Robert Jenrick admits deliberately helping Tory donor avoid £45m tax bill by rushing through housing development

Housing minister says his actions on the Westferry scheme were consistent with ‘natural justice’

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Wednesday 22 July 2020 12:59 BST
Housing minister defends actions over helping Tory donor avoid £45m tax bill

Embattled housing minister Robert Jenrick has admitted that he deliberately helped a Tory donor avoid paying a new tax on his housing development, and that this was the right thing to do.

Mr Jenrick was criticised for approving Richard Desmond’s luxury housing scheme a day before a community infrastructure levy came in to force, potentially saving the magnate £45m in levies.

But speaking at a parliamentary committee on Wednesday the minister, who is still in post, told MPs that he was acting in accordance with “natural justice” by getting the scheme through before the charges would have applied.

He noted that the developer had said the scheme might not be viable if he had had to pay the tax, which would have gone to fund public services in Tower Hamlets, one of the country’s most deprived areas.

“The advice was very clear: it was consistent with our policy and previous decisions ... which show that it is a material and legitimate decision to try if one can to make a decision before a material change in circumstance may occur,” Mr Jenrick told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.

“The inspectors’ report also made the point that the viability of the project might be compromised were the CIL [community infrastructure levy] to come in and obviously the developer in the submission to the planning inspectorate made that point as well.

“So I think it was perfectly fair decision to see if we could, with a thorough decision-making process, make the decision one way or another in time to be communicated before that change in circumstances.”

Mr Desmond had sent Mr Jenrick messages ahead of the approval telling him that “we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!”, referring to the local council.

Pushed on the issue, the minister told MPs: “What that benefits is of no interest to me, I’m not interested in the personal finances of the applicant. I’m interested in making a fair decision on the basis of the fact before a material change in circumstances occurs. That is the rule of law, that’s natural justice, that’s the role of the secretary of state.”

Downing Street says the prime minister has full confidence in Mr Jenrick.

Speaking at the same committee, the minister defended contact he had had with the Tory donor ahead of making the decision.

There was no bias whatsoever and any suggestion of that is I think extremely unfair and in most cases a wilful misreading of events. But would it be better to not have been sat next to the applicant? Yes. That wasn’t my decision. Would it have been better not to have had text messages with him? Yes. And both myself and the department will learn lessons from the experience.”

He argued that he had approved the development at Westferry on the Isle of Dogs in east London to try and tackle the housing crisis, telling MPs: “If you look at the other decisions that I’ve made as secretary of state in my time, although each one is made on individual merits of the individual case it is very clear that I’ve taken decisions to get housing built and build the homes this country needs. That is what a housing secretary in a housing crisis needs to do.

Mr Jenrick also said: ”I believe that there is a generational challenge across the country and in particular in London – homes of all types and tenures, including affordable homes – and if we’re going to do that then it’s right that we prioritise brownfield sites, and if we’re going to build upwards then it’s right to prioritise parts of the capital and the country where there are existing clusters of high-rise buildings. So on the merits of this particular application it seemed to me after a thorough decision-making process that it was right to approve it.”

Commenting on the hearing, Mike Amesbury, Labour’s shadow housing and planning minister, said: “Robert Jenrick still has serious questions to answer about the decision he made to approve unlawfully a planning application which saw Tory donor Richard Desmond trouser up to £50m. Jenrick has now admitted that he acted to prevent Mr Desmond having to pay tens of millions of pounds in tax to one of the poorest boroughs in the country – a decision he called ‘natural justice’ – but we still don’t know the full facts about his conduct in this case.

“The stench of this grubby affair won’t go away until Mr Jenrick comes clean: he needs to give a statement to the house answering all the committee’s questions in full if the public is to have any faith in the integrity of the planning system.”

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