The Guardian view on Robert Jenrick and the planning row: Tories and their friends | Editorial

The minister admits he acted unlawfully over Richard Desmond’s case. But questions remain unanswered

Rarely are cabinet ministers so keen to put up their hands and admit they were wrong. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, last month took the remarkable step of acknowledging that he acted unlawfully in approving billionaire Richard Desmond’s east London property development. Strikingly, he gave permission shortly after they met at a Conservative fundraiser, 24 hours before the introduction of a community infrastructure levy, which would have cost the tycoon at least £40m, and two weeks before Mr Desmond made a £12,000 donation to the party.

In a government which likes to skate over errors, it is remarkable to see someone taking responsibility so quickly. Mr Jenrick’s admission – and agreement to the quashing of his decision – followed legal action from Tower Hamlets council, and allowed him to dismiss their demand for files on the case. Among the essential questions are why he overruled his own planning inspector, and whether any other ministers contacted him over the case. On Wednesday, after Labour tabled a motion demanding their release, he released key documents. In one, an official writes that Mr Jenrick “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”.

As the shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, told MPs, the case raises concerns of cash for favours; it has echoes of the Tory controversies which helped bring New Labour to power. Mr Jenrick insists that he acted in good faith, and that he “inadvertently” sat next to Mr Desmond at the dinner. But someone drew up the seating plan which put him beside a man planning a £1bn development. Both men say that Mr Jenrick did not discuss the planning matter at the dinner – but the billionaire former pornographer showed him a promotional video about the Westferry Printworks development on the Isle of Dogs. Any politician with a sense of propriety should have recused himself from the planning decision. Though the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, is examining the details of the case, the Cabinet Office has denied it is conducting an investigation. It should be.

Without the hefty Conservative majority and Mr Johnson’s own relaxed attitude to personal responsibility, Mr Jenrick would surely have left by now. The pandemic still consumes public attention which might otherwise turn to the case. Nonetheless, it exacerbates the perception that there is one rule for this government and its friends and another for the rest of us.

It comes as the Conservatives seek to push through a radical overhaul of a planning system that Dominic Cummings describes as “appalling”. That chimes with their inherent ideological distaste for “red tape” and sympathy to big business; there are better ways to expand housing, the purported goal. Any reform of the system will lack credibility and public confidence while Mr Jenrick is overseeing it. Suspicion will shadow any planning decision on his watch.

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