The real losers in the Jenrick planning row

24/06/2020

Planning news has been dominated recently by Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick’s approval of a large housing development just a day before Tower Hamlets’ new community infrastructure levy (CIL) charge was introduced. This decision would have saved the developer around £40m intended for local community benefit, plus a similar amount again through the lower levels of affordable housing Jenrick permitted.

It’s alleged that Jenrick overruled Tower Hamlets (and City Hall) after sitting beside developer Richard Desmond at a Tory fundraising dinner and watching a video about the Westferry Printworks development. A few days later Desmond made a £12,000 donation to the Tory party.

If you’re outraged by this situation, you should be. But the problem is that the debate has not addressed the root of the issue. Calls for Jenrick’s resignation, and indeed rumours that No 10 is about to send him to the chopping block, are missing the key point: questionable antics are not just permitted but ENCOURAGED by our broken planning system.

Getting rid of Jenrick won’t address the fact that our planning system is discretionary. Ultimately any application for planning permission is at risk of being pulled in front of a committee and rejected or delayed by political decision makers, regardless of how good or bad it is. And while it’s true that sites allocated in the Local Plan will generally get through eventually, these risks and delays are expensive for everyone involved (except planning lawyers and consultants, for whom it pays very nicely). It also makes the whole process inordinately challenging for small developers who can’t spread their risks over a larger portfolio: hence why our housebuilding market is dominated by a few big players.

This means that if planning decisions are subject to the whims of politicians rather than established rulebooks, you create a system where players have to get schmoozing in order to get what they want. And you create a system where developers can wriggle out of their affordable housing commitments, because they are negotiable.

So this isn’t the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last, whatever happens to Jenrick. Transparency International, looking at corruption in the UK, specifically pointed to planning permissions as one of the most serious corruption risk areas and provided numerous examples. Until we get wholesale reform to ensure that permission is based on adherence to established rules and not political pushing and pulling, we’re going to get corruption. And we’re going to keep it easy for developments to be held back by local homeowning NIMBYs intent on increasing their own property values, at the expense of renters and future residents.

Let’s not forget who the real losers in this equation are: the people who would have lived in these new homes. This farcical state of affairs in one of the most expensive areas of the country means that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are living in worse housing than they could be. Had the scheme gone through straight away with 35% affordable housing on 1,500+ homes, over 500 families could be getting out of the private rented sector into those alone. Many would have come from the 19,000-long council waiting list. The other 1000+ would have provided good homes to first-time buyers, people upgrading and freeing up their previous housing, and so on. This is not to mention the community benefits that could have been provided, such as new amenities and infrastructure.

It’s also worth noting that the London authorities are not just the poor victims of an interfering central government. While it’s absolutely right that they should fight for fixed affordable housing contributions, another one of the reasons the proposal was declined in the first place because the developer was trying to upgrade it from 722 homes to 1540. The inclusion of a new tower apparently offends the views from the Old Naval College in Greenwich and Tower Bridge. Aside from the fact that protected views are a laughable reason to block desperately-needed housing, it is curious to say you can’t have towers when there are already plenty of towers visible from those locations. It also apparently contravenes the plan to “step down” buildings to the south and west of Canary Wharf. In the middle of a serious housing shortage, it’s hard to see in what world this is a good idea, given the potentially thousands upon thousands of homes it will prevent. The fact is we have to either build up or build out, and with the green belt sadly remaining sacrosanct it is shocking to see planning authorities refusing the former on the basis of something as immaterial as views. Ultimately, the best result is 1540 homes of which (at least!) 35% are affordable.

Westferry Printworks has lain dormant for eight years now, while Londoners continue to suffer some of the most expensive housing in the world. It’s just not good enough.