Housing minister Robert Jenrick is under pressure to resign after newly released text messages and emails indicate that he was “insistent” a planning application be allowed just in time to save its Tory donor backer up to £50 million.
Jenrick’s decision allowed former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond to avoid paying the sum, overruling both Tower Hamlets Council and a planning inspector. The minister later reversed the decision following legal action by Tower Hamlets Council.
Jenrick was forced to admit that what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”. Here’s what the latest documents reveal:
Desmond pressured Jenrick to save him money
The housing secretary approved the controversial housing development after receiving a text message from Desmond telling him that delays would “cost £45 million”.
After the pair met at a Tory fundraising dinner on 18 November in which Desmond showed Jenrick pictures of the planned development on his phone, the two exchanged a number of texts, reports The Guardian.
On 20 November, Desmond texted Jenrick saying: “Your efficient PA has arranged a meeting for 19 December at 10.30am for meet and site visit. 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 for nothing!
“We all want to go with the scheme and the social housing we have proposed and spent a month at the Marxist town hall debating, thanks again, all my best, Richard.”
Desmond followed up with Jenrick on 23 December, but the minister didn’t reply: “Morning Robert How does the advice look? We have to get the approval before January 15 otherwise payment of 45 million pounds to tower hamlets meaning we have to stop and reduce social housing Thanks Robert look forward to speaking soon Best Richard”
Jenrick rushed the decision through
On 9 January, an email from a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) official says: “We have to provide reasoning…as to justify why the SoS [Jenrick] is going against the recc [recommendation] of inspector and officials. That is what we have tried to do.”
“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.”
An email on 14 January appears to show that Jenrick was keen to get the decision passed quickly, says Sky News. An MHCLG official writes that they needed confirmation “by 5pm” to “avoid any criticism that the decision was not received within office hours”.
Less than twenty minutes before the deadline, at 4.41pm, the decision was finally approved by Jenrick’s office, reports The Telegraph.
Jenrick was worried about getting caught
After Desmond’s text railing against the “Marxists” in Tower Hamlets council, Jenrick appears to change his tone.
He replies saying: “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…”
On 22 January, Jenrick texts Desmond again saying: “Richard I hope you understood that I could not speak with you or have contact whilst I was making my decision with respect to the planning application at Westferry ‐ which was why I did not return your messages. Best wishes Robert”.
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The government is backing Jenrick
A letter written by civil service boss Mark Sedwill, addressed to Labour’s shadow communities secretary Steve Reed in reply to his questions on the Westferry planning decision, says Boris Johnson considers the matter “closed”.
Sedwill wrote that Jenrick had “set out a full and factual account” of his actions, adding: “In light of this account, the prime minister considers that the matter is closed.”
When asked previously if Jenrick had done the right thing, the prime minister replied: “As far as I know, of course he did.”
Business Secretary Alok Sharma also backed Jenrick, telling Sky News that the housing minister’s “intention was to get more homes built in London and the rest of the country and that should be the focus, rightly so.
“I think the matter is considered to be over. This government has been more transparent on this than any previous government on any planning issue.”