Robert Jenrick publishes documents linked to Westferry planning row
24 June 2020, 19:26
A number of documents surrounding Robert Jenrick's correspondence over the Westferry planning controversy have been published.
129 pages of documents relating to the Westferry scheme in East London were published online on Wednesday by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government after mounting pressure from the Labour party.
The Housing Secretary has faced accusations of "cash for favours" after it emerged ex-Daily Express owner Richard Desmond had personally given the Conservative Party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme for 1,500 homes was approved.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Housing Secretary pledged to release "all relevant information" connected to a major property development involving the Tory party donor.
He told MPs he will outline the timeline of events and the rationale for his decision-making over the Westferry Printworks planning decision.
He said discussions and correspondence "which the Government would not normally release" will be made public.
Mr Jenrick has since had to quash his own approval, conceding the decision was "unlawful".
He accused Labour of making "wild accusations" against him and claimed the documents would show a decision was taken with an "open mind" on the merits of the case
His commitment to publish information came after Labour tabled a motion - which was approved - directing the Government to release all documents relating to the controversial approval by Mr Jenrick for the Westferry development in east London, which was submitted by former media mogul Mr Desmond.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Jenrick said: "I will write to the chair of the select committee outlining the timeline of events and the rationale for my decision-making pertaining to the Westferry Printworks planning decision.
"Alongside this letter, and after a comprehensive review of what documents might be in scope of this motion, and of the letter that he sent me on behalf of his select committee, I will be releasing later today all relevant information relating to this planning matter using the Freedom of Information Act as a benchmark.
"I recognise that there are higher standards of transparency expected in the quasi-judicial planning process which is why I will also release discussions and correspondence which the Government would not normally release.
"These documents show that contrary to the wild accusations and the baseless innuendo propagated by the honourable gentleman (Steve Reed) opposite, and restated today in a series of totally inaccurate statements and comments, this was a decision taken with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process."
Mr Jenrick said Mr Desmond did "bring out his iPhone and show me some images of the development" at a Tory Party fundraising event they attended.
When pressed by the SNP's communities spokesman David Linden, the minister replied: "(Mr Desmond) said he showed me a part of the video and I don't recall exactly what happened, but he did bring out his iPhone and show me some images of the development, and I was very clear the last time I came to the House, I informed the developer it was not appropriate to discuss the matter and I couldn't comment on it.
"I believe Mr Desmond has confirmed that."
Mr Linden said: "The Secretary of State should have run for the hills and never touched this issue ever again, and flagged the conflict of interest to his departmental officials."
Opening the debate, shadow communities secretary Steve Reed probed further on a Tory Party fundraising dinner in November 2019 attended by both Mr Jenrick and Mr Desmond.
He noted: "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 added: "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."
Mr Reed asked why Mr Jenrick did not ask to be re-seated somewhere else as soon as he realised he was sitting next to Mr Desmond, nor immediately recuse himself from involvement in the decision.
He said: "It's very hard to imagine the issue of Westferry did not crop up during the three hours or so that the Secretary of State must have sat next to the owner of Northern and Shell and three of his most senior executives."
Mr Reed also said Mr Jenrick "allowed the applicant" for the project to reduce the proportion of affordable and social housing in the scheme from 35% to the 21% "preferred by Mr Desmond", adding: "According to Tower Hamlets Council, that decision saved Mr Desmond a further £106 million."
The Labour frontbencher asked why Mr Jenrick "overruled professionals" on this matter, adding: "Without a credible answer, the suspicion arises once again that the Secretary of State was bending over backwards to do a favour for his billionaire dinner date."
Labour also said the timing of the planning approval - just a day before a new community infrastructure levy came into force - would have saved Mr Desmond's Northern and Shell company up to £50 million.
Mr Jenrick originally approved the plan in January 2020, overruling both Tower Hamlets Council and a planning inspector.
He subsequently reversed the ruling following legal action by the council, admitting that what he did was "unlawful by reason of apparent bias".
Closing the debate, housing minister Christopher Pincher also said of Mr Jenrick: "He advised his officials of Mr Desmond's approach, of his own response and at no time were any of his officials advising him that he should recuse himself from this matter."