A business minister has suggested voters could consider attending Conservative fundraising events if they want to raise planning issues with MPs, after the property developer Richard Desmond lobbied a cabinet minister at a Tory party dinner.
Nadhim Zahawi said the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, had done nothing wrong as calls grew for Jenrick to resign after the release of documents showing he “insisted” a planning decision for a £1bn development by Desmond should be rushed through to reduce costs by £45m.
“There is no smoking gun here. The intention was to get more housing built, quickly, for people who really need it,” Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about Jenrick’s decision to approve the Westferry development in east London, overruling earlier planning decisions.
Pressure on Jenrick has increased after documents about the case, released by his department, showed he wanted the approval signed off immediately in January, to avoid Desmond’s company having to pay Tower Hamlets council a community infrastructure levy of £45m, which would have been spent on local infrastructure.
Text message exchanges in the documents reveal how Desmond, the former Express titles newspaper owner and pornographer, lobbied Jenrick to speed up the decision and thus avoid the payment.
The messages came after Desmond sat next to Jenrick at a Conservative fundraising event in November, at which the developer showed Jenrick a promotional video about the 1,500-apartment, 44-storey development on his phone.
Two weeks after Jenrick made the decision in favour of Desmond, the developer donated £12,000 to the Conservative party.
Zahawi said Jenrick had subsequently refused Desmond’s offer of a meeting, and had wanted to save Desmond’s company the £45m charge to make the scheme viable.
“Viability is incredibly important,” he said. “Getting stuff built is important to Robert Jenrick. That was his motivation, but when there was a perception of bias he pulled back on this, pulled the plug on it, and will allow a different minister to decide the scheme.”
Pressed on what a hypothetical Tory voter in Doncaster or Ashfield might think about Desmond’s ability to directly lobby the minister making the planning decision, Zahawi said they could consider doing the same thing.
“Well, if people go to a fundraiser in their local area, in Doncaster, for the Conservative party, they’ll be sitting next to MPs and other people in their local area, and can interact with different parts of the authority,” he said. “The important thing is the access didn’t buy this billionaire a decision.”
The documents detailing Jenrick’s contacts with Desmond were released on Wednesday after the minister faced a vote to force the issue.
One text message shows how Desmond lobbied Jenrick on avoiding having to pay the community infrastructure levy 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!”
Speaking before Zahawi on Today, Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, said the case raised some troubling issues about access and influence in what Jenrick had done.
“I don’t for a moment suggest that he took his decision simply because of a donation to the Conservative party, but the fact is that, for the price of a dinner, the developer was able to present his scheme to the minister, follow up with texts, and seek to influence the decision,” Lord Kerslake said.
While Jenrick “got to the right place in the end” by eventually reversing his decision and removing himself from the process, Kerslake added: “None of that process should happen in these circumstances.”
He said: “It creates the impression – and appearance here is really important – that the developer has some level of influence in the decisions.”
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.”