Labour has demanded that the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, disclose all contacts he had with other ministers and officials before he overruled a planning decision, saving a property developer millions of pounds.
Answering departmental questions in the Commons, Jenrick insisted he had behaved properly when he approved the construction of a residential development in east London by Richard Desmond, former owner of Express newspapers.
Jenrick’s decision in January, which overruled the local council and the government’s planning inspectorate, came a day before the introduction of a community infrastructure levy (CIL), which would have cost Desmond’s company at least £40m, to be used for local education and health projects.
It later emerged that Jenrick had sat next to Desmond at a Conservative fundraising dinner in November, and that Desmond donated £12,000 to the party two weeks after the planning decision in his favour.
Jenrick told MPs he was limited in what information he could disclose publicly, as the application for Westferry Printworks, a 1,500-apartment, 44-storey complex on a former printing plant, is live once again.
After the local council, Tower Hamlets, sought a judicial review of Jenrick’s decision, he conceded the case, admitting that he had acted unlawfully.
Quizzing Jenrick in the Commons, the shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, castigated Jenrick for sending his deputy to answer an urgent question on the matter last week.
He asked: “Given the gravity of the allegations surrounding his unlawful decision on the Westferry development, will he agree to make a full statement to the house, publish all correspondence, and disclose all conversations with other government ministers and officials relating to this case, to reassure the public that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fundraising dinners?”
Jenrick replied: “The application to which he refers was a highly contentious one – all the applications that come before the secretary of state are highly contentious. This one had been contested for many years.
“I took that decision in good faith, with an open mind, and I’m confident that all the rules were followed in doing so.”
On handing over information and details of contacts with other ministers, Jenrick said “all of the relevant information” on the matter had been handed to Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, and that he would ask his department’s most senior civil servant what else could be published.
He added: “We want to ensure that the correct processes of the planning system are followed, so that means publishing documents while bearing in mind the legitimate interests of the parties to this case, which remains a live planning application.”
Pressed further on the matter by Labour MP Liz Twist, Jenrick defended the fact that he took the decision on Desmond’s development even after sitting next to him at the fundraising dinner.
“My department knew about my attendance at the event before I went to it,” he said. “They knew about the fact I had inadvertently sat next to the applicant – I didn’t know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table – and I discussed and took advice from my officials within the department at all times.”
Desmond has not responded to previous requests for comment.