Boris Johnson has been accused of openly discussing a controversial housing scheme with a property developer at the centre of an ongoing political scandal during a lunch in 2010 when he was mayor of London.
The i newspaper claimed its editor, David Parsley, was present at a business lunch where Johnson discussed the development with property tycoon Richard Desmond.
Parsley says he sat ‘directly opposite’ Desmond and the mayor when the project was brought up in conversation.
‘As we tucked into the main course Mr Desmond took the opportunity to raise a topic close to his heart at the time. He told Mr Johnson that he had 15 acres of prime development land on the Isle of Dogs in East London,’ city editor David Parsley wrote.
According to the newspaper, Desmond told Johnson that the Westferry Printworks scheme – a 1,500-home development in London’s Docklands – was a ‘prime residential development site’ and asked how he could obtain planning permission ‘without spending loads of money’.
Sources at the lunch claim Johnson showed an ‘interest’, recommending Desmond – who was the owner of the Express newspapers at the time and held the event at its office – contact planning officials at the Greater London Authority and the London borough of Tower Hamlets for advice on how to proceed.
Parsley claims that five years later, Johnson, who was about to step back as mayor, put his ‘right-hand man Sir Edward Lister on the case’. A smaller version of the build was subsequently approved in 2015.
Johnson has stringently denied any involvement in the planning application process, however reports emerged that he met with Desmond three time before the scheme was approved.
A spokesman for the prime minister said: ‘We have been clear that neither the prime minister nor No 10 have been involved in this Westferry planning application and appeal.
‘The then mayor of London did consider a previous planning application with due process and a fair hearing in 2016 – all the papers are in the public domain. The mayor made his decision based on the material planning considerations and with an open mind.’
Asked if he could confirm the meeting, Desmond told the i: ‘Honestly, you’re talking about 10 years ago. At that lunch there were 15 or 20 people. You should put that in context.’
‘I’m sure I did [meet Mr Johnson]. You know, I’ve met Mr [David] Cameron many times. I’ve met Mr [Ed] Miliband many times, and I’ve met Mr [Gordon] Brown many times. We’ve met them all. That is what we’re supposed to do isn’t it, meet these people?’ he added.
The London development has caused considerable headaches for the government. Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has been embroiled in claims that he granted a doubling of the size of the build hours before a property tax hike came into force that would have cost Desmond’s Northern & Shell business £50 million.
Newspapers claim the minister overruled his own advisors and a planning inspector to approve the project in January this year and that he was approached about the scheme during a Tory fundraiser in November 2019. Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party weeks after the approval.
There is no suggestion that planning was granted due to anything discussed at the 2010 meeting.