Robert Jenrick facing fresh questions over Tory donor planning row after 'explosive' documents released
The Communities Secretary has been under pressure over the Westferry printworks development. (PA)
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick must explain "explosive" new documents on his contact with a Conservative donor whose property development he controversially approved, Labour have said.
The Cabinet minister's opposite number Steve Reed said Mr Jenrick needed to come back to the House of Commons to explain "discrepancies" in his account of the Westferry planning row after the fresh batch of files was handed to MPs.
Mr Jenrick has been at the centre of a political storm over the east London housing project, which was initially given the green-light by Mr Jenrick 12 days before its developer Richard Desmond donated thousands to the Conservative Party.
In a decision later deemed “unlawful”, the development was approved over the objections of the local council and planning inspector.
Mr Jenrick came out fighting on Wednesday afternoon, telling the House of Commons that Labour were making “wild accusations and baseless innuendo” about his contact with Mr Desmond.
And he said the decision to approve the project - a move Labour say could saved the developer millions by avoiding an incoming local levy - was "taken with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process".
The batch of correspondence, released to the Commons Communities Committee on Wednesday night, details exchanges between Mr Jenrick and Mr Desmond - including on November 18, when the pair were seated together at a Conservative fundraiser.
A text message from Mr Jenrick on the day of the fundraising event said: “Good to spend time with you tonight Richard. See you again soon I hope."
Mr Desmond replied: “Thanks Robert I really appreciate your text Will call your office tomorrow to arrange Very best.”
Meanwhile an email from an official in the Department, sent two days later, said Mr Jenrick had "flagged a case in Westferry Docklands (redevelopment of a printworks or something like that?)".
They added: "He understands a ministerial decision on this is likely to be coming up soon and also that there may be some sensitivity with timing on final decision.
"Given this he has asked that advice be prepared for the first few days of the new Gov so a decision can be made and communicated before xmas.”
On that same day, Mr Desmond said a site visit had been arranged for the development - and, in an apparent reference to Tower Hamlets council, the media and property mogul added: "Good news finally the inspectors reports have gone to you today, we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!"
That prompted a reply from Mr Jenrick in which he said: “Richard. As Secretary of State it is important not to give any appearance of being influenced by applicants of cases that I may have a role in or to have predetermined them and so I think it is best that we don’t meet until after the matter has been decided …”
A message from Mr Desmond on December 23 enquiring about the planning decision - and warning that the site would need approval "before January 15 otherwise payment of 45 million pounds to tower hamlets" then went without reply from the Communities Secretary, the documents show.
But, on January 9, an email from a Ministry of Housing official said the department had "to provide reasoning … as to justify why the SoS [Jenrick] is going against the recc [recommendation] of inspector and officials".
They added: "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 [community investment levy] regime."
'COME TO THE HOUSE'
The publication of the fresh documents was pounced on by Mr Reed, the Shadow Communities Secretary, who had used a Commons debate earlier to demand their publication.
He said: "These explosive new revelations show clear discrepancies between what the Secretary of State told the House of Commons and what appears in the official documents."
The Labour frontbencher added: "The documents clearly show that Mr Jenrick did not notify officials immediately after his meeting with Mr Desmond; rather than 'closing down' the discussion as he claims, he initiated contact with Mr Desmond by text message the following day; and it confirms that he rushed through the decision specifically to help the developer avoid a £30-50m levy payable to the local council for infrastructure in one of the poorest local authorities in England.
"The Housing Secretary needs to come to the House to explain these discrepancies as a matter of urgency: the public must be reassured that there is not one rule for the Conservatives and their wealthy donors and another rule for everyone else."
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP who is running to be the party's next leader, meanwhile urged Mr Jenrick to quit.
She said: "Robert Jenrick's position is now completely untenable. These documents are further evidence that he rushed through this planning decision to help a Tory donor avoid paying millions in tax.
"This whole grubby saga netted the Conservative party only £12,000, but could have helped Richard Desmond save up to £50 million.
"The public will be appalled at what looks like a clear abuse of power. Robert Jenrick must go and the Conservative Party must hand back this donation."
Defending the decision in the Commons on Wednesday, Mr Jenrick took aim at Mr Reed, 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.”