Robert Jenrick: What did housing secretary do and why are there calls for him to quit?

·5-min read

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is facing calls to resign over his role in a controversial £1bn development proposed by a Conservative Party donor.

Sky News explains the row and why it has been generating headlines in recent days.

What is the controversy about?

The Westferry Printworks redevelopment scheme for 1,500 homes in east London was given the green light in January.

Mr Jenrick's decision went against the recommendation of a planning inspector.

Tower Hamlets Council took legal action over the decision, with approval for the development eventually reversed.

Why is the minister under pressure to quit?

Mr Jenrick's decision to approve the scheme was taken a day before new infrastructure charges came into force.

This allowed the developer, former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond's Northern and Shell firm, to avoid paying between £30-£50m extra to the council.

Tower Hamlets Council has said the "timing of the decision appeared to show bias" by Mr Jenrick.

Labour has accused the minister of taking the decision following a "glitzy fundraising dinner" with Mr Desmond in November 2019.

Two weeks after the scheme was approved, records from the Electoral Commission show that Mr Desmond personally gave £12,000 to the Conservatives.

Mr Jenrick was sat next to Mr Desmond at the dinner, with the Sunday Times reporting that he showed the minister a promotional video for the development.

"What I did was I showed him the video," Mr Desmond told the newspaper, adding that Mr Jenrick watched it for about "three or four minutes".

According to Mr Desmond, Mr Jenrick replied: "I'm sorry Richard. I can't discuss it."

Mr Jenrick has said he did not discuss the scheme with Mr Desmond and has told MPs he acted in "good faith" and "within the rules".

Sky News has previously contacted Northern and Shell for a comment, as well as Mr Desmond, but did not receive a response.

What else has emerged?

In recent weeks, Labour has been calling for "full transparency" from the government.

The party demanded that all correspondence Mr Jenrick had in relation to the Westferry Printworks decision be published, saying the "sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favours".

A tranche of papers were released on Tuesday.

They show the housing secretary was "insistent" the planning application be allowed just in time to save Mr Desmond up to £50m.

The documents reveal an official in his department recorded he wanted approval to be given to the development.

A partly redacted email sent on 9 January said the minister "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 Infrastructure Levy] regime".

New texts between the pair also emerged as part of the bundle of documents.

They show Mr Jenrick texted Mr Desmond on 18 November 2019 saying: "Good to spend time with you tonight Richard. See you again soon I hope."

In another exchange two days later, Mr Desmond tried to arrange a meeting with the housing secretary on 19 December, as well as a site visit to the Westferry Printworks, complaining about having to deal with "Marxists".

He wrote: "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."

Mr Jenrick replied, declining a meeting until after a decision had been made due to his position.

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He said it was "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".

Mr Jenrick added: "And so I think it is best that we don't meet until after the matter has been decided, one way of [sic] another ‐ and I can't provide any advice to you on that, other than to say that I will receive advice from my officials after the general election assuming I remain in office and will consider it carefully in accordance with the rules and guidance.

"I hope that is okay and we can meet to discuss other matters soon, hopefully on the 19th [of December]."

An email on 14 January appears to show Mr Jenrick was keen to get the decision passed quickly, a housing department official writing they needed confirmation "by 5pm" to "avoid any criticism that the decision was not received within office hours".

What has the reaction been?

Opposition parties have renewed their calls for the minister to go.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said his position was "untenable".

"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," she demanded.

Labour's Steve Reed said the documents "raise more questions than they answer".

He said: "The documents show Mr Jenrick rushed the decision through on 14 January specifically so he could help Mr Desmond avoid £30m-£50m in a community levy that would have been spent on things like schools, youth clubs and clinics in one of the most deprived communities in the United Kingdom.

"It seems highly inappropriate that Mr Jenrick told the House that he closed down a conversation with Mr Desmond at the dinner and then the very next morning, there he is sending him very chummy text messages seeking to meet up.

"The documents make crystal clear that Robert Jenrick was trying to do favours for Richard Desmond by rushing this decision through the day before a community levy came into force."

What has the prime minister said about the row?

Boris Johnson has stood by Mr Jenrick in the past.

When asked previously if he had done the right thing, the PM replied: "As far as I know, of course he did."

In the wake of the release of the papers, the head of the civil service said Mr Johnson "considered the matter closed".

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi echoed this, telling Sky News he had "explained himself" and the issue has been "laid to rest".

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