Westferry planning row: Robert Jenrick to publish documents

Westferry planning row: Robert Jenrick to publish documents

Robert Jenrick

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Reuters

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has agreed to release documents related to a controversial planning decision, after pressure from Labour MPs.

Mr Jenrick told MPs he would publish all “relevant” information later on Wednesday.

The minister approved a housing scheme 12 days before the developer gave £12,000 to the Conservative Party.

Labour says the timing raises “cash for favours” suspicions – but Mr Jenrick insists he did nothing wrong.

Shadow communities secretary Steve Reed was pushing for a Commons vote to force the release of the paperwork, something the minister had previously refused to do.

Opening a Commons debate on the controversy, Mr Reed said the case had “blown apart” public confidence in the planning system.

“The only way to put that right is for the secretary of state to publish the evidence about what really happened,” he told MPs.

“If he has done nothing wrong, he has got nothing to fear.”

He said ministers were not allowed to take planning decisions if they have been lobbied by the applicant, or had helped to raise funds from a donor who stands to benefit from their decisions.

The reason for this, he added, is that it “raises questions about ‘cash for favours’. which would be a serious abuse of power”.

The row centres around a 1,500 home development at the former Westferry printing works on the Isle of Dogs, in East London.

The developer, former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond, personally gave the Conservative Party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme was approved, in January.

Affordable housing

Labour says the timing of the decision to approve the scheme – just a day before a new community infrastructure levy came into force – would have saved Mr Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50m.

It later emerged Mr Jenrick had sat next to Mr Desmond at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner in November 2019.

Labour says Mr Jenrick also overruled his advisers to reduce the amount of affordable housing required in the development, potentially saving Mr Desmond a further £106m.

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PA Media

Image caption

The planned development is in London’s Docklands area

Mr Jenrick’s decision was challenged by Tower Hamlets Council, forcing the secretary of state to back down and say what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.

Councillors asked the High Court to order the government to disclose emails and memos around the deal.

Rather than doing this, Mr Jenrick’s lawyers conceded the timing of his decision “would lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility” that he had been biased.

Defending his actions in the Commons earlier this month, Mr Jenrick said it was “not unusual” for the secretary of state to reach a different conclusion from councils or planning inspectors on the most “contentious” applications.

‘Unlawful decision’

“I took that decision in good faith, with an open mind, and I am confident all the rules were followed in doing so,” he told MPs.

He told MPs Mr Desmond had tried to raise the scheme with him during the dinner, but that he had told the businessman he could not discuss it.

However, Mr Desmond told The Sunday Times last weekend that he had shown Mr Jenrick a promotional video for the scheme on his mobile phone during the fundraiser at the Savoy Hotel.

Mr Desmond did not respond to BBC requests for a comment.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have written to the UK’s top civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, to ask him to investigate whether Mr Jenrick broke the ministerial code.

The Cabinet Office said Sir Mark would “respond to the letters in due course” but has denied carrying out a full investigation.

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