Robert Jenrick ‘insistent’ £1bn property development decision rushed through before Tory donor forced to pay extra taxes

Text messages show Richard Desmond lobbied the housing secretary to act so 'Marxists' did not get 'doe for nothing'

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 24 June 2020 20:38 BST
Robert Jenrick to release documents relating to 1bn property row involving Tory donor after pressure from Labour

A Conservative minister was said to be “insistent” that a decision on a £1bn property development be rushed through before a Tory donor’s company faced millions in taxes, papers reveal.

Robert Jenrick , the housing secretary, bowed to pressure to publish 129 pages of documents relating to the Westferry Printworks development in east London after being accused of “cash for favours” by Labour.

Emails from January show Mr Jenrick was determined to issue a decision the following day to prevent developer Richard Desmond from being forced to pay a new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).

An official wrote: “On timing, my understanding is that SoS [secretary of state] 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.”

Another email said: “LB (London Borough of) Tower Hamlets is adopting a new local plan and CIL regime next week. The appellant (Mr Desmond) believes that the proposal would not be viable if it was liable to CIL charges.”

Mr Jenrick overruled the local authority and the planning inspector to approve the scheme for 1,500 houses in January, only weeks before Mr Desmond personally donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.

The housing secretary later had to reverse the decision after legal action from the council, conceding the decision was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.

Text messages between the pair show Mr Desmond wanted to avoid paying £45m to Tower Hamlets Council and lobbied the cabinet minister to approve the decision before the levy was introduced.

Mr Desmond, a former media mogul, told Mr Jenrick to act so that “Marxists” did not get “doe for nothing”.

The housing secretary admitted in the Commons on Wednesday that he sat next to Mr Desmond at a Conservative Party fundraiser in November, where the Tory donor showed him some images of the development on his phone.

In a text to Mr Desmond on 18 November, Mr Jenrick said: “Good to spend time with you tonight Richard. See you again soon I hope.”

Mr Desmond replied: “Thanks Robert I really appreciate your text. Will call your office tomorrow to arrange Very best.”

In a text two days later regarding the development, Mr Desmond said: “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, thanks again, all my best Richard.”

Later messages show Mr Desmond repeatedly lobbied the cabinet minister over the development and tried to organise a site visit.

According to the documents, the March site visit did not take place and no further communication followed because Mr Jenrick “did not take Mr Desmond’s calls” when he attempted to get in contact “on a number of occasions”.

The row casts doubt over Mr Jenrick’s future, with opposition politicians saying his position has become “untenable”.

However Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill wrote to Labour on Wednesday night, saying Boris Johnson believed ”the matter is closed”.

Shadow housing secretary Steve Reed said the explosive documents showed “clear discrepancies” over Mr Jenrick’s claim that he shut down discussions with Mr Desmond and the speed by which the decision was rushed through.

He said: “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.”

SNP housing spokesman David Linden said: “The entire episode reeks of an abuse of position and power, and it’s clear that Jenrick must stand down and allow for a full and independent investigation into his ‘unlawful’ dealings with the billionaire property developer and Tory donor.”

Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Layla Moran said his position was now “completely untenable”.

“This whole grubby saga netted the Conservative party only £12,000, but could have helped Richard Desmond save up to £50 million,” she said.

“The public will be appalled at what looks like a clear abuse of power. Robert Jenrick must go and the Conservative Party must hand back this donation.”

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