Housing minister confirms media mogul raised £1bn Westferry scheme with housing secretary prior to PLP project’s controversial approval
Media mogul Richard Desmond paid £12,000 for a seat at a Tory Party fundraising dinner at which he raised the topic of his £1bn Westferry Printworks with the minister deciding the appeal, the housing minister confirmed yesterday.
Minister of state Christopher Pincher made the admission answering an urgent House of Commons question brought by Labour over the housing secretary’s unlawful approval of the scheme in January.
However, Pincher insisted housing secretary Robert Jenrick has “no relationship” with Richard Desmond, owner of developer Westferry Developments, and had no discussions with him about avoiding a levy charge of up to £50m before approving his Westferry Printworks application.
The urgent question in Parliament followed the revelation earlier this week that Desmond had donated £12,000 to the Tory Party in February, shortly after Jenrick’s approval, against the advice of planning inpsectors, of the controversial scheme.
However, Pincher revealed in the Commons that the £12,000 donation was actually the ticket price paid by Desmond for the Conservative Party’s Carlton Club fundraising event in November, at which it has already been revealed that Desmond sat on a table with Jenrick.
Pincher repeated Jenrick’s previous assertion that he declined to discuss the matter of the planning application with Desmond when he raised it, and made the subsequent decision, in January, “fairly and on its own merits”.
Pincher said he “no idea” whether Desmond had specifically requested to sit on a table with Jenrick.
Jenrick last month saw his decision quashed and ruled unlawful after admitting “apparent bias” in approving the scheme just days before the introduction of a CIL charging schedule that would have imposed a levy of up to £50m on the project. However, he continues to deny displaying any actual bias toward the former owner of Express Newspapers.
Shadow housing secretary Steve Reed said in the Commons that the saga raised “grave concerns over cash for favours” and called for Jenrick to immediately publish all documents and correspondence relating to it, in order to ensure that “integrity in the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Tory party fundraising dinners.”
SNP MP Alan Brown, comparing the situation with the Dominic Cummings affairs, accused Pincher of “defending the indefensible”, and said that “To the public this is a matter that simply stinks.”
Jenrick was also accused of attempting to evade public scrutiny after sending the housing minister to answer the urgent question, rather than appearing himself in the chamber. Shadow attorney general Lord Falconer said on Twitter that by refusing to answer questions in person and provide detailed information, “Jenrick will understand this conduct builds sense the bias was real not just apparent”.
In the Commons, Pincher responded by insisting that Jenrick had taken all his planning decisions based on the specific merits of the case, and that Jenrick had admitted apparent bias because it was the quickest way to enable a “swift redetermination” of the decision following the concerns raised about it.
Pincher (pictured, right) revealed that Desmond had invited Jenrick to visit the site of the development, but that Jenrick declined, following discussions with officials in the department, and insisted that “at all times” Jenrick disclosed conversations with applicants to departmental officials,.
Pincher said: “My Rt Hon friend [Jenrick] has no relationship with the applicant. Both the applicant and the local authority have asked my Rt Hon friend to attend the site to make a site visit. My Rt Hon friend, in discussion with officials in my department, weighed up the pros and cons and decided against.
“Regarding the decision on January […] there were no discussions about the CIL issue between my Rt Hon friend and the applicant. He’s been very clear about his involvement with the applicant.”
Discussing the donation, Pincher said: “The applicant has paid for tickets to a Conservative Party event, that is apparently where the funds came from. Ministers have no knowledge of funds which are provided to political parties for donations or payment for tickets. These are spendings which go to parties of all persuasions, they are declared in the proper and usual way.
“None of it is known by ministers, none of it is discussed by ministers, it certainly wasn’t discussed in this occasion.”
>> Also read: Minister accused of bias is urged to release correspondence on PLP Westferry permission
During the debate, communities department select committee chair, Labour MP Clive Betts, raised the prospect of the cross-bench committee also formally requesting full details of correspondence regarding the decision be disclosed to it. Pincher said the department would consider the request if it was received.
The Metropolitan Police has said it is assessing whether to launch an investigation into the conduct of the secretary of state, having received complaints about the issue, at least two of which have come from Labour politicians.
Richard Desmond and Westferry Developments have been contacted for comment.
A spokesperson for the housing ministry, responding to the question of why Christopher Pincher, not Robert Jenrick, dealt with the urgent question, said: “This is a housing and planning matter and it is appropriate that the housing minister responds.”
Previously the department has stated: “While we reject the suggestion that there was any actual bias in the decision, we have agreed that the application will be redetermined.”