The minister for housing and communities has denied any wrongdoing over the approval of a large development in London after meeting the developer at a Tory fundraising dinner last year.
Robert Jenrick told a parliamentary select committee on housing that he had no idea he would be sat next to Richard Desmond, an influential Tory donor and developer, at a fundraiser last November where they discussed a lucrative 1,500-home development in east London.
Jenrick approved a building application brought forward by Desmond’s company a day before the introduction of a new property tax that would have cost the developer £50 million.
The cabinet minister had since overturned the decision which he said may have been made ‘unlawfully’.
Jenrick told a panel of MPs that he had made it ‘very clear’ to Desmond, the former owner of the Express newspaper, that it was ‘not appropriate’ for them to discuss the Westferry planning application at the time.
He said: ‘There was no meeting with the applicant, I encountered him at a dinner. He mentioned the application, I told him that it was not appropriate to discuss it and I didn’t pass any comment.
‘The department were aware that I was going to the dinner, the department were aware that there was a suggestion of going on a site visit.
‘I discussed it with my officials, as to whether it was wise to go on a site visit in light of the nature of the application, in light of the fact that I had sat next to the applicant at a dinner, and my officials advised me that on balance they thought it wasn’t and so we declined it.’
He added that ‘with hindsight it would have been better not to have exchanged text messages with the applicant’ after the dinner.
‘But would it have been better not to have been sat next to the applicant? Yes. That wasn’t my decision,’ he declared.
‘Would it have been better not to have had text messages with him? Yes and both myself and the department will learn lessons from the experience.’
He also admitted that seating planning ministers next to developers was an ‘occupational hazard’ for the government.
‘I think this could have been handled differently and I regret that I was sat next to the applicant at a dinner in November,’ he said.
‘I have also made clear that I had no idea that I was going to be sat next to him or his associates until I took my seat at the table.
‘That is, to some extent, an occupational hazard of being a planning minister because people do approach you to discuss applications – not just developers but local councils, members of the public and indeed MPs.’
Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, an anti-corruption watchdog, welcomed Jenrick’s comments but insisted more had to be done to stop similar incidents from reoccurring.
‘Reports that senior Conservative MPs have held party officials to account for fundraising practices in light of the Westferry affair are welcome but this all remains behind closed doors. The party’s chairmen and fundraisers should open up about their dealings with Richard Desmond, just as the housing secretary has done.
‘Transparency over lobbying is critical to providing greater confidence in the integrity of major government decisions, yet political access and influence at Westminster remains woefully opaque.
‘This affair demonstrates that until a concerted effort is made to bring UK lobbying and political access out of the shadows, this sort of controversy will continue to blight ministers and undermine public trust in politicians.’
Jenrick is under pressure after documents released by the government revealed the extent of the contact between him and Desmond before the minister signed off on the 1,500-home Westferry Printworks scheme in east London.