Monday, 21 Sep 2020

Bundle of documents reveal Robert Jenrick’s texts with ex-media mogul in ‘cash for favours’ row

The housing secretary was “insistent” a planning application by a Tory donor be allowed just in time for them to save up to £50m, new government documents reveal.

Papers released amid pressure on Robert Jenrick show an official in his department recorded he wanted approval to be given to the Westferry building sought by newspaper owner Richard Desmond.

A partly-redacted email sent on 9 January said the cabinet 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”.

That decision allowed Northern and Shell to avoid paying between £30m and £50m extra to the council and overruled both Tower Hamlets Council and a planning inspector.

Mr Jenrick subsequently reversed the ruling following legal action by the council, admitting that what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.

It later emerged that Mr Jenrick had sat next to Mr Desmond at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner in November 2019.

The minister admitted Mr Desmond did “bring out his iPhone and show me some images of the development” at the event.

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

Mr Jenrick has since been fighting allegations of “cash for favours” but has dismissed any claims of impropriety as “false allegations”.

New texts between the pair also emerged as part of a bundle of documents released by the government in a bid to clear Mr Jenrick’s name.

They show he 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 because “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”.

He 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”.

Boris Johnson has previously stood by Mr Jenrick.

When asked previously if he had done the right thing, the prime minister replied: “As far as I know, of course he did.”

But he is now facing calls to sack the housing secretary.

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.

In the Commons earlier on Wednesday, Mr Jenrick said: “Transparency matters, openness matters and settling this matter matters because I certainly don’t want to be the subject of the innuendo and the false accusations that the Opposition are choosing to peddle.”

Text exchanges between Robert Jenrick and Richard Desmond, released by the government

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