Minister 'acted in good faith' to OK Tory donor's £1bn development

Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick insists he acted in ‘good faith’ and broke no rules by approving controversial £1bn flat development for Tory donor Richard Desmond as he FINALLY faces MPs’ questions

  • Labour asked for an investigation into Number 10’s dealings with a Tory donor  
  • Richard Desmond gained permission to build a £1billion property development
  • Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is believed to have approved the development
  • The deal is believed to have saved Mr Desmond up to £50million in tax
  • Boris Johnson has defended the Housing Secretary over his involvement 

A Tory minister insisted he acted in ‘good faith’ when he approved a £1billion property for a party donor as he finally faced a grilling from MPs today.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is facing continuing pressure after approving a planning application by billionaire Richard Desmond for 1,500 luxury flats in east London. 

He overruled official objections and personally approved the plans the day before Mr Desmond would have been liable for a new tax, which would have cost him £30million to £50million.

Weeks later the two men sat together at a Conservative Party fundraiser where Mr Desmond, the former owner of the Express and Star newspapers, gave the party £12,000. 

Mr Jenrick later withdrew his decision after being accused of ‘bias’ in the High Court over the Westferry Printworks development in London’s Docklands.

Labour tried to bring him to the House of Commons to face questions last week, only for the Cabinet minister to send a more junior minister in his place.

But he took to the Despatch Box today to insisted that he had broken no rules and claimed he sat next to Mr Desmond at the party ‘inadvertently’.

Shadow communities secretary Steve Reed today demanded he assure MPs that ‘the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at conservative party fundraising dinners’.

Mr Jenrick replied: ‘I took that decision in good faith with an open mind. And I am confident, confident that all the rules were followed in doing so.  

Mr Jenrick he took to the Despatch Box today to insisted that he had broken no rules and claimed he sat next to Mr Desmond at the party ‘inadvertently’

Shadow communities secretary Steve Reed today demanded he assure MPs that ‘the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at conservative party fundraising dinners’

Billionaire Richard Desmond (pictured left) had his planning permission for 1,500 luxury flats in London approved by Mr Jenrick, in a deal where he may have avoided a tax bill up to £50million

‘All of the relevant information relating to this matter is with the Cabinet Secretary and I have taken and will take again advice from my permanent secretary about what further documentation we might be able to publish.’

Pressed again on his attended at the fundraising event he added: ‘My department knew about my attendance at the event before i went to it, they knew about the fact that I had inadvertently sat next to the applicant – I didn’t know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table, and I discussed and took advice from my officials within the department at all times.’

Mr Jenrick later said the Metropolitan Police had informed him they would not be investigating allegations connected to the Westferry development.

SNP MP Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) pressed the minister over his ‘entirely unsatisfactory’ answers, adding: ‘He accepts he acted unlawfully in overruling a local authority to grant planning permission to a wealthy Tory donor, helping him avoid £40 million in tax.

‘Will he now explain to this House how he expects the public to have confidence in planning procedures given his actions and why he thinks it is appropriate for him to remain in post while the police investigation into his behaviour is ongoing?’

Mr Jenrick said the ‘vast majority’ of Mr Sheppard’s points were ‘factually incorrect’, adding: ‘I understand that a Labour member of the House of Lords did make an allegation to the police.

‘That was swiftly assessed by members of the Metropolitan Police and they informed that there were no criminal matters to investigate and they had no intention of taking it further.’

He added: ‘In terms of the decision, I entirely stand behind the decision that I made, I made it with an open mind, because we want to see more homes built in this country and in particular in our capital city.

Labour has demanded an investigation into Downing Street’s links to a lobbyist involved in the development. 

The Prime Minister himself has denied impropriety after it was revealed that the lobbyist Richard Patient had attended his leadership victory party.

Asked about the allegations yesterday, Mr Johnson said: ‘I can assure you I had absolutely nothing to do with that. I meet people the whole time.’

Asked if Mr Jenrick had done the right thing, he added: ‘As far as I know of course he did.’ 

It came after it emerged that Mr Jenrick was also linked to Mr Patient. He will face a series of questions today about the role of the so-called ‘Tory fixer’ in the scandal.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pictured) has defended Mr Jenrick’s involvement in the development 

The property development involved is the Westferry Printworks development in the London Docklands (pictured)

Yesterday, the row reached No 10 after it was revealed that Mr Patient was photographed at Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership victory party last summer.

Mr Patient has boasted of his ability to access and influence Downing Street figures, according to the Mail on Sunday.

He has also boasted of his connections to Mr Johnson’s senior adviser Sir Eddie Lister, describing him as ‘a great friend’.

Labour plans to question the Housing Secretary on his links to the lobbyist, whose firm Thorncliffe Communications, declares the Westferry development as a ‘paid-for client’.

Mr Patient was photographed twice last year with Mr Johnson, once during his leadership campaign and again on the night he won the Tory leadership race.

Mr Johnson told MPs last week that he had never spoken to anyone about planning permission for the Docklands development.

Mr Patient’s firm’s website describes Mr Jenrick as ‘a friend of Thorncliffe’. 

In January, two weeks after Mr Jenrick approved the development, Mr Patient posted a picture of him on his personal Facebook page with the caption: ‘Robert Jenrick is a great guy.’

Mr Jenrick has denied any friendship with Mr Patient, his firm or any knowledge of their links to Westferry at the time. He has admitted being lobbied by Mr Desmond over the deal at a Conservative Party fundraiser last year.

Lobbyist Richard Patient (pictured left), who is linked with the development, was photographed with the PM on the night of Boris Johnson (right)’s leadership Tory leadership win

Thorncliffe Communications was hired by Mr Desmond in 2016 and has listed Westferry Developments as clients on the statutory register of consultant lobbyists since July 2019.

Lobbying firms only need report to the statutory register if they make communications orally or in writing to ministers or senior civil servants about key decisions on behalf of a client.

Mr Patient said that he had only registered Westferry as a paid client because he had discussed working with them, and insisted that he had not lobbied ministers over the project.

Last night, Labour wrote to the Cabinet Secretary to call for an investigation into the role of Mr Johnson and senior No 10 advisers in the scandal. 

Steve Reed, shadow communities and local government secretary, said: ‘The latest revelations expose the murky relationship between No 10, senior government ministers and lobbyists for billionaire property developers – they warrant urgent investigation by the Cabinet Secretary into any wrongdoing.

‘Ministers must not put the planning process up for sale to their wealthy friends.

‘Mr Jenrick must publish all correspondence about this case to allow full public scrutiny of what he’s been up to.’

A spokesman for Mr Jenrick said: ‘[He] has no relationship whatsoever… with Thorncliffe.’

A Tory spokesman said: ‘There is no question of any individual influencing party or government policy by virtue of any donations they may give to the party or their attendance at party events.’

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