Boris Johnson and billionaire Richard Desmond in £120m property scandal

The Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs, in the heart of London’s Docklands, played a starring role in Tomorrow Never Dies.

The glass-fronted edifice was the headquarters of Bond villain Elliot Carver, a ‘psychopathic’ media mogul in the 1997 instalment of the 007 franchise.

Could there be a more ironic twist in the circumstances?

In real life Westferry Printworks is owned by Richard Desmond. To his detractors, cigar-smoking Desmond, 68, also fills the role, metaphorically speaking, anyway, of a megalomaniac Bond villian. Like the fictional Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce in the film), he was once a newspaper baron.

Richard Desmond and the Westferry Printworks development (pictured) are at the centre of an ever unfolding scandal which has embroiled Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Johnson, it has now been revealed, had three meetings with Desmond, including drinks with him at the five-star Corinthia Hotel in Westminster in 2015, when he was Mayor of London, before approving a housing scheme on the printworks site

Johnson, it has now been revealed, had three meetings with Desmond, including drinks with him at the five-star Corinthia Hotel in Westminster in 2015, when he was Mayor of London, before approving a housing scheme on the printworks site

Westferry Printworks is where his newspapers, including the Daily Express and Daily Star (sold two years ago), rolled off the presses. Desmond made his fortune, though, from top-shelf magazines such as Asian Babes and Nude Wives and later branched out into satellite porn channels such as Television X and Red Hot. 

He must be one of the few businessmen in Britain, according to documents which emerged from a racketeering court case in New York in 2005, who has received death threats from John Gotti’s ‘Gambino’ crime family after becoming caught up in a wide-ranging telephone sex line and internet scam by the mafia.

There is no suggestion Desmond was involved in any alleged chicanery but he remains a controversial figure.

His menace is sometimes barely concealed. ‘There’s always some c*** trying to stop me,’ is the way he once summed up his colourful business career to the man from the Financial Times — which is why he has sought influence in the corridors of power. 

The reason we are telling you this is because Richard Desmond, and the Westferry Printworks, are at the centre of an unfolding scandal which may yet cost Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick — a familiar face on the daily coronavirus briefings — his job and has also embroiled Boris Johnson himself.

Johnson, it has now been revealed, had three meetings with Desmond, including drinks with him at the five-star Corinthia Hotel in Westminster in 2015, when he was Mayor of London, before approving a housing scheme on the printworks site.

Mr Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, then promptly submitted a second application that almost doubled the size of the development, with 1,524 homes in five towers.

In January, Mr Jenrick, 38, a former lawyer and the youngest member of the Cabinet, approved the revised application. The project, he argued, would provide badly needed homes and continue the regeneration of one London’s most deprived boroughs, which has been transformed over the years.

There are at least three reasons why Mr Jenrick’s decision is so controversial. But bear in mind when you read what follows that it was Boris Johnson who first opened the door to Desmond and his plans for the 15-acre site in the borough of Tower Hamlets.

Firstly, Mr Jenrick overruled the council and the Independent Planning Inspectorate, which flatly rejected the development on the grounds it would damage views of Tower Bridge and did not ‘provide the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing’.

Secondly, he gave the go-ahead just 24 hours before changes introduced by Tower Hamlets to what is known as the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which requires developers to fund new schools and transport improvements, as well as other facilities necessary to support additional homes and businesses.

In this case, that would have cost Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, between £30 and £50 million had the plans not been approved prior to the deadline.

Thirdly, Electoral Commission records released this week show that, just a fortnight after being given the green light (on January 14) to proceed with the Westferry Printworks complex, Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.

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

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

There is a fourth aggravating factor, too. Mr Jenrick sat next to Richard Desmond at a Tory fundraising dinner (in November) at the Carlton Club in St James’s, alongside Northern & Shell’s commercial director and senior figures from the project’s construction partners.

They raised the subject of their planning application but Mr Jenrick insists he shut the conversation down immediately.

Even so, the stream of revelations in recent days have been embarrassing and could be neatly summarised thus — billionaire property developer makes a donation to the Conservative Party after the Housing Secretary controversially approves one of his lucrative money-spinning schemes and, in the process, saves the billionaire property developer a multi-million-pound tax bill.

Oh yes, and the billionaire also had drinks with the man who is now Prime Minister. It’s the plot of a political thriller, isn’t it?

Mr Jenrick has now admitted his original decision was ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’. The decision, Mr Jenrick said, had now been quashed and he will take no further part in decisions about the Westferry Printworks application.

The affair has caused a storm at Westminster. Mr Jenrick provoked further criticism this week when he sent a junior minister to the Despatch Box in his place to answer questions about the controversy.

MPs said that if he is found to have broken the ministerial code he would have to resign.

More damaging is the fact that the scandal plays into the hands of opponents who claim that, despite the sweeping electoral gains in Labour’s heartlands, the Conservatives remain a party for the rich and powerful; that there is one rule for their wealthy friends and another for everyone else. It’s a narrative the Tories have never quite been able to shake-off.

The scandal may yet cost Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick — a familiar face on the daily coronavirus briefings — his job

The scandal may yet cost Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick — a familiar face on the daily coronavirus briefings — his job

This imbroglio epitomises the party’s Achilles heel. One recent newspaper profile described Desmond as someone who ‘did not have a fixed politics’ but who found ‘politicians were occasionally useful’.

