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25 June 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 10:52am

“Marxist doe”: The money at the heart of the Robert Jenrick planning row

The Tory donor and former newspaper owner Richard Desmond sought to avoid a new council charge that would have benefited Tower Hamlets, one of the UK's most-deprived boroughs.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“We appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe for nothing! [sic].”

This text sent by the former Express owner-turned-property developer Richard Desmond to the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, cuts to the heart of the planning row currently engulfing the government.

“Marxists” is an apparent reference to Tower Hamlets Council, which is Labour-run, and is the local authority where Desmond wants to build his housing development, at the old Westferry Road printworks on east London’s Docklands.

“Doe” presumably means “dough”, referring to the money he would have to pay as part of a new council charge being introduced for residential and business property developments in Tower Hamlets.

According to a November email from an official to another official in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Jenrick appeared to be aware of the speed required to approve Desmond’s development in advance of the new levy taking effect:

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“SoS [secretary of state] has flagged a case in Westferry Docklands (redevelopment of a printworks or something like that?) He understands a ministerial decision on this is likely to be coming up soon and also that there may be some sensitivity with timing on final decision. Given this he has asked that advice be prepared for the first few days of the new Gov so a decision can be made and communicated before xmas.”

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Another email the following January from an official revealed:

“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 [Community Infrastructure Levy] regime.”

A community infrastructure levy is a way for councils to raise revenue from new developments in their area. The tax paid is intended to fund other infrastructure, or the refurbishment of existing provision, which local neighbourhoods actually want – ideally to counterbalance the additional burden new developments so often bring to an area.

Tower Hamlets’ new charge was due to be introduced on 17 January 2020, and Desmond was keen to have his project approved in advance to avoid paying the £45m levy. This money would have been spent by the council on its poorer communities, funding health and education provision, for example.

Tower Hamlets is a borough in east London with high levels of deprivation. It is one of the 20 most-deprived boroughs nationally, with more than 40 of its neighbourhoods among the 20 per cent most-deprived in the country. It also has London’s highest rate of child poverty, with 57 per cent of children living in poverty.

It doesn’t take a “Marxist” to see that local communities do not always benefit from shiny new developments such as the one mooted for Westferry – and that “doe” could be spent more equally on the areas being regenerated.