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Property tycoons gave Conservatives £11m in past year

Spike in donations revealed in wake of Jenrick planning row

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Friday 26 June 2020 18:35 BST
Robert Jenrick to release documents relating to 1bn property row involving Tory donor after pressure from Labour

The Tories have received more than £11m from property developers since Boris Johnson became prime minister, an investigation has found.

The revelation comes amid a donor scandal that threatens the career of the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick.

Concerns have been raised about the apparent increased influence property developers have over the Conservative government. Their contributions make up nearly a quarter of the £47.5m in donations received by the party from last July to March, up from 7.9 per cent of the total two years ago.

The latest analysis by the OpenDemocracy website found that the Conservatives’ top 10 property donors have given more than £5.7m to the party since Mr Johnson took the helm in July – up from around £1.5million for the equivalent top 10 in the final 12 months of Theresa May’s premiership, a three-fold increase. In total, around 120 individuals and companies from the sector have donated since July last year.

Mr Jenrick is facing calls to resign over his unlawful intervention in the planning of a luxury East London property development being submitted for approval by Tory donor Richard Desmond.

Electoral Commission figures show major Tory donors include luxury property developer Nick Candy and West Ham United owner David Sullivan, who donated £75,000 ahead of last year’s general election through a small property company he controls. There is no suggestion that any donors are involved in any wrongdoing.

The largest donors include Malcolm and Eddie Healey – dubbed “East Yorkshire’s richest men” – who have donated more than £1.2 million to the party between them since Mr Johnson took office. Others include property developer and longtime Tory donor Tony Gallagher, who has given the Conservatives almost three-quarters of a million pounds through his company Countywide Developments Ltd since the same date.

In January, Mr Jenrick gave the green light to Mr Desmond’s 1,500-home luxury development on the Isle of Dogs, near the Canary Wharf financial centre. The decision went against the advice of the planning inspector, and came a day before a change in regulations would have meant the developer had to pay around £45m in extra developers’ contributions to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council. The borough is one of the country’s most deprived.

Labour accused the housing minister of taking the decision following a “glitzy fundraising dinner” with Mr Desmond in November 2019, during which the pair were reportedly sat next to each other and the minister was shown a promotional video for the development on his phone.

Text messages later showed Mr Desmond told Mr Jenrick: “we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing”. He also personally gave £12,000 to the Conservatives two weeks after the scheme was approved. Mr Jenrick says he acted in ”good faith” and “within the rules”.

Boris Johnson has so far resisted calls to sack Mr Jenrick. Another Tory this week responded to the scandal by encouraging people to attend Conservative party fundraisers if they wanted similar access to ministers.

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “They will be sitting next to MPs and other people in their local authorities and can interact with different parts of the authority.”

The government this week, however, announced it was pausing planning reforms that would have put more powers to approve large developments in the hands of the housing secretary, currently Mr Jenrick.

But the Jenrick affair may not be an isolated incident. Former planning minister Bob Neill is under investigation by parliament’s standards watchdog for failing to mention that he was a paid consultant for a luxury hotel development that he lobbied for in his Kent constituency. Mr Neill denies any wrongdoing.

The £11m figure is a huge increase compared to older figures. An investigation by the Daily Telegraph in 2011 found that the Conservatives had raised £3.3m from similar sources in the three years to that date. In the two years following the 2015 election, property magnates donated £3.6m, 7.9 per cent of the total given.

For comparison, £8.4m million was raised by the party from hedge funds, bankers and other finance industry sources in that period, as reported by The Independent in 2017.

Steve Goodrich of Transparency International said: “The corrupting influence of big money from UK politics must be removed before it irreparably damages trust in our democracy.”

Sue Hawley of Spotlight on Corruption said: “It’s time for a serious review of conflicts of interest in UK planning.

“It is entirely wrong that those with money can gain access to politicians that puts their interests above the rest of us.”

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “All reportable donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”

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