Westferry planning scandal: Housing secretary Robert Jenrick admits his bias towards Tory donor was unlawful

Housing secretary promises to release documents after accusations of ‘cash for favours’

Housing secretary promises to release documents after accusations of ‘cash for favours’

Mr Jenrick told MPs he would publish all “relevant” information later on Wednesday.

The minister approved a housing scheme 12 days before the developer gave £12,000 to the Conservative Party.

Labour says the timing raises “cash for favours” suspicions – but Mr Jenrick insists he did nothing wrong.

Decision was unlawful.

However. Jenrick has since had to quash his own approval, conceding the decision was unlawful.

Following his announcement, Clive Betts, the chair of the housing, communities and local government committee, questioned why Jenrick had waited until Labour tabled a debate on his role in the development to make the announcement. “I think it might have been helpful if we had had it before the debate today,” he said.

Opening the debate, the shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, asked about the Conservative party fundraising dinner in November 2019, attended by both Jenrick and Desmond.

“I understand Mr Desmond’s lobbyists, a company called Thorncliffe, had been busy selling tickets to the event to people who wanted access to the secretary of state,” he said.

“Ministers are not allowed to take planning decisions if they have been lobbied by the applicant and, under the ministerial code, ministers are required not to place themselves under an obligation by, for instance, helping to raise funds from a donor who stands to benefit from the decisions they make because it raises questions about cash for favours – which would be a serious abuse of power.”

Jenrick was asked to confirm a report in the Sunday Times saying that he had watched a video about the development at the fundraiser, on Desmond’s phone.

Robert Jenrick watched a promotional video for a £1bn housing development on media mogul Richard Desmond’s personal mobile phone weeks before overruling his officials and approving the scheme.

The secretary of state for housing, communities and local government viewed the clip promising a “new urban oasis” in east London during a Conservative Party fund-raiser held at the Savoy Hotel last November. The disclosure came in a rare interview with Desmond, who said: “What I did was I showed him the video.” He said the minister watched it for “three or four minutes”, adding: “It’s quite long, so he got the gist.”

The allegation is a challenge to Jenrick’s claim that he did not discuss the development in any way at the £900-a-head dinner.

On the second time of asking, Jenrick addressed the house and said he could not recall the details, adding: “He did bring out his iPhone and show me some part of the development.”

Jenrick said the accusations made against him were “not simply wrong but actually outrageous”, but he admitted, “things could and should have been done differently”.

“On reflection, I should have handled the communication differently,” he said.

The planned development is in Londons Docklands area 1
The planned development is in London’s Docklands. area Image PA

Labour had tabled a motion seeking to force the government to release all documents relating to the controversy, something the minister had previously refused to do.

Opening a Commons debate on the matter, shadow communities secretary Steve Reed said it had “blown apart” public confidence in the planning system.

Labour also said the timing of the planning approval – just a day before a new community infrastructure levy came into force – would have saved Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50m.

Jenrick originally approved the plan in January 2020, overruling both Tower Hamlets council and a planning inspector.

Affordable housing

The row centres around a 1,500 home development at the former Westferry printing works on the Isle of Dogs, in East London.

The developer, former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond, personally gave the Conservative Party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme was approved, in January.

Labour says the timing of the decision to approve the scheme – just a day before a new community infrastructure levy came into force – would have saved Mr Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50m.

It later emerged Mr Jenrick had sat next to Mr Desmond, and three Northern and Shell executives, at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner in November 2019.

Labour says Mr Jenrick also overruled his advisers to reduce the amount of affordable housing required in the development, potentially saving Mr Desmond a further £106m.

Mr Jenrick’s decision was challenged by Tower Hamlets Council, forcing the secretary of state to back down and say what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.

Councillors asked the High Court to order the government to disclose emails and memos around the deal.

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