The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is under pressure to resign after newly released documents indicated that he “insisted” a planning decision for a £1bn property development should be rushed through so a Conservative donor’s company could reduce costs by £45m.
In one document, a civil servant in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote that the secretary of state (SoS) wanted the Westferry development in east London to be signed off the following day so that Richard Desmond’s company would avoid the community infrastructure levy (CIL).
“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,” the official wrote.
Text message exchanges reveal how Desmond, the former Express titles newspaper owner and pornographer, lobbied Jenrick to expedite the development to avoid the need to pay an extra £45m 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 subsequently overturned a decision by the council and the government’s planning inspectorate in order to approve a 1,500-apartment, 44-storey development at Westferry Printworks, a former printing plant in east London.
The documents were released on Wednesday after Jenrick faced a debate and vote, and was accused by critics of potentially breaking the ministerial code. The code instructs all ministers to “declare and resolve any interests and relationships” and “take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias”.
Following the documents’ release the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, responded to an urgent query from Labour by stating: “The prime minister considers that the matter is closed.”
The housing secretary has faced accusations of “cash for favours” after it emerged Desmond had personally given the Conservative party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme for 1,500 homes was approved. Jenrick has since had to quash his own approval, conceding the decision was unlawful.
The shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, has written to Jenrick, posing a series of further questions, including the date he notified officials in his department about meeting Desmond at the Conservative fundraising dinner.
Reed said the documents published on Wednesday “raise far more questions about the secretary of state’s relationship with Richard Desmond than they answer,” adding, “whether the prime minister likes it or not, this matter is far from closed.”
He called on Jenrick to return to the House of Commons to explain what he called discrepancies, between the minister’s account, and the events laid out in the documents.
Labour has now raised a point of order in the Commons, claiming there were discrepancies in his account to the house and those that appear in the documents.
Jenrick sat next to Desmond at a Tory fundraising dinner on 18 November. Afterwards he sent the tycoon a text saying it was “good to spend time” with him.
Two days later Desmond lobbied Jenrick via text message about the deal and arranged a site visit for him.
He wrote: “Your efficient PA … has arranged a meeting for 19th December at 10.30am for meet and site visit … we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!” The message was signed off: “Thanks again, all my best Richard.”
Jenrick, apparently recognising that he was being lobbied, replied: “Richard. As secretary of state it is important not to give any appearance of being influenced by applicants of cases that I may have a role in or to have predetermined them and so I think it is best if we don’t meet until the matter has been decided, one way of [sic] another … I hope that is okay and we can meet to discuss other matters soon, hopefully the 19th. Robert.”
Desmond replied: “Absolutely understood Look forward to meeting on 19th to celebrate the big majority. Best Richard.”
On the same day, emails appear to show that Jenrick asked officials in his department to prepare a ministerial decision.
A housing department official wrote: “SoS has flagged a case in Westferry Docklands (redevelopment of a printworks or something like that?) He understands a ministerial decision on this is likely to be coming up soon and also that there may be some sensitivity with timing on final decision.”
Layla Moran, the Lib Dem MP, said Jenrick’s position is “completely untenable”. “These documents are further evidence that he rushed through this planning decision to help a Tory donor avoid paying millions in tax.
“This whole grubby saga netted the Tory party only £12,000, but could have helped Richard Desmond save up to £40m. The public will be appalled at what looks like a clear abuse of power. Robert Jenrick should go and the Conservative party should hand back this donation,” she said.
Andrew Wood, a Tory councillor in Tower Hamlets who resigned from the party over Jenrick’s handling of Westferry, issued a five-word statement: “I was right to resign.”
The released documents are part of a tranche of 129 pages relating to Westferry Printworks . They come after Jenrick admitted to MPs that he saw promotional images of the development on Desmond’s mobile phone at the fundraiser, as revealed by the Sunday Times.
Jenrick told MPs: “I recognise that there are higher standards of transparency expected in the quasi-judicial planning process, which is why I will also release discussions and correspondence which the government would not normally release.”
He added: “This was a decision taken with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process.”
During the debate Clive Betts, the chair of the housing, communities and local government committee, questioned why Jenrick had waited until Labour tabled a debate on his role in the development to release the documents. “I think it might have been helpful if we had had it before the debate today,” he said.
Steve Reed, the shadow housing secretary, asked about the Conservative party fundraising dinner in November, attended by both Jenrick and Desmond.
“I understand Mr Desmond’s lobbyists, a company called Thorncliffe, had been busy selling tickets to the event to people who wanted access to the secretary of state,” he said.
“Ministers are not allowed to take planning decisions if they have been lobbied by the applicant and, under the ministerial code, ministers are required not to place themselves under an obligation by, for instance, helping to raise funds from a donor who stands to benefit from the decisions they make because it raises questions about cash for favours – which would be a serious abuse of power.”
Sedwill wrote in response to Labour: “The secretary of state has today written to the housing, communities and local government select committee stating that he has set out a full and factual account. I understand that he has also published a number of documents in support of this account. In light of this account, the prime minister considers that the matter is closed.”
This article was amended on 25 June 2020 to correct the figure for the number of apartments in the Westferry development.