Robert Jenrick ducks Commons question on planning intervention

Government urged to explain why communities secretary approved billionaire’s scheme

Robert Jenrick is facing increased political pressure to explain his intervention in a planning decision to save a property developer millions of pounds, after ducking a parliamentary question on the subject and sending his deputy instead.

Labour have demanded the communities secretary release the correspondence showing his contacts with the former Express newspapers owner Richard Desmond ahead of the decision over a residential development in east London.

Separately, the Liberal Democrats have written to Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, to ask whether Jenrick potentially breached the ministerial code. Ed Davey, the party’s interim leader, wrote that there appeared to be “an increasingly expanding web of links between Mr Jenrick and Mr Desmond”.

Labour has also demanded the Conservatives hand back a £12,000 donation from Desmond, received two weeks after Jenrick overruled the local council and the government’s planning inspectorate to approve the 1,500-apartment, 44-storey complex in London.

The decision came a day before the introduction of a community infrastructure levy (CIL) imposed by Tower Hamlets council, which would have cost Desmond’s company at least £40m, to be used for local education and health projects.

After the council challenged his decision, Jenrick accepted it had been unlawful. It has since emerged that Jenrick sat on the same table as Desmond at a Conservative fundraising event in November.

Following days of pressure over the issue, Labour secured an emergency question in the Commons on Thursday. But rather than respond himself, Jenrick sent Chris Pincher, a junior minister in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to field the questions.

Steve Reed, the shadow communities secretary, asked why Jenrick did not personally answer the urgent question, even though he was apparently at parliament.

The proposed Westferry Printworks development in east London
Jenrick overruled planning authorities to approve the proposed Westferry Printworks in east London. Photograph: PR

“This sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favours,” Reed told Pincher in the Commons. “If he wants to restore trust, the secretary of state must immediately publish all documents and all correspondence relating to this decision. The public needs reassurance that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fundraising dinners.”

Reed said Labour wanted full transparency over Jenrick’s decision in January. He said the minister’s “extraordinary step of admitting his decision was unlawful because of apparent bias” in the court case launched by the council meant he avoided having to hand over correspondence detailing his actions.

Reed added: “Can the minister tell us what that apparent bias was?”

Pincher argued it was not uncommon for ministers to decide against planning authorities, and dismissed any impropriety. Jenrick, Pincher said, had informed his department of all conversations he had with Desmond, including at the November event, and “has no relationship with the applicant”.

He said Jenrick admitted fault at the court case because both he and the council wanted to end the matter swiftly. “The way to achieve that, technically in law, is to accept the action that was brought by the local authority to the court. That is why he made the decision that he did,” said Pincher.

He said Jenrick had never discussed the issue of the CIL payments with Desmond, and knew nothing of the billionaire’s donation to the party, which Pincher said was payment for a ticket to an event.

In a statement released after the question, Reed called for the Conservatives to repay Desmond’s donation. He said: “Instead of answering questions about his behaviour, Robert Jenrick sent in a junior minister to speak on his behalf while he apparently laid low in the tea room. This attempt to avoid scrutiny shows contempt for the public who are concerned about the integrity of the planning process.” 

Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the prime minister continued to have confidence in Jenrick.

Asked why Jenrick had sent Pincher to answer Labour’s questions, instead of facing them himself, he said: “It’s appropriate for the housing minister to respond to questions in the house on housing and planning matters. This is a housing and planning matter.”


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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