Labour: Housing Secretary must 'come clean' over Richard Desmond donations

10 June 2020, 15:32

Robert Jenrick has been told to "come clean" by Labour
Robert Jenrick has been told to "come clean" by Labour . Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Labour has told Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick to "come clean" over a £12,000 donation to the Tories from billionaire property owner Richard Desmond.

Figures from the Electoral Commission revealed that Mr Desmond gave the money to the Conservative Party a fortnight after Mr Jenrick unlawfully signed off on his plan to build 1,500 homes in east London.

The Cabinet minister gave the green light for the £1 billion scheme at the eleventh hour despite both the local council and the independent Planning Inspectorate refusing its approval.

Mr Jenrick's decision on 14 January came one day prior to Tower Hamlets Council approving a community levy on such developments that would have cost the property owner's company Northern and Shell between £30 million and £50 million.

The move was then reversed following a legal challenge in the High Court where Mr Jenrick accepted his initial decision may have been "unlawful by reason of apparent bias and should be quashed."

When accepting the outcome, he said any “fair-minded and informed observer” may conclude that there was a “real possibility” that he was biased in favour of the developer in granting the permission.

He added that he would play no further part in decisions about the application.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government previously said in a statement: “While we reject the suggestion that there was any actual bias in the decision, we have agreed that the application will be redetermined.”

Richard Desmond is the founder of Northern and Shell
Richard Desmond is the founder of Northern and Shell. Picture: PA

Labour shadow minister Steve Reed has said the housing secretary must now publish all correspondence related to the planning decision, to dispel any suggestion that the Conservatives could be taking bungs.

“We’ve been calling for Robert Jenrick to publish all correspondence related to this decision," he said.

“After this latest revelation, he must make a full statement to Parliament. There can be no question of cash for favours in the planning process.”

Mike Amesbury MP, Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning, echoed his colleague and urged the Tories to "come clean" over the donation.

"This is yet another indication that Robert Jenrick’s unlawful decision to approve this planning decision against the wishes of the local council was done to benefit Richard Desmond, a wealthy Tory donor, to the tune of millions of pounds.

“This latest revelation comes hours after Jenrick announced new plans to remove planning decisions from locally elected councillors, enabling Ministers to take more decisions over the heads of local communities for the benefit of their wealthy friends.”

“Robert Jenrick should come clean and publish all correspondence with Richard Desmond about this case - otherwise the public will be entitled to think it’s one rule for the Conservatives and their wealthy friends, and another rule for everyone else.”

Steve Reed MP has demanded the housing secretary "comes clean" over the donation
Steve Reed MP has demanded the housing secretary "comes clean" over the donation. Picture: PA

Two weeks after Mr Jenrick gave Mr Desmond's firm the go-ahead, on 28 January, the billionaire donated the five-figure sum to the Conservatives, his first contribution to the party since a £10,000 gift in September 2017.

The planning inspector and the local authority had initially refused the project on the former site of Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs over conflicts with planning policies and a lack of affordable housing.

Tower Hamlets Council launched the legal action in March this year.

A council spokesman said: “The process the secretary of state followed in determining his appeal was influenced by a desire to help the developer to avoid a financial liability, notably the council’s revised Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charges."

He added: "The council is seeking leave to legally challenge the decision on the ground that it was biased and favoured the developer."

Last month it was reported that Mr Desmond and Mr Jenrick sat on the same table at a Tory fundraising dinner last November, according to an article in the Daily Mail.

However, it added that Mr Jenrick insisted that he refused to discuss the application.

Labour has an urgent question in the House of Commons about Mr Jenrick tomorrow, according to the Financial Times.

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “Government policy is in no way influenced by party donations – they are entirely separate.

“Donations to the Conservative Party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”

Meanwhile, the housing secretary has called for a rethink of the "overly bureaucratic" planning process.

The minister said he wanted to make the system more efficient in order to get young people on the property ladder.

It comes as a member of the National Infrastructure Commission urged a review of the process to make it more flexible, rather than the "straitjacket" approach of a rigid plan set for an area.

National Infrastructure Commissioner Bridget Rosewell said: "A plan must not become a prescription.

"A successful plan sets parameters but can respond to changing circumstances and engage with all stakeholders.

"It is a framework rather than tablets of stone."

Writing in a collection of essays published by the Policy Exchange centre-right think tank, Ms Rosewell said: "Abolishing the current planning edifice does not remove the need for frameworks for permissions.

"Tensions still exist and must be resolved. My review of planning inquiries showed that they could be done twice as fast just by applying sensible rules, most of which already existed, to manage the process.

"Other planning disputes are often also resolvable without having a complicated set of rules including local plan preparation and examinations in public."

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The Sunday Times reported that Mr Jenrick and Boris Johnson's senior aide Dominic Cummings are supporting a fast-track system for developers and backing a move to a zonal planning system where key decisions will be taken from local councils and handed to development corporations - although building on the green belt will not be permitted.

In response to the Policy Exchange publication, Mr Jenrick said: "As Housing Secretary, I want everyone, no matter where in the country they live, to have access to affordable, safe, and high-quality housing, and to live in communities with a real sense of place.

"It's time to re-think planning from first principles. High-quality design and sensitivity to the local vernacular must be at the very heart of the process.

"The time has come to speed up and simplify this country's overly bureaucratic planning process.

"We'll do that with a focus on creating beautiful, environmentally friendly places, building homes of all tenures and helping more young people onto the ladder.

"This Government is thinking boldly and creatively about the planning system to make it fit for the future."

Local Government Association planning spokesman David Renard said: "The planning system is not a barrier to housebuilding.

"Nine in 10 planning applications are approved by councils while, as our recent analysis shows, more than a million homes given planning permission in the last decade have not yet been built.

"Councils need powers to tackle our housing backlog and step in where a site with planning permission lies dormant and housebuilding has stalled."