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Planning News - 2 July 2020

Published: Thursday, 2nd July 2020

Jenrick ‘insisted’ Westferry decision was made before CIL regime change came into force, Covid-19: Planning expiry deadlines extended, Climate and nature recovery should be addressed as one...

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Documents released by housing secretary Robert Jenrick regarding his decision to approve a 1,524-home scheme on the Isle of Dogs in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets show he ‘insisted’ a decision was made before it was ‘impacted by a change in the London CIL regime’.

Jenrick released the correspondence between himself and officials at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and text messages sent to and from himself and scheme developer Richard Desmond last night after being urged to do so during an opposition debate yesterday (24 June).

The housing secretary approved the scheme in January – the day before community infrastructure levy (CIL) charges placed on developments were increased. A planning inspector had recommended its rejection. 

The council said that the timing of the decision meant that Desmond, a Conservative Party donor and the owner of Northern and Shell, avoided paying between £30 million and £50 million.

Jenrick has since accepted that his decision was unlawful.

Two weeks after the decision was made, the property developer made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party.

Speaking in the house last week, Jenrick said he had not discussed the scheme with Desmond. On 20 June, the Sunday Times reported that Desmond showed Jenrick a promotional video on his phone when the pair sat next to each other at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner, before the housing secretary issued his decision.

The debate

Labour has been pressing the housing secretary for answers over what it deems to be a “cash for favours” scandal.

Opening the opposition debate on the matter, shadow communities secretary Steve Reed said the Westferry case and the housing secretary’s role in it had “blown apart confidence in the planning system”. 

“The only way to put that right is for the secretary of state to publish the evidence about what really happened. If he has done nothing wrong, then he has got nothing to fear, so I hope he will welcome this opportunity to restore trust in a sector that will be so critical when rebuilding Britain after the lockdown.”

Reed continued by saying that viewing Desmond’s video “is not cutting off the discussion as he told the House”. 

“It’s the developer lobbying the secretary of state, and apparently with some considerable success.”

Jenrick responded by saying he would outline to Clive Betts, chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Select Committee, the timeline of events. He went on to say he would release all of the documents relating to the planning matter.

“These documents show that, contrary to the wild accusations and the baseless innuendo propagated by the honourable gentleman opposite, and restated today in a series of totally inaccurate statements and comments, this was a decision taken with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process. 

“It was rooted in my long-standing and well-documented view that we have a generational challenge as a country that we need to meet and not shirk, to build more houses in all parts of this country, and that whoever holds this office... must make those tough decisions in order to build the homes that this country needs and to build a better future for the next generation.”

What the documents said

The documents detail attempts by Desmond’s representatives to set up a meeting and a site visit with Jenrick. He contacted an official in his department in November 2019 asking for a meeting to be set up with Desmond.

On 9 January, an official stated that “on timing, my understanding is that SoS is/was insistent that decision issued this week ie, tomorrow – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime”.

Highlighted in an email sent on 10 January, an official noted that the council was due to adopt a new local plan the following week but the “appellant believes that the proposal would not be viable if it was subject to CIL charges”.

Text messages between Desmond and Jenrick show that they spent time together in November, and arranged to meet after the general election on 19 December for a site visit. 

On 20 November, Desmond said: “Good news finally the inspectors reports have gone to you today, we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe for nothing! We all want to go with the scheme and the social housing we have proposed and spent a month at the Marxist town hall debating.”

Jenrick replied by saying that as secretary of state, “it is important not to give any appearance of being influenced by applicants of cases that I may have a role in or to have predetermined them and so I think it is best that we don’t meet until after the matter has been decided, one way of [sic] another”.

On the aforementioned site visit, Jenrick told Desmond he was no longer able to do it as he would be attending the Queen's Speech (15 December). 

No further visit was arranged, but Desmond did send a text to Jenrick on 23 December. it said: “Morning Robert How does the advice look? We have to get the approval before January 15 otherwise payment of 45 million pounds to tower hamlets meaning we have to stop and reduce social housing Thanks Roberts look forward to speaking soon Best Richard.”

Jenrick did not respond.

Reaction

Commenting on the documents, Reed said: “These explosive new revelations show clear discrepancies between what the secretary of state told the House of Commons and what appears in the official documents.

