Housing secretary Robert Jenrick faces calls to resign after documents revealed he was ‘insistent’ a controversial development was agreed before a new levy would cost its Tory donor backer millions.
The minister has faced accusations of ‘cash for favours’ after it emerged ex-Daily Express owner Richard Desmond had personally given the Conservative Party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme for 1,500 homes was approved.
Jenrick originally approved the development plan in January 2020, overruling both Tower Hamlets Council and a planning inspector.
He subsequently reversed the ruling following legal action by the council, admitting that what he did was ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’.
A stash of documents and texts released after pressure from the opposition showed multi-millionaire Tory donor Richard Desmond urged Jenrick to approve the east London development scheme so that ‘Marxists’ did not get ‘doe for nothing’.
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This is believed to be a reference to the introduction of a new community infrastructure levy (CIL) just after the approval of the £1 billion Westferry Printworks development was made.
Labour claim the move would have saved former media mogul Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50 million.
In a raft of information relating to the issue released by the government, a Housing Ministry official indicated the secretary of state (SoS) wanted Westferry to be signed off and approved the following day so that it would avoid the CIL.
It stated: ‘On timing, my understanding is that SoS 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.’
The documents show that in a text to Desmond on November 18 after spending time with him at a Tory fund raising event event, Jenrick said: ‘Good to spend time with you tonight Richard. See you again soon I hope.’
Desmond replied: ‘Thanks Robert I really appreciate your text Will call your office tomorrow to arrange Very best.’
In a text two days later regarding the development, Desmond said: ‘We appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe for nothing!
‘We all want to go with the scheme and the social housing we have proposed and spent a month at the Marxist town hall debating, thanks again, all my best Richard.’
Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat spokesman for Communities, Housing and Local Government, and ex-party leader, called on Jenrick to quit over the controversy.
‘Jenrick’s calculated decision to push through a huge development just in time to save a party donor millions exposes something rotten at the heart of this Conservative government,’ he told the PA News Agency.
‘Yet again we are seeing Tory ministers show it is one rule for them and their cronies, and another for everyone else.
‘Given the minister has accepted that his decision to sign off the project was unlawful, he should also accept that he is unfit to continue to serve in that role and resign immediately.’
However, Boris Johnson considers the matter ‘closed’, according to the head of the civil service, Sir Mark Sedwill.
His comments came in a letter which was sent to Labour’s shadow communities secretary Steve Reed in response to his questions on what basis the Housing Secretary approved the development and what contact he had with the developer.
Sir Mark wrote that Jenrick had ‘set out a full and factual account’ of his actions, adding: ‘In light of this account, the Prime Minister considers that the matter is closed.’
Chairman of the Commons liaison committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin, said he thought Jenrick would survive the calls for him to resign.
When asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether Jenrick would remain in his job, the senior Tory MP said: ‘Yes I do.’
He went on to call it a ‘very partisan spat’ and noted that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer ‘didn’t go for Jenrick in the Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday’.
Sir Bernard conceded that the public ‘don’t like the idea of ministers and rich businessmen cosying up together’ but added: ‘Clearly there has been a little bit of a mistake and a decision had to be rescinded but there is no sign of actual maladministration.
‘In these things, what happens next depends on whether anything new comes out.
‘It looks as if he has put everything on the table. I suspect the storm will pass.’