UK Politics

Robert Jenrick: Labour calls for inquiry into Westferry planning row

Robert Jenrick Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Robert Jenrick is under fire after granting permission for a luxury housing development to a Tory donor

Labour is calling for an investigation into Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick's conduct, amid a row over his role in a planning case involving a Tory donor.

The party wants the parliamentary commissioner for standards to consider whether Mr Jenrick broke the code of conduct for MPs.

Mr Jenrick is under fire after granting permission for a luxury housing development to donor Richard Desmond.

A spokesperson for the minister said Labour's call was "spurious".

The UK's top civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, has rejected Labour's call for an inquiry into whether Mr Jenrick broke the code of conduct for government ministers.

But the party believes the housing secretary still has to questions to answer about whether he showed favouritism towards Mr Desmond.

Mr Jenrick says he was motivated by a desire to see more homes built when he overruled government inspectors to give the green light to Mr Desmond's plans for a 1,500-home development at the former Westferry printing works, in London's Isle of Dogs, in January.

Twelve days after the decision Mr Desmond, the former owner of the Daily Express, gave £12,000 to the Conservative Party.

Mr Jenrick, who sat next to Mr Desmond at a Tory fundraising event in November 2019, said he had no knowledge of the businessman's donation and had acted on the "merits" of the case throughout.

On Wednesday, Downing Street said Boris Johnson now considered the matter "closed" after Mr Jenrick published details of his contacts with Mr Desmond.

But in a letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone, Labour said it was "concerned" that Mr Jenrick had "not lived up to" the principles of the code of conduct "in his actions in the Westferry case".

Shadow communities and local government secretary Steve Reed said there were "still so many unanswered questions" and there had been "clear breaches of the ministerial code".

He said the government "must publish all the remaining secret documents in this case" beyond those Mr Jenrick released on Wednesday.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has responsibility for investigation claims that an MP has broken a code of conduct and the rules associated with it. This includes, for example, the registration and declaration of financial interests.

A spokesperson for Mr Jenrick said: "This letter from the Labour Party is unfounded, spurious and vexatious.

"The secretary of state has publicly set out a full account of his rationale for approving the planning appeal, and published all of the relevant documents for complete transparency.

"He has been clear that his decision was made with an open and fair mind."

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Media captionSir Keir Starmer on Robert Jenrick: “He says the matter is closed, but it’s far from closed.”

On Thursday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the BBC the matter was "far from closed" but stopped short of calling for the minister's resignation.

He said there were "discrepancies" between the documents published by Mr Jenrick and the account of events he gave to MPs on Wednesday.

Mr Jenrick had said he would use the Freedom of Information Act as a "benchmark" to release "all ​relevant information" about the planning application.

The UK's top civil servant, Sir Mark Sedwill - who would investigate any allegations relating to breaches of the ministerial code - has said he is satisfied with Mr Jenrick's account of events.

Downing Street said Boris Johnson had had no involvement in the Westferry decision, after the Daily Mail published a picture of the prime minister and Mr Desmond together at the November fundraising dinner.

The PM's official spokesman said: "The prime minister has not discussed this Westferry planning application or appeal with either Mr Desmond or his representatives. Nor has anyone else in No 10. Any suggestion to the contrary is completely false."

A billionaire with a planning problem finds himself sitting next to the cabinet minister responsible for planning, at a Conservative fundraising dinner.

The two later exchange texts and planning permission is granted in the nick of time, just before the developer would have found himself on the hook for a whopping tax bill.

The billionaire then makes a donation - albeit a small one - to the Conservative Party.

Little wonder this has caused Labour and others to ask loads of questions about what on earth was going on.

It looks bad. That's not my judgement - but that of Robert Jenrick.

Mr Jenrick changed his mind and rescinded the planning permission, as it was "unlawful by reason of apparent bias".

Note the word "apparent."

The minister insists he wasn't biased, he declined to visit the proposed building site, and he has always been committed to and driven by ensuring more houses are built.

Oh, and there is still no permission for the building work to start.

Mr Desmond had been lobbying for the proposed development to be approved before the local council, Tower Hamlets, introduced a new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) to pay for local services.

In a text message to Mr Jenrick in November 2019, with an apparent reference to the Labour council, Mr Desmond wrote: "...we appreciate the speed as we don't want to give Marxists a load of doe [sic] for nothing!"

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Media captionRobert Jenrick announces publication of the documents

In one of the papers, a civil servant wrote: "On timing, my understanding is that the SoS is/was insistent that the decision issued this week i.e. tomorrow - as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by the change in London CIL."

Mr Jenrick approved the scheme on 14 January, by which Mr Desmond avoided paying £40m for the levy.

John Biggs, Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: "The documents he was forced to release are damning and it looks like he rushed through the decision to help save the developer money and short-change my residents."