The Conservative housing secretary Robert Jenrick has accepted that he acted “unlawfully” when he gave the green light for Richard Desmond, the former owner of the Star, Daily Express and Sunday Express to build 1,500 homes on the Isle of Dogs.
Tower Hamlets Council challenged Robert Jenrick’s decision at the High Court to use his ministerial powers to approve the development, claiming the timing of Jenrick’s decision appeared to show bias towards the Conservative Party donor.
Local councillors also asked the High Court to order the government to disclose emails and memos around the deal.
Rather than disclosing the correspondence, the Housing Secretary overturned his own decision because any fair-minded and informed observer would conclude that his approval was biased.
The development had previously been rejected by the council and the government’s planning inspectorate.
The housing secretary knew that a billionaire former media tycoon had only 24 hours to have the property development approved before community charges were imposed. So he approved it against the advice of his own planning inspector.
The timing of the decision would have robbed cash-strapped Tower Hamlets of between £30m and £50m.
Community charge is to be used to tax large property developments at £280 per square metre with the cash raised channelled back into the council area for building schools and health clinics.
Local Councillor Andrew Wood, who has resigned from the Tories over the issue said he believed the document proved that the minister took his decision “deliberately before” the council charges would have been imposed on Desmond’s Northern & Shell.
“This drove the timing of the decision in my opinion,” Wood told the Guardian.
A spokesperson for the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government denied any favouritism towards Desmond’s proposed property development at the site of a former printworks.
“While we reject the suggestion that there was any actual bias in the decision, we have agreed that the application will be redetermined,” the ministry spokesperson added.
Mayor 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.”