Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, is under pressure to resign after newly released documents indicated that he had “insisted” a planning decision for a £1bn development should be rushed through so a Tory donor’s company could reduce costs by up to £50m.
In one document, a civil servant in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote that the secretary of state (SoS) wanted the Westferry development in east London to be signed off the following day 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 ie tomorrow – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime,” the official wrote.
The documents also show that Desmond, the former media owner and pornographer, lobbied Jenrick about the deal in writing and arranged a site visit for him.
Desmond urged Jenrick to rush through the deal before the levy was introduced, writing: “We don’t want to give the Marxists loads of doe for nothing!”
Jenrick replied: “I think it is best if we don’t meet until the matter is decided.”
The documents relating to Westferry Printworks were released after Jenrick admitted to MPs that he saw images of the development on Desmond’s mobile phone. Jenrick was accused of breaking the ministerial code.
He confirmed that he looked at images of the development on the phone of Desmond, the former pornographer, at a Tory fundraising event, as revealed by the Sunday Times.
Jenrick told MPs: “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.”
He added: “This was a decision taken with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process.”
It came after Labour tabled a motion seeking to force the government to release all documents relating to the controversial approval by Jenrick for the development in east London, which was submitted by Desmond.
The housing secretary has faced accusations of “cash for favours” after it emerged ex-Daily Express owner Desmond had personally given the Conservative party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme for 1,500 homes was approved.
Jenrick has since had to quash his own approval, conceding the decision was unlawful.
Following his announcement, Clive Betts, the chair of the housing, communities and local government committee, questioned why Jenrick had waited until Labour tabled a debate on his role in the development to make the announcement. “I think it might have been helpful if we had had it before the debate today,” he said.
Opening the debate, the shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, asked about the Conservative party fundraising dinner in November 2019, attended by both Jenrick and Desmond.
“I understand Mr Desmond’s lobbyists, a company called Thorncliffe, had been busy selling tickets to the event to people who wanted access to the secretary of state,” he said.
“Ministers are not allowed to take planning decisions if they have been lobbied by the applicant and, under the ministerial code, ministers are required not to place themselves under an obligation by, for instance, helping to raise funds from a donor who stands to benefit from the decisions they make because it raises questions about cash for favours – which would be a serious abuse of power.”
Jenrick was asked to confirm a report in the Sunday Times saying that he had watched a video about the development at the fundraiser, on Desmond’s phone.
On the second time of asking, Jenrick addressed the house and said he could not recall the details, adding: “He did bring out his iPhone and show me some part of the development.”
Labour also said the timing of the planning approval – just a day before a new community infrastructure levy came into force – would have saved Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50m.
Jenrick originally approved the plan in January 2020, overruling both Tower Hamlets council and a planning inspector.