The Express, the article pointed out, was a Labour title when Desmond bought it 20 years ago and he then donated £100,000 to the Labour party at about the time the initial takeover was cleared by the then industry secretary Stephen Byers.

A decade later, as Nigel Farage was at the height of his popularity, Desmond changed horses again, handing Ukip £300,000 in 2014 and £1 million in the run-up to the 2015 election.

His last donation to the Conservatives was £10,000 he gave through his Northern & Shell company in 2017.

The saga which culminated in that intriguing donation actually began nearly ten years ago — in 2011 — when the old printworks closed its doors and Desmond moved to a new printing base in Luton.

At the same time, with land prices in London soaring, Desmond joined the development gold rush in the capital. The original proposal, for just 722 flats, was opposed by Tower Hamlets over fears the apartments would create problems for a local sailing club by disrupting prevailing winds and cause boats to capsize.

But Desmond had a powerful ally, it seems.

He met Boris Johnson for the first time for drinks at the Corinthia Hotel in September 2015 and had lunch with him later that month. They met again in January 2016.

Whatever Desmond’s intentions might have been, was it appropriate for the Mayor of London to meet him in such circumstances?

The planning application was eventually called in by Johnson three weeks later and approved by his deputy, Sir Edward Lister, in April, after the developers increased the proportion of affordable houses. Sir Edward is now the Prime Minister’s chief strategic adviser in Downing Street.

The move paved the way for Desmond to demolish the printworks the following year.

‘This planning application was considered with due process and public hearings in 2016,’ a spokesman for the Prime Minister said. ‘Only formal planning representations were taken into account. Planning officers recommended approval of the scheme.’

Afterwards, Desmond, whose personal wealth is put at £2 billion by the Sunday Times Rich List, altered the blueprint. He now wanted permission for 1,500 flats in five towers rising up to 44 storeys.

More flats, after all, equalled more money. He would have made an estimated £120 million from the expanded development on the opposite side of Millwall Dock from where his X-rated TV channels were based; the porn stations were sold four years ago and completed his withdrawal from the adult entertainment market.

There was fierce opposition to the Westferry scheme from the start, with new mayor Sadiq Khan raising concerns about the impact on the area’s stretched local transport network, London City airport objecting to the height of the tallest towers (not far from flight paths), and councillors demanding more affordable homes.

Only 21 per cent of the development would have been affordable housing, significantly below the 35 per cent typically required.

Financial documents submitted as part of the planning process suggested the cheapest one-bed flats could be sold for around £480,000 while the most expensive four-bed penthouses atop the tallest tower could fetch £2.4 million.

It couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, least of all Desmond, that Tower Hamlets failed to approve the project.

He appealed. A planning inspector, as we know, dismissed his appeal. What couldn’t have been predicted was Robert Jenrick’s decision. Jenrick, who was made Housing Secretary in July last year, ignored the advice of the planning inspector.

The timing, many might think, looks incriminating. On January 14, Jenrick gave the go-head. On January 15, the new community levy came into force. On January 28, Desmond made his £12,000 donation to the Conservative party. A decade ago when Richard Desmond bought Channel 5 (since sold again), it was said his executives were forced to sing We’ve Only Just Begun by the Carpenters.

They must have been singing the same song in the Northern & Shell boardroom on January 14. The celebrations did not last long.

In March, Tower Hamlets launched a legal challenge against Robert Jenrick’s decision on the basis it had been ‘influenced by a desire to help the developer to avoid a financial liability’ (the community levy).

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government rejected the suggestion ‘there was any actual bias [as opposed to apparent bias] but said the application would be ‘redetermined’. The row has led to familiar cries that the Tories are ‘out of touch’ with ordinary people.

Robert Jenrick has experienced such criticism when he became MP for Newark in Nottinghamshire in 2014. The rival Ukip candidate asked how voters in the constituency could relate to a man who, at the time, reportedly had three homes worth £5 million.

Mr Jenrick pointed out that his grammar school education was proof that he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. ‘None of it was inherited or handed on a plate to us,’ he said at the time. ‘My wife [a corporate lawyer] and I have both worked jolly hard.’

But recent events have upset members of his own party.

Tower Hamlets councillor Andrew Wood quit the Conservative party in February after the Westferry development was approved. ‘I have lost confidence in the ability of the Conservative party as an institution to make good use of the power it has now,’ he wrote in his resignation letter.

Last night, he spoke more about his decision.

‘Westferry Printworks is a political scandal,’ he said. ‘I have huge concerns about a Government minister attending a fundraising dinner with a developer five weeks in advance of granting his scheme planning permission, as well as the developer making a donation.

‘The minister, Robert Jenrick, went against the wishes of his own planning inspector, the local council and the Greater London Authority. He also accepted the developer dropping the affordable housing from 35 per cent down to 21 per cent.

‘The Cabinet Office and the House of Commons Select Committee now need to investigate.

‘The minister needs to release all the relevant documents and declare other meetings or donations. I believe there is something missing from this story to explain why he made the decision that he did, which is why I resigned from the Conservative party.’

Might the reason be that the Prime Minister had opened the door to Richard Desmond and his plans for the Westferry Printworks in the first place?

Additional reporting: Tim Stewart and Nic North