Housing secretary Robert Jenrick gave a “behind closed doors” briefing on government plans to reform the property sector at an event hosted by the public affairs firm which acted for Richard Desmond on his controversial £1bn east London housing development.
The revelation piles further pressure on the Conservative party over its links to the former media tycoon whose application to build more than 1,500 homes at the site of the former Westferry print works on the Isle of Dogs was approved by Jenrick. After Tower Hamlets launched legal action Jenrick consented to the court quashing the planning decision.
The public affairs firm, Thorncliffe, which acted for Desmond’s Westferry Developments Limited, helping promote the project to local people and other interested parties, hosted the Jenrick briefing in early February – a month before the government published its planning white paper.
According to a report in Property Week, Jenrick, at the “closed-door meeting”, discussed the government’s intentions to overhaul the property sector and provided examples such as making first-time buyers eligible “for around 30% market sale discounts”.
A spokesman for Jenrick said the meeting was an official “stakeholder” event, and he had been accompanied by a private secretary, a senior civil servant.
Steve Reed, the shadow communities and local government secretary, called on Jenrick to explain his links with Thorncliffe. “These latest revelations demand urgent answers from the secretary of state and from No 10: we need to know how many times they met Thorncliffe, why Robert Jenrick gave them a behind-closed-doors briefing about the future of the planning system, and the full nature of their role in the Westferry Printworks proposal.”
Thorncliffe, which describes itself as “political and community consultation experts”, hosted an event at the Carlton Club in May 2016 where Sir Eddie Lister, deputy mayor of London under Boris Johnson, and the man who approved Desmond’s original Westferry application, was the star draw. On its website, the firm describes Lister as “a great friend of Thorncliffe” who is “a great influence on Boris”.
Last week the Times reported that Johnson had three meetings with Desmond in the months before Lister approved the original scheme. Westferry subsequently applied to double the number of apartments on the site from 722 to 1,524.
This new application was publicly approved by Jenrick on 14 January, the day before a levy was introduced that would have resulted in Westferry paying an additional £40m to Tower Hamlets, London’s poorest borough.
Last week, it emerged Desmond paid £12,000 to attend the Tory party’s Carlton Club fundraising dinner last November, at which he and others involved in the development sat on a table with Jenrick. A spokesman for the minister confirmed that the developers raised the application, but insisted that Jenrick refused to discuss it.
The spokesman told the Observer: “The secretary of state – like other cabinet ministers present – attended the dinner at the invitation of the Conservative party. There is therefore nothing to declare.”
The ministerial code of conduct 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 – any significant content should be passed back to the department as soon as possible after the event.”
The spokesman said: “I can confirm that the department was informed of the dinner. To suggest otherwise is factually incorrect.”
However, a source close to the department claimed no record of Jenrick’s dinner with Desmond had been recorded in official documents relating to the Westferry application.
Andrew Wood, a councillor in Tower Hamlets, who resigned from the Tory party over Jenrick’s decision, has called for the Cabinet Office and MPs on the housing select committee to launch investigations. He asked why Jenrick accepted Westferry’s proposal to reduce affordable housing on the site from 35% to 21%, and to ignore two planning experts who questioned the merits of the scheme which will now have to be redetermined.
Richard Patient, managing director of Thorncliffe, declined to say how many times the secretary of state had met with the firm, and added that it had never undertaken political lobbying on behalf of Westferry Developments. Media representatives for Westferry did not respond to requests for a comment.
• This article was amended on 19 June 2020. An earlier version said that Jenrick withdrew approval [in relation to Desmond’s planning application] after Tower Hamlets council launched legal action against the decision. To clarify: Jenrick consented to the court quashing the decision