Far from putting an end to the matter, the release by Robert Jenrick of some of his papers relating to the Westferry development scandal has only generated more questions for him to answer.
The papers would have been released under Freedom of Information laws anyway; yet he still refuses the full disclosure that Labour has been demanding. The question must now be why?
The Westferry affair is complicated and labyrinthine, with many twists and turns. However, one big truth has emerged from Labour scrutiny: the minister responsible for taking the decision over a multi-million-pound planning application sat next to the billionaire developer and his associates at a fundraising dinner, and was shown a promotional video for the scheme.
Mr Jenrick subsequently took a timed decision which materially benefited the developer Mr Richard Desmond, by some estimates to the tune of £50 million, and at the same time deprived our cash-strapped local authority of the same amount.
Tower Hamlets Council had unanimously rejected billionaire Desmond’s new proposals, which clearly prioritised the developer’s purse over providing for residents. By reducing the ratio of “affordable homes” from 35% to 21%, Mr Desmond saved £106 million. So the local community has been denied over £150 million worth of affordable homes, surgeries, schools and shops. This disgraceful situation was made public thanks to the relentless campaigning and championing of local people and by Tower Hamlets Deputy Mayor Rachel Blake, and the Mayor, John Biggs along with other local Councillors.
When Labour hauled Mr Jenrick in front of the Commons yesterday, we witnessed a weapons-grade attempt at deflection and obfuscation. Tory MP after Tory MP sought to blame Tower Hamlets council. All Tower Hamlets councillors, representing our local communities, have ever wanted to do is see more affordable homes, shops and schools for local workers and families, and not titanic Manhattan-style skyscrapers for oligarchs and hedge fund managers. The luxury flats on offer not only price out local communities, their eye-watering price tags also stretch the budgets of high-earners in the City and Canary Wharf.
Robert Jenrick should examine his conscience, take a deep breath, and resign.
Mr Jenrick’s contortions were presented as paragons of ethical behaviour. He claimed over and over again the Tom Jones defence: It’s not unusual, he claimed, for Ministers to ignore the advice of their planning inspectors, to sit with billionaires over Savoy dinners and watch slick videos about planning applications, and to admit to acting unlawfully but then carry on in ministerial office regardless.
This is certainly a breach of the ministerial code. Yesterday’s papers also drag the senior civil service into the matter, and run the risk of the politicisation of the civil service.
On the Today Programme this morning, the business minister Nadhim Zahawi seemed to suggest that local Conservative fundraisers, in Doncaster for example, are regularly witness to local people lobbying their MPs over planning applications. This appears to be a brazen admission that Tory fundraising dinners are organised for lobbyists to meet ministers and MPs reviving the question of cash for access.
The plain truth is that it is all highly unusual. Highly irregular, indeed. That’s why the Leader of the Conservative group on Tower Hamlets council resigned from his office and his party, citing directly Robert Jenrick’s behaviour and calling for a police investigation.
That’s why the journalists of the Times and Daily Mail, no less, have pursued the story. That’s why my colleague Steve Reed MP, the Shadow Communities Secretary, has tirelessly sought the truth. As the former leader of Lambeth council, he knows the planning laws backwards, and he recognises that on Westferry something smells rotten.
Robert Jenrick should examine his conscience, take a deep breath, and resign. However the real tragedy is not Mr Jenrick’s hubris but that once again the communities of the East End have been left high and dry by property developers cutting corners and seeking a swift return.
Still our local residents are living in tower blocks with Grenfell-style cladding, which the Government has not yet paid to have removed. Tower Hamlets has one of the highest numbers of high-rise buildings with ACM cladding in the country, and there are over 20,000 people on the housing waiting list.
Despite valiant efforts by the local council, the area is blighted by overcrowding and poor-quality accommodation. Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of child poverty in the country, with nearly six out of ten children living in households suffering from the debilitating effects of poverty.
The Westferry scandal reveals yet again that some property developers are like sharks scenting blood in the water, seeking to take advantage of surging real estate values in our area. They come, they build, they create glittering towers filled with million-pound apartments, and having made a killing, they swim silently away, scattering a few crumbs in the direction of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. Surely the East End deserves better than this.
Rushanara Ali is Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.
