Boris Johnson backs Robert Jenrick despite planning row

Senior MP says questions remain over links between housing secretary and Richard Desmond

Boris Johnson has full confidence in the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, Downing Street has insisted, despite fresh revelations about his relationship with the billionaire property developer Richard Desmond, in documents published this week.

Pressed about Jenrick’s role in rushing through a decision on the development, allowing Desmond to avoid a £45m payment under the community infrastructure levy, Johnson’s official spokesman signalled that No 10 had no concerns.

“Robert Jenrick has set out his account in public and to parliament, including publishing the relevant documentation, and in the light of this account the prime minister considers the matter closed,” he said.

Johnson’s spokesman went on to give the same statement, repeatedly, in response to a string of other questions about Jenrick’s role in approving the housing development in east London, and his relationship with Desmond.

Asked whether Johnson continued to have full confidence in Jenrick, he said, “yep”.

Asked specifically whether Johnson had discussed the row with Jenrick, the spokesman said: “The PM speaks to his cabinet colleagues all the time, and has spoken to the communities secretary in recent days.”

The bundle of documents, released to the communities select committee on Wednesday after Labour threatened to force a vote on the issue, revealed that Jenrick gave Desmond his phone number, after the pair sat next to each other at a Tory fundraising dinner in November.

Desmond then lobbied the minister, telling him a decision was urgent because “we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!”

Emails from officials suggest Jenrick did seek to expedite the approval of the scheme, with one message saying “on timing, my understanding is that SoS [the secretary of state: Jenrick] 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”.

Clive Betts, the Labour MP who chairs the housing select committee, said the documents left a series of questions unanswered.

Betts said Jenrick had given parliament the impression that his contact with the property developer ended after meeting him at a fundraising dinner in November.

However, documents released on Wednesday night showed they had “extensive” contact afterwards and raises further questions about the minister’s propriety, Betts said.

Betts told the Guardian: “The committee may well ask the minister to come to talk to us again and write and ask him for more information. The thing that surprised me was the continued connection and exchange of texts [with Desmond] after the dinner. The impression that he gave yesterday was he saw him at the dinner, saw a bit of video and that was it. That was clearly not what happened,” he said.

Betts said that he was shocked to see that Jenrick had apparently entertained the possibility of going to visit the site.

“The arrangements to go on site would have not been appropriate and he seems to have realised that. There does appear to have been an error of judgment over his involvement,” he said.

He said the committee could launch an inquiry into when ministers should withdraw from planning decisions. “We should look at when ministers should withdraw from involvement once they have been lobbied, to ensure that there is not even an appearance of being susceptible to lobbying. In planning matters, appearances are important,” he said.

A business minister, Nadhim Zahawi, sought to defend Jenrick on Thursday, insisting there was no “smoking gun”.

But he unintentionally fuelled controversy about Jenrick’s behaviour, appearing to suggest it was legitimate for planning issues to be raised at Conservative party events.

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.”

Asked about Zahawi’s comments, Betts said: “It ought to be made clear that there is no connection between donation and planning permissions.”

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 had later to quash his own approval, conceding that the decision was unlawful.

Asked whether anyone else in No 10 had met Desmond, or discussed the proposed development, the spokesman said: “No one in No10 discussed the appeal with Mr Desmond or the applicant. No 10 had no involvement with the secretary of state’s appeal decision.”


Heather Stewart and Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
No 10 distances itself from Robert Jenrick over planning row
Richard Desmond contradicts housing secretary’s version of events at party fundraiser

Peter Walker Political correspondent

22, Jun, 2020 @1:22 PM

Article image
The Robert Jenrick planning row explained
Housing secretary’s approval of £1bn development has come under increasing scrutiny

Heather Stewart and Rajeev Syal

24, Jun, 2020 @7:17 PM

Article image
The three housing controversies Robert Jenrick is facing down
What exactly are the issues keeping the once barely known UK communities secretary in the headlines?

Peter Walker Political correspondent

25, Jun, 2020 @3:08 PM

Article image
Robert Jenrick: why are there calls for inquiry into minister?
Housing secretary is at centre of ‘cash-for-favours concerns’ over east London development

Henry McDonald

15, Jun, 2020 @8:35 PM

Article image
Robert Jenrick under pressure to resign after donor-row documents released
Housing secretary ‘insisted’ planning decision for £1bn development should be rushed through

Rajeev Syal and Heather Stewart

25, Jun, 2020 @8:58 AM

Article image
Labour quizzes PM on planning decision that saved Tory donor £40m
Boris Johnson asked to disclose any contact with donor Richard Desmond prior to housing minister overruling council

Peter Walker and Heather Stewart

17, Jun, 2020 @5:18 PM

Article image
Robert Jenrick ducks Commons question on planning intervention
Government urged to explain why communities secretary approved billionaire’s scheme

Peter Walker Political correspondent

11, Jun, 2020 @4:17 PM

Article image
Robert Jenrick says he regrets dining with donor before planning decision
Housing secretary says there was no bias in approval of Richard Desmond’s Westferry scheme

Simon Murphy Political correspondent

22, Jul, 2020 @11:55 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on Robert Jenrick and the planning row: Tories and their friends | Editorial
Editorial: The minister admits he acted unlawfully over Richard Desmond’s case. But questions remain unanswered


24, Jun, 2020 @5:56 PM

Article image
Labour calls on Robert Jenrick to make statement over billionaire's donation
Richard Desmond gave money to Tories shortly after housing secretary intervened in planning decision

Peter Walker Political correspondent

10, Jun, 2020 @3:46 PM