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Thu, 2 July 2020

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Robert Jenrick agrees to publish documents in Tory donor planning row but accuses Labour of ‘baseless innuendo’

Robert Jenrick agrees to publish documents in Tory donor planning row but accuses Labour of ‘baseless innuendo’

Robert Jenrick defended his action around the Westferry Printworks development (PA)

4 min read

Robert Jenrick has caved in to Labour’s demands to publish the documentation around his unlawful decision to approve a £1billion development submitted by a Tory donor.

But the Communities Secretary hit out at Labour’s “wild accusations and baseless innuendo” about his conduct surrounding Sir Richard Desmond’s Westferry Printworks development.

In a defiant performance in the House of Commons in response to an opposition debate on the controversial planning application, he said he had made “a decision taken with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process”.

Since overruling the planning inspector and the local authority to green light the 1,500 property scheme in East London he has admitted it was unlawful “due to apparent bias”.

Labour have been asking Mr Jenrick to publish all the documents around his decision after it was revealed he was sat next to Mr Desmond at a Conservative party fundraiser weeks before approving the development.

Leading the debate the shadow communities secretary Steve Reed told the Commons the minister’s behaviour had "blown apart confidence in the planning system”.

He told MPs: "The only way to put that right is for the Secretary of State to publish the evidence about what really happened.

"If he's done nothing wrong then he's got nothing to fear.”

Mr Reed added: “Honesty is the best disinfectant for the very bad smell that hangs around this decision. 

“Today, the credibility of the planning system, and of this Secretary of State, hangs in the balance.

“We cannot allow the planning system to be auctioned off at Conservative Party fundraising dinners, there cannot be one rule for the Conservatives and billionaire donors and another rule for everyone else.”

In response Mr Jenrick said: "I will write to the chair of the select committee outlining the timeline of events and the rationale for my decision-making pertaining to the Westferry Printworks planning decision.

"Alongside this letter, and after a comprehensive review of what documents might be in scope of this motion, and of the letter that he sent me on behalf of his select committee, I will be releasing later today all relevant information relating to this planning matter using the Freedom of Information Act as a benchmark.

"I recognise that there are higher standards of transparency expected in the quasi-judicial planning process, which is why I will also release discussions and correspondence which the Government would not normally release.”

But he repeatedly attacked Mr Reed over his comments, saying: “These documents show that contrary to the wild accusations, and the baseless innuendo propagated by the honourable gentleman opposite and restated today in a series of totally inaccurate statements and comments. 

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

“It was rooted in my long standing and well-documented view that we have a generational challenge as a country that we need to meet and not shirk to build more houses in all parts of this country.”

But the Cabinet minister was forced to admit while at the Tory fundraiser, after which Mr Desmond gifted £12,000 to the party, he did watch a video about the Westferry proposals on the developer’s phone.

“I hadn't planned to have any contact with Mr Desmond prior to the event, this was the first time I had ever met him,” he explained.

"He raised the development and invited me on a site visit. I informed him that it would not be appropriate to discuss the matter and the conversation moved onto other topics. 

“After the event, we exchanged messages again, as the record will show I advised him that I was unable to discuss the application or to pass comment.

"I informed my officials of my contact with Mr Desmond and I will publish these messages for transparency. On advice from my officials, I declined the site visit.”

But despite his defence of the actions, within minutes of his announcement bookies revealed the odds on Mr Jenrick being the next Cabinet minister to leave their role had been slashed in half.

Ladbrokes said he had gone from from 6/1 to just 3/1 in response to the row, having been at 20/1 earlier this month.

Despite the furore the secretary of state is said to have the “full confidence” of Boris Johnson - however Downing Street sought to distance itself from the decision earlier this week.

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