No 10 distances itself from Robert Jenrick over planning row

Richard Desmond contradicts housing secretary’s version of events at party fundraiser

A Downing Street spokesman has declined to say whether No 10 knew that Robert Jenrick viewed a promotional video for a £1bn property development before overruling officials to approve it, heaping yet more pressure on the housing secretary.

Jenrick has said he did not discuss the 500-apartment project in east London with Richard Desmond, the developer behind it, when they sat together at a Conservative party fundraising dinner two months before he made the decision.

But Desmond, the multi-millionaire former owner of the Express newspaper titles, told the Sunday Times he showed Jenrick a video about the Westferry Printworks development at the dinner.

“What I did was I showed him the video,” Desmond said, adding that Jenrick had watched it for “three or four minutes”. He said: “It’s quite long, so he got the gist.”

Asked whether Jenrick had told Downing Street that he had watched the video, a spokesman would not comment, stressing only that No 10 had no involvement in the decision.

“No one in No 10 has discussed the appeal with Mr Desmond, or the applicant, and No 10 had no involvement with the secretary of state’s appeal decision,” Boris Johnson’s spokesman said.

He added: “What the communities secretary has said is, he is confident that all the rules were followed in taking the decision, and he has rejected the suggestion that there was any actual bias in the decision.”

While the spokesman said Johnson maintained full confidence in Jenrick, any indication that he did not keep No 10 fully informed would increase the pressure on the communities secretary in a crucial week for his political future.

Labour will use the opportunity of a three-hour opposition day debate on Wednesday to discuss the controversy.

The shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, is expected to press Jenrick on whether officials asked him to recuse himself from the decision, since viewing the video would appear to constitute lobbying by Desmond, potentially giving rise to a conflict of interest.

Jenrick overturned a decision by a local council and the government’s planning inspectorate in order to approve the 44-storey development at a former printing plan.

The decision in January 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 later emerged that Jenrick sat on the same table as Desmond at the fundraising event in November, and that two weeks after Jenrick’s planning decision, Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative party.

While there is no investigation going on into the decision, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have asked the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, to look into whether there had been a breach of the ministerial code.

Sedwill had received letters from MPs about the matter, and Jenrick had supplied him with relevant correspondence, the No 10 spokesman said, adding: “The cabinet secretary will reply to those letters from MPs in due course.”

In response to Desmond’s comments about the video, a spokesman for Jenrick said: “Mr Jenrick and the applicants were put on the same table for the dinner, although Mr Jenrick was not aware of this prior to arriving at the venue. The planning application was raised, but Mr Jenrick said it would not be appropriate to discuss the matter or for him to pass comment on it.”

Labour MP Steve Reed, shadow communities secretary, said: “The government is now caught up in a cash-for-favours scandal that brings their moral authority into question: the prime minister must tell us whether he knew that Robert Jenrick watched this promotional video and publish all correspondence and documentation to show what really went on.”


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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