Housing secretary tells Parliament decision to approve Tory donor’s £1bn scheme was made in good faith
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has insisted that he broke no rules in deciding to grant permission to a £1bn development by a Tory Party donor that has subsequently been ruled unlawful.
Challenged in the House of Commons over the PLP-designed 1,500-home Westferry Printworks scheme by Labour shadow housing secretary Steve Reed, Jenrick said he was confident that no rules had been broken and that he took the decision in good faith and with an open mind.
This is despite the fact the government has already conceded it acted with “apparent bias” in deciding the east London residential scheme, by deliberately taking the decision at a time that would have allowed the developer to avoid up to £50m in planning obligations.
Labour over the weekend repeated calls for a full civil service investigation into the decision over the scheme being developed by a company owned by media mogul and Tory donor Richard Desmond.
Reed used the exchange to repeat his calls for the government to disclose all documents, correspondence and conversations within government on the decision, saying it was vital “that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Tory party fundraising dinners”.
The House of Commons clash followed media reports at the weekend questioning the role of a development industry lobbyist, Richard Patient, of Thorncliffe, with links to both Jenrick and prime minister Boris Johnson, who was said to be involved with the development. However, Thorncliffe has subsequently denied the firm ever acted for the developer, Westferry Developments.
Speaking in Parliament, Jenrick said: “Propriety in the planning system is incredibly important and I take my responsibility as secretary of state very seriously indeed.
“I took that decision in good faith and will an open mind. I’m confident that all the rules were followed in doing so. It isn’t unusual to come to a different conclusion than a local authority. It isn’t unusual for a secretary of state to come to a different conclusion than the planning inspector.”
Jenrick said all the information relevant to the case had been passed to the cabinet secretary, and added that, “I have taken and will take again advice from my permanent secretary on what further documentation might be able to be published”, but that this would have to be done so in the light of the need to protect “the legitimate interests of the parties to this case which remains a live planning application.”
After Jenrick’s decision to approve the application was ruled unlawful late last month, it emerged that developer Richard Desmond had paid £12,000 for a table at a Tory fundraising dinner at which he raised the issue of the application (pictured, right) with Jenrick. Jenrick has subsequently maintained he declined to discuss the topic with Desmond.
Following the exchange in the Commons, Labour redoubled its criticism of Jenrick, saying his comments “raised more questions than answers” and said the fact that Jenrick had passed information to cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill meant he was formally investigating Jenrick’s conduct.
Reed called on the Cabinet Office to publish all the findings of “the investigation by the cabinet secretary into Robert Jenrick’s unlawful decision to force through the Westferry Printworks development”.
He said: “He also failed to say whether he formally told government officials about his dinner date with Richard Desmond before he took the decision. Mr Jenrick must immediately publish all correspondence about this case to allow full public scrutiny of what he’s been up to.”
Jenrick has also faced calls for a police investigation into the matter, with the Metropolitan Police admitting it was looking into complaints received on the subject. Professor Elizabeth David-Barrett, director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, said the time had come for Jenrick to resign. She said: “In most previous governments, Robert Jenrick would have resigned well before now.
She added that Jenrick’s reversal of the decision on the Westferry scheme, under threat of legal action, should not be the end of the matter. “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 system needs to be preventive and act as a deterrent,” she said.
Jenrick’s decision on the Westferry scheme has been quashed and the appeal is to be redetermined by a different minister.