“The documents clearly show that Mr Jenrick did not notify officials immediately after his meeting with Mr Desmond; rather than ‘closing down’ the discussion as he claims, he initiated contact with Mr Desmond by text message the following day; and it confirms that he rushed through the decision specifically to help the developer avoid a £30-50 million levy payable to the local council for infrastructure in one of the poorest local authorities in England.

“The housing secretary needs to come to the House to explain these discrepancies as a matter of urgency: the public must be reassured that there is not one rule for the Conservatives and their wealthy donors and another rule for everyone else.”

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council said: “The Westferry planning issue has come to light because Tower Hamlets Council successfully challenged the secretary of state’s decision to overrule our refusal of planning permission for the development. The Planning Inspectorate agreed with our original decision.

“We did so because we stand up for our community and improving opportunities in our borough. Tower Hamlets is one of the most popular places to live in the UK. We handle a significant number of complex planning applications for new housing and we have to ensure that they will support our residents, new social infrastructure and enhance the area.”

Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs added that the decision and the documents have "blown apart confidence in our planning system under Mr Jenrick". 

"The documents he was forced to release are damning and it looks like he rushed through the decision to help save the developer money and short-change my residents."

All of the documents released by the housing secretary can be found here on the UK Government website.

25 June 2020
Laura Edgar, The Planner


Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has announced that planning permission deadlines will be extended as the government puts in place measures to support the construction industry and ‘boost building’.

Planning permission expires after three years if work has not started on-site, but under this interim measure sites with permission that have an expiry date between the start of lockdown (23 March) and the end of this year will now have that consent extended to 1 April 2021.

According to government estimates, this should prevent more than 400 residential permissions – equating to 24,000 new homes – from expiring. The measure is designed to help these and more developments get back on track as the economy recovers.

The RTPI has repeatedly called for the expiry date of planning permissions during lockdown to be addressed. Victoria Hills, chief executive of the RTPI, says: “Planners have been at the forefront of flexible approaches and innovative thinking in responding quickly to the pandemic and now how we need to shape a fairer and more sustainable recovery.  

“The measures announced today should mean that developers can get on and start on the housing developments we need without having to apply for extensions.” 

Jenrick also announced that the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) would be able to use more than one procedure – written representations, hearings and inquiries – at the same time when dealing with a planning appeal on a permanent basis.

This was tested as part of a pilot programme last year, following the Rosewell Review.

Jenrick said: “Building the homes the country needs is central to the mission of this government and is an important part of our plans to recover from the impact of the coronavirus.

“New laws will enable us to speed up the pace of planning appeals and save hundreds of construction sites from being cancelled before they have a chance to get spades in the ground, helping to protect hundreds of thousands of jobs and create many others.

“Taken together, these measures will help to keep workers safe and our economy moving as we work together to bounce back from the pandemic.”

The housing secretary also set out measures to help developers agree on more flexible construction site working hours with councils.
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Reaction:

Stuart Baillie, head of planning at Knight Frank, said: “The government has been talking about extending planning permissions for some time. The extension is not very generous and will likely not be impactful enough to create the desired effect – namely increasing delivery.

Providing greater flexibility with a full 12 – or even 24 – months added to the expiry date would have been preferable. Clearly the government is intent on pushing the construction industry to deliver – in particular new homes. However, we won’t fully understand the true economic impact of Covid-19 on businesses, market demand, labour supply and construction costs until we’re well into 2021. With that in mind, this small extension will likely have little effect. Extended construction working hours may help speed up delivery, but will likely be strongly challenged by local planning authorities and residents, especially those in predominantly residential areas, who will object to loud construction work continuing into the evening and at weekends.”

Claire Dutch, partner and co-head of planning and environment at law firm Ashurst, said: “The government is finally bringing in the automatic extension to planning permissions to prevent developers from losing their hard-won permissions. Many in the industry expected this amendment to be brought in weeks ago, but it is definitely better late than never. It will provide a much-needed boost to the development industry and to the housing industry in particular.

“The legislation is unusual in that it has retrospective effect. Many developers will be delighted to see permissions that they thought were dead in the water three months ago being resurrected. 

“The choice of appeal format (written reps, hearing or inquiry) is an important one but many in the industry have considered the ‘siloed’ appeal system to be too rigid and inflexible. 

“The announcement has got to be a good thing. Costs and time will be saved by the ability to deal with some of the less contentious issues by written representations freeing up a parallel public inquiry to explore some of the more meaty and complex issues by cross-examination of witnesses in a public format."

