Junior minister cites design quality as one reason for turning down Tory donor’s 1,500-home project originally approved by Robert Jenrick

The government has turned down controversial plans by media mogul Richard Desmond to build 1,500 homes on the site of the former Westferry Printworks, reversing the decision of former housing secretary Robert Jenrick.

Jenrick’s approval of the 30-storey Isle of Dogs scheme in January last year, against the advice of the planning inspector, was later quashed for reasons of “apparent bias” in favour of the applicant, a Tory party donor, provoking a major political row.

After the furore the scheme, designed by PLP, was sent to be considered afresh by a new inspector, with the application having ultimately been determined by junior housing and rough sleeping minister, Eddie Hughes, on behalf of the new secretary of state, Michael Gove.

PLP's Westferry Printworks proposals, seen from the south

PLP’s Westferry Printworks proposals, seen from the south

According to the decision letter, Hughes agreed with the inspector that the high-rise scheme would cause harm to the settings of both the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site overall and the grade I-listed Royal Naval College and Tower Bridge specifically.

Hughes’ decision said: “The benefits of the appeal scheme are not collectively sufficient to outbalance the identified ‘less than substantial’ harm to the settings of the Maritime Greenwich WHS, the Old Royal Naval College and Tower Bridge.”

This meant that “the policies…that protect designated heritage assets provide a clear reason for refusal”.

However, in a damning decision, Hughes also agreed with the inspector that the scheme breached a raft of different local, national and London-wide planning policies, including around the quality of design and the systems for ensuring sufficient affordable housing would be delivered.

Jenrick faced calls to resign after it became clear that his approval of the scheme, in the face of a recommendation to refuse by the inspector, had been quashed.

Evidence later emerged that Jenrick had pushed through the decision in advance of the introduction of a new CIL-charging schedule by Tower Hamlets, which would have made the scheme liable for a bill of over £40m.

The scheme is being developed by Northern & Shell, the media and property company owned by Desmond, the former proprietor of the Express, a donor in recent years to both the Conservative Party and UKIP.

It was also revealed that Desmond had personally lobbied Jenrick over the scheme at a dinner for Tory Party donors in the autumn of 2019, for which he paid £12,000 to attend.

The decision means Northern & Shell will have to decide whether to build out its existing 722-home permission on the site, launch a legal challenge, or draw up a new scheme.

The decision letter concluded the scheme “would be harmful to the character and appearance of the area”, was of “excessive height, scale and mass” in the context of the area and “would not make a positive contribution to the skyline nor the local townscape”.

The letter added it does “not represent high quality design which responds to its context”, saying “significant weight should be attached to the harm to the character and appearance of the area because of the degree of harm that would be caused”.

The letter said the proposal would, if built out, damage views of historic London landmarks including the Royal Naval College and Tower Bridge, with the scheme resulting in “less than substantial” damage to the significance of the grade I listed buildings.

The decision letter also found that while the provision of 21% affordable housing in the scheme – well under the 35% required by policy – was supported by a viability assessment, the failure to submit the scheme to a “mid stage review” to see if more affordable housing could be provided, meant it was in conflict with a number of planning policies.

In total the decision letter concluded the scheme was in conflict with 22 local, neighbourhood and London-wide planning policies.

In the aftermath of Jenrick’s original decision a spokesperson for his department said the Westferry decision came after “a thorough decision-making process, approached with an open mind, with no question of bias.

“The secretary of state read the [planning] inspector’s report and representations from parties and took advice from officials throughout the process.”