Council asks court to review Secretary of State's decision on Westferry Printworks

Tower Hamlets Council has started the process of challenging the Secretary of State’s decision to grant planning permission for the Westferry Printworks site. This decision went against the borough’s local development plan and the wishes of residents.

The council is seeking leave to legally challenge the decision on the ground that it was biased and favoured the developer.

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.”

The council is arguing that 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. It has asked the court to order the disclosure of documents that it believes will show this was part of his consideration.

Developers are obliged to pay CIL to help fund the delivery of local infrastructure projects that are needed to absorb the impact of growth. The Westferry Printworks decision was made just one day before the council adopted changes to its CIL levels which would have obliged the developer in this case to pay significantly more. 

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. Such an appeal would normally be heard by a planning inspector but in this case, it was called in by the Secretary of State.

Although its ability to decide on the application was taken away, the council’s 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.

Councillor Rachel Blake, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Planning, said: “The decision taken by the Secretary of State will have serious local and strategic implications for managing growth and development in the Isle of Dogs which we do not believe has been fully addressed.

“We recognise the need to deliver housing and nowhere is playing its part more in that effort than Tower Hamlets. However there needs to be a balance and extra housing should not be prioritised at any cost."

Posted on Wednesday 18th March 2020