Downing Street rallied round beleaguered minister Robert Jenrick today as he facing ever increasing demands to quit over a ‘cash-for-favours’ row involving a Tory donor’s £1billion property development.
No10 sources said this morning that the under-fire Housing Secretary still had the support of Boris Johnson after documents showed he rushed through approval of the Westferry Printworks development to save Richard Desmond £45million.
Bombshell text messages released by the Ministry of Housing last night showed that the former Express owner opposed paying the fees to the Labour-run council, saying he didn’t want to hand cash to ‘Marxists’.
Emails in the cache he was forced to release last night showed that Mr Jenrick was ‘insistent’ that the approval went through before the introduction of Tower Hamlets’ Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which sought to fund projects in one of the most deprived parts of the capital.
In one text message, Mr Desmond wrote: ‘We appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!’
Business minister Nadhim Zahawi attempted to defend the actions this morning, saying it had been done to ensure ‘viability’ of the Docklands scheme.
But Lord Bob Kerslake, a former head of the Civil Service, said the relationship between the two men ‘raised some troubling issues … about access and influence’.
The Housing Secretary was forced to hand over damning texts he exchanged with former newspaper tycoon Richard Desmond
The Housing Secretary was forced to hand over damning texts he exchanged with former Daily Express owner Mr Desmond as calls grew for Boris Johnson to sack the minister.
Business minister Nadhim Zahawi attempted to defend the actions this morning, saying it had been done to ensure ‘viability’ of the Docklands scheme
The Housing Secretary who keeps getting caught out by houses
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has found himself in hot water repeatedly during the coronavirus crisis.
Not long after the lockdown began, the 38-year-old father-of-three found himself having to explain his actions after travelling for more than an hour to visit his parents, despite warning the public they must stay at home.
He also faced criticism for driving 150 miles from his London property to his Herefordshire home, a 17th century manor house, from where he then travelled to his parents in Shropshire.
The house is around 150 miles from his Newark constituency, with his website saying he split his time between homes in the Nottinghamshire seat and London.
But he defended himself, saying he went to deliver food and medicine to his isolating parents, and was backed by Boris Johnson, whose official spokesman said he was confident that Mr Jenrick had complied with the social distancing rules during the visit.
Mr Jenrick grew up in Shropshire and is a trained solicitor who worked in corporate law at leading international law firms in London and Moscow.
He then turned his attentions to business, working in senior commercial management at the world-famous global art firm Christie’s.
According to Mr Jenrick’s website, his last role was as an international managing director of the company, managing sales and staff in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and New York.
Wolverhampton-born, Mr Jenrick entered the Commons as MP for Newark in a 2014 by-election, and took up his first ministerial post as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury in 2018.
He was appointed Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in July last year.
His website proudly displays photographs of him with former Conservative prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May, as well as broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
The Housing Secretary has faced accusations of ‘cash for favours’ since the Daily Mail revealed Mr Desmond had donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party two weeks after his scheme for 1,500 homes was given the go-ahead.
Mr Jenrick had resisted calls to make public the correspondence relating to his decision. But yesterday he finally agreed to release ‘all relevant information’ – under pressure from Labour in Parliament.
The minister over-ruled Tower Hamlets council and a planning inspector to grant permission for the development in January, two months after he sat next to Mr Desmond at a Tory fundraising dinner.
Mr Jenrick yesterday admitted watching a promotional video about the scheme on Mr Desmond’s mobile phone at the event at the Savoy Hotel but insisted he ‘informed the developer it was not appropriate to discuss the matter’.
However, the two men swapped mobile phone numbers and exchanged a series of messages, including over arrangements for a possible visit to the site.
In a message on December 23, Mr Desmond appealed for a quick decision. He wrote: ‘We have to get the approval before January 15 otherwise payment of £45million to Tower Hamlets, meaning we have to stop and reduce social housing.’
Mr Jenrick raised the issue in a meeting with his officials a fortnight later. A few days later, one wrote: ‘My understanding is that the Secretary of State is/was insistent that decision issued this week – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London community infrastructure levy regime.’
A document prepared by Mr Jenrick’s department shows that officials advised him not to approve the development.
Mr Zahawi claimed the documents proved there was no overt influence, telling the BBC: ‘Yes, of course there was access, because there was a dinner party that Robert Jenrick didn’t know he was going to sit next to Richard Desmond at.