Ian Fletcher, director of real estate policy at the British Property Federation, commented: “An extension to planning permissions is a welcome boost for development sites across the country and something we have been working with government throughout lockdown to progress. It is vital to economic recovery that new investment continues to flow into our towns and cities, homes and high streets, and for those projects on rapidly expiring planning permissions over the coming months this extension allows them to proceed with a little more leeway. Government should also continue to monitor the situation post-April 2021 given the tremendous economic and operational challenges developers continue to face.”

22 June 2020
Laura Edgar, The Planner 


Restoring degraded habitats would see them absorb a third of the UK’s carbon emissions, suggests a report, as a wildlife charity insists that the climate and nature crises should be tackled together as one.

The Wildlife Trusts have urged the government, industry and local authorities to “step-up” investment in nature’s recovery and climate mitigation. 

A report published by the trusts today (24 June) outlines that a wide range of land habitats – grasslands, peatlands and wetlands – should be restored to store carbon. 

It explains that the UK’s peatland soils store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, but as they are “heavily degraded” they release the equivalent of 23 million tonnes of CO2 every year. 

According to Let Nature Help – How Nature’s Recovery is Essential for Tackling the Climate Crisis, restoring them to prevent this emission is one of “the most cost-effective nature-based solutions”.

The government has missed its targets to help peatlands recover, as well as to plant trees. The trusts want the government to identify, map and protect a wide array of ecosystems and restore them locally as part of a national Nature Recovery Network.

The report also considers the seas and coastland. A hectare of seagrass, a habitat for young fish, could store two tonnes of CO2 a year and hold it for centuries but, “since 1985, we have lost half our seagrass meadows”. It maintains that reducing water pollution and replanting would improve the health of the seagrass meadows.
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The 2020 Budget saw the government outline a £640 million Nature for Climate Fund, intended to restore peatland (35,000 hectares by 2025) and plant trees. This only 1 per cent of UK peatlands, whereas the Climate Change Committee contends that at least 50 per cent of upland peat and 25 per cent of lowland peat need restoring to get on track to net zero.
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A hectare of salt marsh is capable of capturing two tonnes of carbon a year and lock it into sediments for centuries, explains the report. “We are losing nearly 100 hectares of salt marsh a year”, but coastal realignment could restore much of it, as well as reduce flooding and erosion.

The Wildlife Trusts recommends that introducing effective management for Marine Protected Areas and designating several Highly Protected Marine Areas. Such measures would bring the UK’s oceans back to health and enable them to function properly and absorb more human-made CO2 emissions.

“Nature is, itself, at risk from climate change – yet its potential to store carbon means it can help us address climate catastrophe”

Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, says: “We cannot tackle the climate crisis without similar ambition to meet the nature crisis head-on – the two are inseparable. The climate crisis is driving nature’s decline while the loss of wildlife and habitats leaves us ill-equipped to reduce our emissions and adapt to change. It makes no sense to continue destroying natural habitats when they could help us – nature’s fantastic ability to trap carbon safely and provide other important benefits is proven.

“But nature in the UK is in a sorry state and important habitats are damaged and declining. Efforts to cut our emissions must be matched with determined action to fix our broken ecosystems so they can help stabilise our climate. Restoring nature in the UK needs to be given top priority – we’re calling on the government, industry and local authorities to step up investment urgently.”

Let Nature Help – How Nature’s Recovery is Essential for Tackling the Climate Crisis includes a number of case studies that detail how The Wildlife Trusts are leading projects to restore and connect habitats across the UK. This includes re-wetted peatlands, wet agriculture schemes and new salt marsh, as well as working with farmers and landowners on how best to care for their land so wildlife can live there.

Bennett highlights that the UK “is not on track” to cut its emissions by 80 per cent – let alone meet its 2050 net-zero target.

“It seems absurd that the government recently announced £27 billion for road building and is estimated to be spending over £100 billion on the hugely damaging HS2 rail project. They should spend this money on a green recovery instead. We are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world; restoring nature would help to avert the climate catastrophe, create jobs, prevent flooding, stop our water being polluted, make us all healthier and allow wildlife to become abundant once more.”

Let Nature Help – How Nature’s Recovery is Essential for Tackling the Climate Crisis can be found on The Wildlife Trusts website (pdf).

24 June 2020
Laura Edgar, The Planner 


Property developer U+I has made provision for around 1,500 new homes in plans submitted for a mixed-use scheme on London’s Greenwich Peninsula.

