Cabinet minister accused of bias in £1billion planning row

Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick who is accused of bias in £1billion planning row was lobbied by the developer at a Tory fundraising dinner just weeks before approving the luxury housing project

  • The Housing Secretary last night admitted that tycoon Richard Desmond and his team raised the subject of their 1,500-home planning application with him
  • Later it emerged he had approved the £1billion application from Mr Desmond’s Northern and Shell corporation to rejuvenate part of London’s Docklands
  • It can now be revealed that the application was raised with Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick at the Tories’ annual fundraiser, the Carlton Club Political Dinner

A Cabinet Minister accused of ‘bias’ in a £1billion planning row was lobbied by the developer at a Tory fundraising dinner just weeks before approving the luxury housing project, The Mail on Sunday can reveal. 

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick last night admitted that tycoon Richard Desmond and his team raised the subject of their 1,500-home planning application with him when they were on the same table at a Conservative Party dinner last November. 

But Mr Jenrick insisted he shut the conversation down immediately. He faced calls to quit last week after it emerged he had approved the £1billion application from Mr Desmond’s Northern and Shell corporation to rejuvenate part of London’s Docklands just one day before a local council tax hike would have cost the firm an extra £40million. 

Joy Canfield and Richard Desmond at Lizzie Cundy’s ‘Tales From The Red Carpet’ book launch

In doing so, he overruled opposition from planning officials and the local council. When challenged in the High Court over apparent bias in the timing, Mr Jenrick quashed his approval for the development, called Westferry Printworks. 

However, it can now be revealed that the application was raised with Mr Jenrick at the Tories’ annual fundraiser, the Carlton Club Political Dinner, where tickets cost more than £900. 

Mr Jenrick sat next to Mr Desmond at the club in St James’s, alongside Northern and Shell’s commercial director and senior figures from Mace, the project’s construction partners. 

Last night, Mr Jenrick said Mr Desmond had talked about it, albeit briefly. 

His spokesman said: ‘They were put on the same table, although Mr Jenrick was not aware of this prior to arriving at the venue. 

Britain’s Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick speaks at the daily coronavirus outbreak news conference at 10 Downing Street

‘The developers did raise their application, but Mr Jenrick informed them that it would not be appropriate for them to discuss the matter with him, or for him to pass comment on it.’ 

The planned housing project on the site of the former Daily Express printworks on the Isle of Dogs, East London, was given the green light on January 14, eight weeks after the dinner. 

However, Mr Jenrick was accused of bias after it emerged that he had overruled advice from the Independent Planning Inspectorate and local council amid concerns that there was not enough affordable housing included in the plans. 

And there was fury that his approval came just a day before Tower Hamlets Council hiked rates on a local building tax called the Community Infrastructure Levy. 

Council officials say the timing would have saved Mr Desmond, the former owner of the Express newspaper group, between £30million and £50million. 

After legal action in March over the timing of the decision, the High Court ordered Mr Jenrick’s department to disclose documents about the deal. 

Rather than comply with this order, Mr Jenrick accepted that his original decision had been ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’, quashed his decision and said he would take no further part in decisions about the application. 

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has given the Westferry Printworks the go-ahead

Labour’s Shadow Communities Secretary Steve Reed accused Mr Jenrick of ‘wining and dining a wealthy Conservative donor just weeks before unlawfully helping him avoid a £40million tax bill’. 

He demanded that the Minister ‘urgently explain what conversations he had with Richard Desmond and whether he knew Mr Desmond stood to gain personally from his decision to the tune of tens of millions of pounds.’ 

Mr Reed said: ‘The public need to know Government Ministers are not abusing their power to do favours for billionaire friends.

‘It’s extremely unusual for a Minister to admit bias, and there are concerns he did it to stop the real reasons for his decision coming out in court. 

‘Mr Jenrick must restore public trust by coming clean.’ 

Northern and Shell did not respond to requests for comment. 

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