‘But Robert Jenrick also said in those messages, that he released after promising the select committee he would release them, ”I can’t have this meeting with you”.’
Tory chairman of the Commons liaison committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin branded it a ‘very partisan spat’ and noted that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer ‘didn’t go for Jenrick in the Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday’.
Sir Bernard conceded that the public ‘don’t like the idea of ministers and rich businessmen cosying up together’ but added: ‘Clearly there has been a little bit of a mistake and a decision had to be rescinded but there is no sign of actual maladministration.’
However Lord Kerslake, an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn when he was Labour leader, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I’m pleased the documents have come out but I do think they have raised some troubling issues, I have to say, about access and influence.
‘I don’t for a moment suggest the minister took his decision simply because of a donation to the Conservative Party.
‘But the fact is, for the price of a dinner, the developer was able to present his scheme to the minister, follow up with texts and seek to influence the decision.’
Billionaire Richard Desmond pleaded with Mr Jenrick to give the project the go-ahead before a Labour-run council brought in a levy that would cost him £45million
Mr Desmond had donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party two weeks after his scheme for 1,500 homes was given the go-ahead
The billionaire pleaded with Mr Jenrick to give the Westferry Printworks project the go-ahead before a Labour-run council brought in a levy that would cost him £45million
A document prepared by Mr Jenrick’s department shows that officials advised him not to approve the development
In the Commons yesterday, MPs warned there was a ‘stench of sleaze’ around the Housing Secretary’s approval for the plan to redevelop the site of the Westferry printworks in east London.
Mr Jenrick insisted that he had acted within the rules, but admitted: ‘I am not blind to the fact that things could and should have been done differently.’ He said it was ‘outrageous’ to suggest his decision was influenced by his interactions with Mr Desmond.
Labour’s housing spokesman Steve Reed said the documents confirmed that Mr Jenrick ‘rushed through the decision specifically to help the developer avoid a £30-£50million levy payable to the local council for infrastructure in one of the poorest local authorities in England’.
Mr Jenrick last month agreed for his decision to be quashed after Tower Hamlets launched a High Court challenge.
The riddle of Robert Jenrick’s £830k home makeover that planners refused
Robert Jenrick was mired in a fresh row yesterday after it emerged Tory councillors approved an extension to his £2.6million townhouse despite planning officials rejecting it three times.
Documents show the Housing Secretary, 38, submitted plans to turn a rear first-floor roof terrace into an extra room as part of renovations costing £830,000.
It was twice rejected by Westminster City Council’s planning officer in January and April 2014. This was on the grounds it would ‘harm’ the character and appearance of the building and surrounding conservation area. But in August 2014, two months after he became the Tory MP for Newark in Nottinghamshire, Mr Jenrick and his wife submitted plans for a third time.
Although the planning officer ruled it should again be refused, Tory councillor Steve Summers intervened and requested that it be referred to a committee to decide.
Mr Summers lives in the same exclusive square, just a short walk from the Houses of Parliament, as Mr Jenrick, The Times reported.
In November 2014, three Tory councillors on the planning committee then voted to overturn the officer’s decision and approve it. The first two applications had been made in Mr Jenrick’s name, but the third was under his wife’s, although she was wrongly listed as ‘Mr Michal Berkner’ on documents. The only councillor who voted against on the four-member planning committee was Labour’s Ruth Bush.
The exclusive square, just a short walk from the Houses of Parliament, where Robert Jenrick lives
Documents show the Housing Secretary, 38, submitted plans to turn a rear first-floor roof terrace into an extra room
Last night she said it raises new concerns about why fellow councillors approved the scheme.
She said: ‘It is strange. There are clearly questions to be asked now. I kick myself for not thinking, ‘who is this Mr Michal Berkner?’
‘I made a note at the time that I thought it was a foolish decision because of the possibility of it setting a precedent.’
She added: ‘For smaller applications it’s very unusual for them to be referred to committee. It’s usually only for major applications or where there are objections from the public.’ Neither applied in this case.
The documents show permission was granted despite the structure under the third application being 25cm higher. If it hadn’t been called into committee the planning officer’s refusal would have stood.
Mr Jenrick’s opposite number, Labour’s shadow communities secretary Steve Reed, called on the minister to reveal details of any contact he had with Tory councillors in the run-up or during the process.
