Robert Jenrick defends approving Tory donor’s £1bn development and dismisses lobbying claims as ‘occupational hazard’
Robert Jenrick defended his actions again around the Westferry Printworks development (Parliamentlive.TV)
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has defended approving a £1billion project which was later overturned and dismissed claims of lobbying by its Conservative-donating developer as an "occupational hazard”.
Mr Jenrick claimed any allegation of bias “is extremely unfair and, in most cases, a wilful misreading of events”.
He was grilled by MPs amid the ongoing row over the Westferry Printworks scheme put forward by Tory donor Richard Desmond.
The minister is under pressure after it was revealed he was seated next to the former newspaper mogul at a Tory fundraising dinner before giving it the green light.
Documents released by the Government also revealed the extent of the contact between the two men ahead of the decision on the 1,500-home development in east London.
Mr Jenrick had to quash his own approval and admit it was "unlawful due to apparent bias”.
But, appearing in front of the housing select committee, he said he had acted “entirely within both the actual rules and the spirit of the rules”.
He admitted the case “could have been handled differently” and that he regretted sitting next to Mr Jenrick at the dinner, where he was shown a promotional video about the scheme on the multi-millionaire’s phone.
But the Communities Secretary added: "I have also made clear that I had no idea that I was going to be sat next to him or his associates until I took my seat at the table.
"That is, to some extent, an occupational hazard of being a planning minister because people do approach you to discuss applications - not just developers but local councils, members of the public and indeed MPs."
Repeating his claim he was "very clear" to Mr Desmond it was "not appropriate for me to discuss" the Westferry plans, he said "with hindsight it would have been better not to have exchanged text messages with the applicant" afterwards.
But he said nothing the developer said to him “had any bearing on my decision whatsoever”, after suggestions the decision - which went against the advice of planning officials in his department -was timed to help save Mr Desmond millions of pounds by coming in before the introduction of a new community infrastructure levy (CIL) by the local Tower Hamlets council.
"I entirely believe that the decision was the right one, there was no bias whatsoever and any suggestion of that is extremely unfair and, in most cases, a wilful misreading of events,” he told MPs.
"But would it have been better not to have been sat next to the applicant? Yes. That wasn't my decision.
"Would it have been better not to have had text messages with him? Yes and both myself and the department will learn lessons from the experience.”
Mr Jenrick said a review into the application would decide if the planning rules needed to be tightened ahead of future similar applications.