Tories ban BBC publishing photos of Robert Jenrick and billionaire property developer at party fundraising dinner
The Conservatives have banned the BBC from publishing pictures of Robert Jenrick and Richard Desmond at a party fundraising dinner.
It comes amid the row over property developer Desmond’s £1bn, 1,500-home scheme on the Isle of Dogs in east London, which communities secretary Jenrick signed off in January after contact with Desmond.
The BBC said it obtained separate pictures of Desmond and Jenrick at a prior Savoy Hotel dinner in which Boris Johnson spoke.
The pictures are owned by Conservative Party, with the BBC saying it was prevented from publishing them.
A spokeswoman for the corporation told Yahoo News UK on Thursday: “We didn’t use them for legal reasons.”
This website approached the Conservative Party to ask why it wouldn’t let the BBC publish the pictures, but has not received a response.
It comes as Johnson continues to stand by Jenrick.
Downing Street said on Thursday that the prime minister still has “full confidence” in Jenrick, adding Johnson had spoken to the embattled minister in recent days and “considers the matter closed”.
Jenrick is nonetheless fighting to keep his job after documents revealed the extent of contact between himself and Desmond before signing off the Westferry Printworks scheme.
In the process, Jenrick overruled the decisions of both Tower Hamlets Council and a planning inspector.
Jenrick and Desmond exchanged text messages following a meeting at a Conservative Party fundraising event in November last year.
Officials in Jenrick’s department described him as being “insistent” that the project be given the green light before a new levy added millions to the cost.
Desmond donated £12,000 to the Tories two weeks after Westferry was approved by Jenrick.
In May, Jenrick ultimately quashed his own approval, conceding the decision was “unlawful” due to “apparent bias”.
However, the row has continued to drag on, with Jenrick under growing pressure following the release of the documents.
After Downing Street restated its backing for Jenrick, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: “Here we go again the untouchables – the old boys network covering for each other. Disgusting! This isn’t a government it’s a farce. Not a spot of integrity amongst them.”
The party called on Jenrick to return to the House of Commons to explain his links with Desmond in the light of the documents, and to publish all the unreleased material relating to the case.
– This article first appeared on Yahoo
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick still has questions to answer over his role in a planning case involving a Tory donor, Sir Keir Starmer has said.
The Labour leader told the BBC the matter was “far from closed” but stopped short of calling for the minister’s resignation.
Mr Jenrick is under fire after granting permission for a luxury housing development to donor Richard Desmond.
Downing Street said the PM had full confidence in the minister.
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.
Twelve days after the decision Mr Desmond, the former owner of the Daily Express, gave £12,000 to the Conservative Party. Mr Jenrick said he had no knowledge of the 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 Sir Keir Starmer told the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg: “We want straight answers on this, and I think the public do, they can tell that something’s wrong here.”
He added there were “discrepancies” between the documents published by Mr Jenrick and the account of events he gave to MPs on Wednesday.
He said the matter was now at the stage “where the prime minister’s judgement is an issue”.
He renewed calls for the UK’s top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill – who has said he is satisfied with Mr Jenrick’s account of events – to investigate whether he broke the guidelines for ministerial conduct.
On Thursday the PM’s spokesman said No 10 had had “no involvement” in Mr Jenrick’s decision to green-light the scheme.
Labour has written to Mr Jenrick demanding he publish additional documents beyond those he released 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.
In a letter, Labour’s shadow communities secretary Steve Reed called for him to publish documents beyond the scope of the Act “in the interests of transparency”.
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.
Notably, Labour is not calling for Robert Jenrick to resign and the prime minister says the case is closed.
So, for now at least, Mr Jenrick appears safe.
Mr Desmond had been lobbying for the proposed 1,500-home 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!”
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 £40 million for the levy.
Business Minister Nahim Zahawi said Mr Jenrick had been motivated by a “getting stuff built”.
“But when there was a perception of bias, he pulled back on this, pulled the plug on it and will now allow a different minister to decide the scheme. The access didn’t buy this billionaire a decision.”
John Biggs, Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets said: ”The revelations about the Westferry printworks decision have blown apart confidence in our planning system under Mr Jenrick.
“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.
”The Minister referred to our borough as ‘rotten’, and messages from the developer called our council ‘Marxist’.
“This name calling says more about them and their disregard for my residents whose borough it is, and who rightly want much needed affordable homes and money for local services.”