Westferry planning row: Robert Jenrick to publish documents

Westferry planning row: Robert Jenrick to publish documents

Robert Jenrick

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Reuters

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has agreed to release documents related to a controversial planning decision, after pressure from Labour MPs.

Mr Jenrick told MPs he would publish all “relevant” information later on Wednesday.

The minister approved a housing scheme 12 days before the developer gave £12,000 to the Conservative Party.

Labour says the timing raises “cash for favours” suspicions – but Mr Jenrick insists he did nothing wrong.

Shadow communities secretary Steve Reed was pushing for a Commons vote to force the release of the paperwork, something the minister had previously refused to do.

Opening a Commons debate on the controversy, Mr Reed said the case had “blown apart” public confidence in the planning system.

“The only way to put that right is for the secretary of state to publish the evidence about what really happened,” he told MPs.

“If he has done nothing wrong, he has got nothing to fear.”

He said ministers were not allowed to take planning decisions if they have been lobbied by the applicant, or had helped to raise funds from a donor who stands to benefit from their decisions.

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PA Media

Image caption

The planned development is in London’s Docklands area

The reason for this, he added, is that it “raises questions about ‘cash for favours’, which would be a serious abuse of power”.

Mr Jenrick replied by announcing that he would publish all of the relevant documents, including details of discussions the government “would not normally release”.

‘False accusations’

He said the material would kill off “all the wild accusations and the baseless innuendo” coming from the Labour Party.

“This was a decision taken with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process,” he told MPs.

He denied claims by Labour’s Toby Perkins that he would not have published the documents without pressure from Labour and that they had been “dragged out of him”.

He said the material had taken time to pull together in response to a call from Labour MP Clive Betts, chairman of the communities and local government select committee.

“Transparency matters, openness matters and settling this matter matters because I certainly don’t want to be the subject of the innuendo and the false accusations that the Opposition are choosing to peddle,” he told MPs.

He said it was “not unusual” for ministers to “come to a different conclusion to that of a local authority” and to overrule the government’s planning inspectors.

“The cases that fall to ministers are, by their nature, highly contentious, frequently very complex and sometimes very subjective. There’s no escaping that reality.”

He added: “I stand by the decision I made. I believe passionately that Britain needs to build houses.”

The row centres around a 1,500 home development at the former Westferry printing works on the Isle of Dogs, in East London.

The developer, former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond, personally gave the Conservative Party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme was approved, in January.

Affordable housing

Labour says the timing of the decision to approve the scheme – just a day before a new community infrastructure levy came into force – would have saved Mr Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50m.

It later emerged Mr Jenrick had sat next to Mr Desmond at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner in November 2019.

Labour says Mr Jenrick also overruled his advisers to reduce the amount of affordable housing required in the development, potentially saving Mr Desmond a further £106m.

Mr Jenrick’s decision was challenged by Tower Hamlets Council, forcing the secretary of state to back down and say what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.

Councillors asked the High Court to order the government to disclose emails and memos around the deal.

Rather than doing this, Mr Jenrick’s lawyers conceded the timing of his decision “would lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility” that he had been biased.

Mr Jenrick said Mr Desmond had tried to raise the scheme with him during the dinner, and had invited him on a site visit, but that he had told the businessman he could not discuss it and declined the site visit, on the advice of his officials.

Mr Desmond told The Sunday Times last weekend that he had shown Mr Jenrick a promotional video for the scheme on his mobile phone during the fundraiser at the Savoy Hotel.

Mr Desmond did not respond to BBC requests for a comment.

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