Files show minister urged officials to ensure quick decision on PLP’s 1,500-home scheme two days after meeting developer
Documents released by communities secretary Robert Jenrick regarding his decision to approve the £1bn Westferry printworks scheme clearly show he sped up the approval in order to help the developer avoid paying a local tariff of up to £50m.
The documents show that he signalled to officials to speed up the decision-making process on the 1,500-home application on November 20, two days after he was lobbied by the developer over the issue at a Tory fundraising dinner.
Text messages exchanged between Jenrick and the owner of Westferry Developments, billionaire media mogul Richard Desmond, show Desmond asked Jenrick to intervene “as we don’t want to give Marxists a load of doe [sic] for nothing!”.
Desmond’s message, sent on the same day Jenrick instructed officials to speed up processing of the application, is a reference to the introduction by the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council of a new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) schedule, which would have obliged Desmond’s firm to hand over between £30m-50m to pay for local infrastructure.
Emails between officials at the housing ministry show that they had been instructed by Jenrick to issue the decision on the scheme in time for it to avoid the new CIL charge. An email from an unnamed official dated January 9, five days before the decision was taken, states that “my understanding is that SoS [secretary of state Robert Jenrick] 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.”
In May Jenrick was forced to concede that his actions displayed “apparent bias” following a legal challenge by Tower Hamlets council, and the decision to approve the PLP-designed scheme was quashed.
Jenrick has faced calls to resign over the issue, with the Labour Party alleging “cash for favours”. Jenrick has repeatedly said he took the decision fairly and with an open mind.
Jenrick has already admitted he sat with Richard Desmond at a Tory fundraising dinner at the Carlton Club in Westminster, which Desmond paid £12,000 to the Tory Party to attend. According to Desmond, he showed Jenrick a promotional video regarding the scheme at the event.
The documents released yesterday show that, immediately following the November 18 event, Jenrick texted Desmond offering the possibility of a further meeting, to which Desmond replied that he “will call your office first thing to arrange”, and to which Jenrick replied “I’d like that”.
Two days later, on the day the planning inspector submitted his report to Jenrick on the scheme, Desmond wrote confirming a meeting had been arranged for December 19. He added: “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”.
At this point Jenrick appears to have changed heart on the idea of meeting, replying that it was “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”. He added that he was also unable to give advice to Desmond on progress making the decision.
However, despite his insistence he should not be influenced, the documents reveal that the very same day he contacted officials to highlight the time sensitivity of the case and to ensure documents were prepared to allow a quick decision after the election. He flagged this despite government at the time operating under pre-election “purdah” restrictions, meaning politicians aren’t usually directly involved in the running of government.
A message to ministry officials, appearing to come from someone in Jenrick’s private office on November 20 on the subject of Westferry, said: “He [Jenrick] understands a ministerial decision on this is likely to be coming up soon and also that there may be some sensitivity with timing of final decision. Given this he has asked that advice be prepared for the first few days of the new Gov so a decision can be made and communicated before xmas.”
The documents show that Desmond texted Jenrick three times in the run-up to Christmas regarding the scheme, with Jenrick promising on December 15 to look at the advice of officials but otherwise ignoring the messages.
Jenrick instructed officials to prepare the documents for his viewing on December 12, prior to the outcome of the general election, and requested further information on December 18, with officials clear that the decision had to be taken “before the council adopts a new local plan on 15 January.”
The decision was ultimately taken on January 15, the final day before the new rules would have applied.
Once the decision was taken, Jenrick texted Desmond on January 22 to explain that he had not been in touch during the period of making the decision, and agreed to visit the site of the scheme.