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Robert Jenrick under mounting pressure after planning row documents revealed
24 June 2020, 22:44
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is under mounting pressure after new documents said he was "insistent" a housing development was pushed through before a new levy would cost its Tory donor backer millions of pounds.
Mr Jenrick has faced criticism 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.
Mr Jenrick has since had to quash his own approval, conceding the decision was "unlawful".
The release of a stash of letters and texts show that Mr Desmond urged the Secretary of State to approve the east London development scheme so that "Marxists" did not get "doe for nothing".
The release of documents came after Mr Jenrick told MPs he would outline the timeline of events and the rationale for his decision-making over the Westferry Printworks planning decision.
Labour said the timing of the planning approval - just a day before a new community infrastructure levy (CIL) came into force - would have saved Mr Desmond's Northern and Shell company up to £50 million.
Lib Dem MP Layla Moran said Jenrick’s position is “completely untenable”.
She said: “These documents are further evidence that he rushed through this planning decision to help a Tory donor avoid paying millions in tax.
“This whole grubby saga netted the Tory party only £12,000, but could have helped Richard Desmond save up to £40m.
“The public will be appalled at what looks like a clear abuse of power.
“Robert Jenrick should go and the Conservative party should hand back this donation.”
In one document, a Housing Ministry official indicated the secretary of state (SoS) wanted Westferry to be signed off and approved the following day so that it would avoid the CIL.
It stated: "On timing, my understanding is that SoS 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."
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson considers the matter "closed", according head of the civil service, Sir Mark Sedwill.
The comments came in a letter which was sent to Labour's shadow communities secretary Steve Reed in response to his questions on what basis the Housing Secretary approved the development and what contact he had with the developer.
Sir Mark wrote that Mr Jenrick had "set out a full and factual account" of his actions, adding: "In light of this account, the Prime Minister considers that the matter is closed."
Mr Jenrick published information 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, which was submitted by former media mogul Mr Desmond.
The newly-released documents show that in a text to Mr Desmond on November 18 after spending time with him at a Tory fund raising event event, Mr Jenrick said: "Good to spend time with you tonight Richard. See you again soon I hope."
“The Housing Secretary needs to come to the House to explain these discrepancies as a matter of urgency. The public must be reassured that there is not one rule for the Conservatives & their wealthy donors & another rule for everyone else." @SteveReedMPhttps://t.co/FkCTYvNb5G— Labour Press (@labourpress) June 24, 2020
Mr Desmond replied: "Thanks Robert I really appreciate your text Will call your office tomorrow to arrange Very best."
In a text two days later regarding the development, Mr Desmond said: "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, thanks again, all my best Richard."
Mr Jenrick replied; "As Secretary of State it is 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 - and I can't provide any advice to you on that, other than to say that I will receive advice from my officials after the general election assuming I remain in office and will consider it carefully in accordance with the rules and guidance. I hope that is okay and we can meet to discuss other matters soon, hopefully on the 19th. Robert."
Shadow communities secretary Mr Reed raised the issue in the Commons after the release of the information asking if the Cabinet minister would make a new statement.
He questioned whether Mr Jenrick would speak as: "Specifically that he did not immediately notify officials following his dinner with the applicant Richard Desmond, that rather than closing discussion down with the developer, as (Mr Jenrick) implied, he instead initiated contact with him the next day via text.
"And the letters confirm that he rushed through the decision deliberately to help the developer avoid a £30 to £50 million levy payable to Tower Hamlets Council?"