MPs ask Robert Jenrick long list of questions about £1bn land deal

Select committee wants minister to give more details of contact with Richard Desmond

Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, is facing a demand to appear before a parliamentary committee to respond to unanswered questions about his relationship with the Tory donor Richard Desmond and the £1bn Westferry property deal.

The housing select committee has disagreed with Boris Johnson’s claim that “the matter is closed”, asking Jenrick to appear before them on 13 July and sending him a list of 26 questions about the affair.

The demand will ensure the row over the deal continues, despite efforts by Johnson to deny that the ministerial code has been broken. He has refused to refer Jenrick for investigation by the outgoing cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill.

Jenrick overturned a decision by the council and the government’s planning inspectorate in order to approve a 1,500-apartment, 44-storey development proposed by the former media baron and pornographer at Westferry Printworks, a former printing plant in east London.

Emails between civil servants were released last week by the housing secretary after pressure from Labour, and suggested that Jenrick was “insistent” the decision was passed in time for Desmond to avoid a £45m community levy to the borough. Desmond later donated £12,000 to the party. Parts of the 129 pages that were released were redacted.

Clive Betts, chair of the committee, wrote to Jenrick on Wednesday saying that the committee usually resolves not to scrutinise individual planning decisions but is making an exception in this case.

“The committee respectfully disagrees with the prime minister’s assertion that ‘the matter is closed’ and believes that important lessons must be learned.

“Given the particular high-profile of this case and the opportunity to learn further lessons, we feel it is important to make an exception and consider the rigour of the process without becoming the arbiter of the decision itself,” he wrote.

The letter goes on to outline questions about Jenrick’s meeting with Desmond at a Conservative party fundraising event on 18 November. The minister, sitting next to the media baron, was lobbied and shown a video about the housing development.

The ministerial code states “if a minister meets an external organisation or individual and finds themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a social occasion or holiday – any significant content should be passed back to the department as soon as possible after the event”.

Betts asked why Jenrick took nearly four weeks to tell the department about the meeting, and asked him to provide a full note of the meeting or explain why it does not exist.

The minister is also asked to explain whether Johnson or anyone in his office ever discussed the planning application with him; and why none of the representations made by Desmond before approving the development on 14 January have been included in the decision letter. The committee has asked Jenrick to respond to 26 written questions by 6 July.

Labour claimed the move to approve before Tower Hamlets council’s community infrastructure levy (CIL) came into force would have saved Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50m on the scheme, which was reported to be worth £1bn.

In one document released by the government last week, a civil servant in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote: “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.”

Text message exchanges revealed how Desmond lobbied Jenrick to expedite the development to avoid the need to pay the levy to Labour-run Tower Hamlets council, the poorest borough in London, saying: “We don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!”

Jenrick has consistently denied wrongdoing and removed his approval for the scheme over “apparent bias” last month.

The government has been approached for a comment.


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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