How housing secretary Robert Jenrick became embroiled in ‘highly contentious’ property scheme by billionaire Richard Desmond

Labour claims many questions remain over ‘apparent cash-for-favours in the planning process’. So how did the row unfold?

Adam Forrest
Friday 10 July 2020 16:36
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Housing secretary Robert Jenrick at Downing Street
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick at Downing Street

Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick is under growing pressure over a controversial decision to approve a major property scheme involving a billionaire Conservative Party donor.

Labour has raised concerns about an “apparent cash-for-favours” scandal – but the housing secretary has insisted “rules were followed” when he gave the green light to an east London apartment complex involving former Express newspapers’ owner Richard Desmond.

So what is the row all about? And what questions remain about contact between Mr Jenrick and Mr Desmond?

What planning decision did Robert Jenrick take?

Mr Jenrick approved the Westferry Printworks scheme in east London (said to be worth £1bn) in January 2020. The minister overruled objections by Tower Hamlets Council over the lack of affordable housing and overall size of the 1,500-home development by Richard Desmond’s company Northern & Shell.

Following a public inquiry August 2019 – launched after the developer argued the process was taking too long – a government-appointed planning inspector recommended the development be turned down, agreeing with the council.

Only two weeks after Mr Jenrick stepped in to give the scheme the go-ahead, Electoral Commission records show that Mr Desmond personally gave £12,000 to the Conservatives.

Why was Robert Jenrick’s decision found ‘unlawful’?

In May 2020 Mr Jenrick said he accepted his decision had been “unlawful by reason of apparent bias” after Tower Hamlets Council launched legal proceedings in the High Court two months earlier.

In a statement, the local authority said the “timing of the [Mr Jenrick’s] decision appeared to show bias” – since it was made only one day before new infrastructure charges came into force. The charges would have meant the developer paying between £30m and £50m extra to the council.

Following an agreement between the secretary of state, the developer, the Greater London Authority and Tower Hamlets Council, the courts agreed to a consent order quashing the planning approval.

What contacts did Robert Jenrick have with Richard Desmond?

Mr Jenrick has admitted he attended a Conservative Party fundraising dinner in November 2019 also attended by Mr Desmond – and claimed he “inadvertently” sat next to him.

The minister also admitted the property scheme was raised at the event, but claimed he had told Mr Desmond – worth around £2.6bn according to the latest Sunday Times Rich List – he could not discuss the matter.

Labour MP Ruth Cadbury claimed a whistleblower in Mr Jenrick’s department had said there is “no record” of the Tory fundraising dinner in official documents, adding: “This is potentially a serious breach of the ministerial code, especially as the secretary of state himself has just admitted that it is a highly contentious application.”

But Mr Jenrick said that Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) officials did know he was attending the event. “I didn’t know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table, and I discussed and took advice from my officials within the department at all times.”

Northern & Shell founder and Tory donor Richard Desmond 

What was revealed in documents released by Jenrick?

In a document released on Wednesday, a Housing Ministry official indicated Mr Jenrick was “insistent” the controversial development scheme was pushed through before the new community infrastructure levy (CIL) came into force.

It stated: “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 regime.”

Documents also revealed text messages and letters exchanged between Mr Desmond and Mr Jenrick, in which the former media mogul urged the housing secretary to approve the east London development scheme quickly so “Marxists” did not get “doe [sic] for nothing”.

The documents show Mr Jenrick texted Mr Desmond on the night of the Tory Party fundraiser on 18 November 2019 saying it was “good to spend time with him’’ and looked forward to seeing him again.

In another exchange two days later, Mr Desmond tried to arrange a meeting with the housing secretary on 19 December as well as a site visit to the Westferry Printworks, writing: “Good news finally the inspectors reports have gone to you today, 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.”

Mr Jenrick replied declining a meeting until after a decision had been made due to his position.

Robert Jenrick fails to show up for questions on Richard Desmond controversy

He said: “As secretary of state it is important not to give any appearance of being influenced by applicants of cases that I may have a role in or to have predetermined them and so I think it is best that we don’t meet until after the matter has been decided, one way of [sic] another – and I can’t provide any advice to you on that, other than to say that I will receive advice from my officials after the general election assuming I remain in office and will consider it carefully in accordance with the rules and guidance.

“I hope that is okay and we can meet to discuss other matters soon, hopefully on the 19th. Robert.”

Mr Jenrick published the information after Labour tabled a motion – which was approved – directing the government to release all documents relating to the controversial planning approval.

What investigations have taken place into the decision?

Mr Jenrick told the Commons a Labour member of the House of Lords made an allegation to the police about the matter. However, Scotland Yard said there were no criminal matters to investigate and they had no intention of taking it further.

Speaking in the Commons on Monday, the minister said he had taken the decision on the highly contentious” planning application “in good faith”, adding that he was “confident that all the rules were followed in doing so”.

Who is calling for further investigation?

Labour has called on the Cabinet Office to publish the findings of any inquiries made by the cabinet secretary into Mr Jenrick’s unlawful decision. The opposition party still wants the minister to disclose “all conversations with all government ministers and officials” – and has demanded a full civil service investigation.

Labour MP Steve Reed, shadow housing secretary, said Mr Jenrick’s Commons’ appearance had “raised more questions than it answered and done nothing to ease concerns over apparent cash-for-favours in the planning process”.

Mr Jenrick has accepted an invitation to answer questions on the Westferry plan at the Commons housing committee, offering to appear in front of TV cameras in the week of 20 July. He has suggested he may provide little new information “on what remains a live planning case”.

Elizabeth David-Barrett, a professor of governance and integrity who is also the director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, said: “In most previous governments, Robert Jenrick would have resigned well before now.”

She added: “If there is no subsequent investigation into alleged misconduct, then the message that sends is that ministers can do whatever they like and just reverse the decision if their actions are questioned.”

The Westferry scheme: A timeline

August 2019 – Planning inspector rejects approval for Westferry Printworks development

November 2019 – Robert Jenrick meets Richard Desmond at Tory fundraising dinner

14 January 2020 – Jenrick approves Westferry Printworks development

28 January 2020 – Desmond personally gives £12,000 to the Conservatives

March 2020 – Tower Hamlets Council raises legal action against Jenrick’s decision

May 2020 – Jenrick accepts decision ‘unlawful’ and approval quashed

July 2020 - Jenrick set to appear before Commons housing committee

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