A minister has claimed he had ‘no idea’ how a Tory donor and property developers ended up seated next to the housing secretary at a Conservative Party dinner, shortly before approving the development of 1,500 homes that was said to be worth £1 billion.
The Westferry Printworks redevelopment scheme in east London was controversially approved in January by housing minister Robert Jenrick against the recommendation of a planning inspector, although the decision has since been reversed after legal action by Tower Hamlets Council – which had voiced concerns over the size of the development when the plans were first submitted in 2018.
In a statement in May, the local authority said the ‘timing of the decision appeared to show bias’ by the cabinet minister as it was made a day before new infrastructure charges came into force, allowing the developer – former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell firm – to avoid paying between £30 million and £50 million extra to the council.
Labour has accused Jenrick of making the decision after he dined with Desmond ‘at a glitzy fundraising dinner’, and called on the minister to answer an urgent question in the House of Commons.
But instead he sent a junior minister to respond to the opposition’s concerns.
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Labour’s Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi asked: ‘Did major Tory Party donor Mr Desmond ask to sit next to (Jenrick) at the Conservative party dinner on the table where, by a mere coincidence according to accounts, was seated other developers involved in the scheme?
‘Mr Desmond himself has admitted that they discussed the scheme over dinner but (Mr Jenrick) says they didn’t. So I’ll ask (Pincher), who out of the two is misleading the British people?’
Housing minister Chris Pincher responded: ‘(Jenrick) has been absolutely clear – the applicant raised the issue of Westferry with him at that dinner. (Jenrick) made it absolutely clear that he could not discuss planning matters, that he would not discuss that planning matter and the issue was closed.
‘I have no idea what Mr Desmond asked for at that dinner, where he wished to be seated or whom made the decision where he was seated, and the reason why is because ministers in my department and others do not know what donations or funds are being spent by donors on political parties.
‘There is a firewall quite properly between the two.’
Shadow communities minister Steve Reed said Jenrick must answer questions about his unlawful decision, and said he must publish all correspondences he had in relation to the decision.
He told MPs: ‘By an astonishing coincidence, just two weeks after the secretary of state took his decision Mr Desmond made a generous donation of £12,000 to the Conservative party.
‘This sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favours.
‘If he wants to restore trust, the Secretary of State must immediately publish all documents and all correspondence related to this decision.
‘The public needs reassurance that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative Party fundraising dinners.’
But while Pincher had ‘no idea’ about many of the other arrangements, he insisted that a donation in relation to the Westferry permission was not discussed at the dinner.
He said: ‘He (Jenrick) has been very clear about his involvement with the applicant. I don’t think there is any further that needs to be added.
‘The applicant, I think, has paid for tickets to a Conservative Party event, that is apparently where the funds came from.
‘Ministers have no knowledge of funds which are provided to political parties through donations or through payment for tickets – these are spendings made by donors which go to parties of all persuasions. They are declared in the proper and usual way.
‘None of this is known to ministers, none of it is discussed by ministers, it certainly wasn’t discussed on this occasion.’