UK Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has found himself in hot water since newly released documents indicated that he "insisted" on a planning decision for a £1 billion property development in east London be rushed through so a Tory donor’s company could avoid additional costs of around £45 million, The Guardian reported, citing a leak.
One of the cited documents is written by a civil servant in the Ministry for Housing, Communities, and Local Government who said that the secretary of state (SoS) wanted the Westferry development to be signed off on without delay so that Richard Desmond’s company would avoid the community infrastructure levy (CIL).
"On timing, my understanding is that SoS is/was insistent that decision issued this week i.e. tomorrow – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime", the official wrote.
A leaked text message exchange signalled how Desmond, the former Express newspaper owner, apparently lobbied Jenrick to expedite the development of the Westferry waterfront neighbourhood so that he could avoid giving extra millions in tax to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council, the poorest borough in London, exclaiming: "We don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!"
The papers were released Wednesday after Jenrick had already faced a debate and vote, being accused by critics of breaking the ministerial code.
In particular, the housing secretary has come under accusations of "cash for favours" after it emerged Desmond had personally donated £12,000 two weeks after the scheme for 1,500 homes was approved. Jenrick has since had to backtrack on his own approval, admitting that the decision was unlawful.
A housing department official wrote that "SoS has flagged a case in Westferry Docklands (redevelopment of a printworks or something like that?", while being aware that a ministerial decision was coming soon. The debate has triggered a massive backlash in the Commons, with Layla Moran, a Lib Dem MP, branding Jenrick’s position "completely untenable", arguing it constitutes a real abuse of power:
"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 £40 million", she said. Moran further stated that the public would be nothing but appalled at what seems to be a "clear abuse of power", suggesting that Jenrick resign and the Tories hand back the donation.
Andrew Wood, a Tory councillor in Tower Hamlets who resigned from the party over Jenrick’s handling of Westferry, for his part, stated laconically:
"I was right to resign".
Jenrick admitted to MPs that he saw promo images of the development on Desmond’s mobile phone at a 18 November fundraiser, which the Sunday Times wrote about causing an outcry in parliament. During the event, Jenrick sat next to Desmond, and then, two days later, Desmond reportedly lobbied Jenrick via text message about the forthcoming deal and arranged a site visit for him. Government emails from the time reportedly signalled Jenrick had issued orders to his staffers to get ready with paperwork on the deal.
"I recognise that there are higher standards of transparency expected in the quasi-judicial planning process, which is why I will also release discussions and correspondence which the government would not normally release", Jenrick told MPs, arguing that the decision had been taken "with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process".
Speaking of the ill-fated fundraiser, Steve Reed, the shadow housing secretary, hit back asserting "ministers are not allowed to take planning decisions if they have been lobbied by the applicant", and arguing Jenrick’s decision "raises questions about cash for favours – which would be a serious abuse of power".
After the release of the documents the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, responded to an urgent query from Labour by stating that "the prime minister considers that the matter is closed".