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Mon, 19 October 2020

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Tory dinner did not ‘buy Richard Desmond a decision’ in Robert Jenrick planning row, minister says

Tory dinner did not ‘buy Richard Desmond a decision’ in Robert Jenrick planning row, minister says

Property developer Richard Desmond sat next to Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick at a fundraising dinner in November. (PA)

3 min read

A Conservative fundraising dinner did not buy billionaire Tory donor Richard Desmond “a decision” from Robert Jenrick over a controversial property development, minister Nadhim Zahawi has said.

The Business Minister defended the Communities Secretary amid mounting pressure over his contact with Mr Desmond, and said ordinary voters could “interact” with Conservative MPs and councillors at fundraising events too.

He told the Today programme: “If people go to a fundraiser in their local area in Doncaster for the Conservative Party they'd be sitting next to MPs, and other people in their local authorities. People can interact with different parts of that authority.

“The important thing by the way [is] — the access didn't buy this billionaire a decision.”

Mr Jenrick has been under scrutiny for initially giving the green-light to the Westferry printworks development backed by Mr Desmond despite objections from the local council and planning inspector.

Mr Desmond, the former owner of the Express newspaper, later donated thousands to the Conservative Party, and was seated next to the Communities Secretary at a Tory fundraising dinner in November.

Documents released on Wednesday night detail interactions between the pair as well as messages from officials in Mr Jenrick’s department on the printworks plan.

The Cabinet minister has defended his conduct, and told MPs on Wednesday that Labour were pushing “wild accusations and baseless innuendo” about his contact with the billionaire.

Mr Zahawi told the Today Programme on Thursday: “The Secretary very clearly... said to Richard Desmond, ‘I can't see you. I cannot have this meeting’.

“So, you know, you have to also be fair and make that clear that yes, of course there was access, because there was a dinner party that Robert Jenrick didn't know he was going to sit next to Richard Desmond in.

“But that Robert Jenrick also said, in those messages that he released by promising the select committee he would release them said, ‘I can't have this meeting.’”

The messages released on Wednesday show Mr Jenrick texted Mr Desmond after the dinner, saying it was “good to spend time with you”.

Two days later, an official in the department said Mr Jenrick had “flagged a case in Westferry Docklands“ and asked for advice to be prepared on a decision.

In an apparent reference to Tower Hamlets council, Mr Desmond, who Labour say stood to benefit from a decision being made before he became liable for a new local charge, told Mr Jenrick that he did not “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."

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