Morden Wharf, a six-acre scheme designed by Dutch firm OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), would be set across 275 metres along the River Thames and comprise 12 residential buildings, as well as commercial, retail and community spaces.

About 35 per cent of the 1,500 homes will be affordable, and will also include a mix of private sale, shared ownership and London Affordable Rent, with a particular focus on family homes. Some residential buildings will feature vertical green façades to provide natural screening and improve air quality.

“Morden Wharf will bring together new homes, retail, leisure, employment and an extensive riverfront park, to create a diverse community rooted in the site’s heritage,” said Richard Upton, U+I’s chief development officer.

“This scheme is set to transform the area into a distinctive, green, mixed-use development, while driving growth and employment and delivering 1,500 much-needed new homes.”

For OMA, project leader Reinier de Graaf pointed to the scheme’s design being set to “foster community” with “the right mix of uses to create a successful and vibrant neighbourhood.”

The scene’s designers have taken inspiration from the peninsula’s industrial heritage including warehouses and silos that once sat on the site and the gasholder structures.

“In creating the park and public realms, we are seeking to return the post-industrial landscape to a more natural and ecologically diverse condition,” added de Graaf.

25 June 2020
Martin Read, The Planner  


The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has ordered Warwick District Council to pay a local wildlife group £1,000 because it failed to consider properly the effect a development might have on local wildlife when it approved a planning application.

The council will also have to provide new hibernation boxes for bats.

When he approved residential plans for land next to the site in question in the mid-2000s, the then secretary of state insisted that a bat barn should be created as part of the development.

In 2017, plans for housing on fields next to the original site were granted planning permission, in line with a recommendation from planning officers despite concerns expressed by ecologists. 

The ombudsman explained that the planners did not mention in their report to the council’s planning committee that the local authority’s ecologists had objected. It was not mentioned because the ecologists did not have the requisite details about bats using the site to “give meaningful advice”.  

A section 106 required the developer to compensate for the loss of biodiverse land by either providing an alternative and/or paying financial compensation. The ecologists calculated that the loss of biodiverse land equated to more than £350,000.

Before work began, the developer removed a hedge and a number of trees that were important to the bats.

Nigel Ellis, chief executive at the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “When considering planning applications for particularly sensitive sites such as these, it is all the more important that planners gain the necessary information and advice in a timely manner, to give the committees approving applications the best chance of making an appropriate decision.

“Evidence of at least three different species of bats have been found at the site, and a nearby major infrastructure project had to be relocated because a rare species was found. In this case, because the necessary surveys were not conducted at the right time, we can never be sure just what impact the development has had on the local bat population.

“I hope the measures the council has now agreed to take will go some way to offset the potential damage that has been done to biodiversity in the area, and the agreed improvements to the planning process will ensure decisions are made properly in future.”

The ombudsman said the council has already started looking into whether it can use council-owned land to offset the loss of biodiverse land, and it has identified woodland managed by a local wildlife group that could be improved for bats by installing specially built hibernation boxes.

The council has agreed to apologise to the woman who complained to the ombudsman for its failure to protect the natural environment near her home. 

It will pay £1,000 to Warwickshire Bat Group and, in consultation with the ecology service, provide eight to 10 hibernation bat boxes on land within its control.

Following a recommendation by the ombudsman, the council has agreed to review its section 106 procedures, and remind officers of their obligations when drafting reports and making recommendations.

25 June 2020
Laura Edgar, The Planner


Neath Port Talbot Council has approved key changes to the development agreement for the stalled Coed Darcy project, a proposed urban village of about 4,000 new homes at Llandarcy.

The move comes in a bid to get the scheme, which has a price tag of £1.2 billion, back on track.

Outline permission for the development, which as well as housing and community facilities includes proposals for 41,200 square metres of business use, was granted back in 2008. To date, fewer than 300 homes have been completed. Persimmon Homes, the original developer, has been succeeded by St Modwen.

The changes include reducing the affordable housing provision from 20 to 15 per cent, revising the timing of road schemes and the preparation of a transport subsidy study, and the provision of two rather than three primary schools.

Under the new development agreement, a GP surgery will be provided once 2,000 homes are occupied. The original plan for a community centre has been changed with a new requirement of £500,000 funding for improvements to, or the replacement of, the existing Llandarcy community centre.

Council leader Rob Jones said: “I am delighted that we are now in a position where the site can make further progress.”

The 405-hectare site was once home to a BP oil refinery.

26 June 2020
Roger Milne, The Planner