proposal to replace Section 106 agreements, which are used by councils to commit developers to building a certain proportion of affordable and social housing.
Chief executive Polly Neate warned: “Section 106 agreements between developers and councils are tragically one of the only ways we get social homes built these days, due to a lack of direct government investment. So, it makes no sense to remove this route to genuinely affordable homes without a guaranteed alternative.
“The government says it wants to build beautiful, but that cannot be only for a fortunate few.”
Labour has meanwhile branded the plans a “Developer’s Charter that will see communities side-lined”.
Mr Jenrick said suggestions that the new proposals would empower developers at the expense of local communities were “entirely mischaracterising” what is contained in the new consultation.
“We're actually asking developers to pay more,” he said. “We're saying we're going to abolish the current system which favours the big developers, of Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy charges, and create a new Infrastructure Levy.
“We're actually going to take more of the uplift in value from the landowners and the developers, give it to the local community so that more social housing, more schools, hospitals, roads, GP surgeries and community benefits can flow to local people.”
He said: “We're asking them to abide by a design code which they will set themselves. So the standards, and the look and the feel of development, will be set by local people — not by a national volume house builder.
"We're taking a number of measures here which will shift the dynamic away from the big developers and players in the market towards small and medium sized builders and to local people, and above all, will help us to get homes built."