Mr Jenrick’s application was twice rejected by Westminster City Council’s planning officer in January and April 2014
But in August 2014, two months after he became the Tory MP for Newark in Nottinghamshire, Mr Jenrick and his wife submitted plans for a third time
He said: ‘The public need reassurance that there’s not one rule for Conservative politicians and another for everyone else.’
Further documents show Mr Jenrick set up a private company to have the renovations carried out after buying the five-bedroom terrace house in 2013. Accounts show his wife, a City lawyer, paid more than £800,000 into the company for the work to be done.
The arrangement has raised eyebrows among experts, who said it was a ‘strange way’ of structuring the work. Property tax specialist Simon Misiewicz, who looked at the company’s accounts, said: ‘It’s clear no profits were made, so what’s the ulterior motive? Why would you carry out an activity like this for you to make no money?’
A spokesman for Mr Jenrick said ‘there were no tax advantages to this arrangement’ and that ‘all applicable taxes’ were paid.
Paul Church, one of the Tory councillors who gave planning approval, said he could not remember why he did and did not know Mr Jenrick was the homeowner.
Richard Beddoe, chairman of the committee, did not respond to requests for comment. The third Tory member, Robert Rigby, said he had no contact with Mr Jenrick or his wife in the run-up to approving the extension, did not know Mr Jenrick was the owner, does not consider the housing minister or his wife a ‘friend’ and that the application was ‘judged on its merits and in planning terms’. Mr Summers referred questions to the council’s press office. Westminster City Council said the scheme had ‘support from neighbours and due process was followed at all times’.
A spokesman for Mr Jenrick said: ‘Normal planning process for a standard planning extension was followed by the applicant.’
HENRY DEEDES: He sweated under the glare like a saveloy in a chip shop
Robert Jenrick sat on the Government front bench, arms folded, feet still, his mouth occasionally gulping like a cornered koi carp.
Perched all alone, with no colleague nearby, he could have been a lonely seafarer bobbing inside a lifeboat as the waves crashed around him. Which was apt really. Attacks were raining in at him from all over the chamber.
The Housing Secretary had returned to the Commons to face questions over his links to Richard Desmond, whose £1billion housing application Jenrick had intervened to wave through just before the developer made a £12,000 donation to the Tories.
This murky saga has rolled on for weeks now. How’s Jenrick holding up? Passing him late on Tuesday along Whitehall, he looked little green around the gills, as though the weight of the world was hanging from his shoulders. To give him his due, he showed unexpected mettle through yesterday’s tussle.
The Housing Secretary had returned to the Commons to face questions over his links to Richard Desmond
Labour’s Housing spokesman Steve Reed clearly smelt blood and had worked himself into an appropriate froth. He arrived in the chamber with his hair ruffled and his tie askew. It’s possible he’d been psyching himself up in front of the mirror.
Reed accused Jenrick of having something to hide. He’d come armed with a stack of headline-friendly clichés to hammer this home. We heard phrases like ‘cash for honours’ and ‘mates’ rates for friends of Tories’. A couple of times he trotted out that old Labour favourite: ‘One rule for billionaire donors and one for the rest for us’.
Jenrick looked on, a little twitch of irritation occasionally dancing across his temple. Sometimes he would begin gesticulating the way unruly pupils do. ‘What sir, me sir?’
When he finally rose, someone – Labour’s Toby Perkins, possibly – immediately tried to make an intervention. Jenrick airily questioned whether his opponents were genuinely interested in what he had to say. Punchy.
He agreed to publish all documentation on the matter, but insisted Mr Desmond’s application had been made ‘with an open mind’ and ‘after a thorough decision-making process’.
Jenrick had intervened in Sir Desmond’s £1billion housing application just before the developer made a £12,000 donation to the Tories
We heard about the night he sat next to Mr Desmond at a Tory fundraiser while his planning application was still pending. He reiterated that he had no idea they would be placed next to next to one another. Cue several sly smirks around the House.
At the same table that evening, we were told, was the editor of The Mirror. Editor of the Left-wing Mirror at a Tory fundraiser? Must be a first. There was also a ‘former Tory MP.’ This was apparently Norfolk grandee Sir Henry Bellingham. What an old gent like Sir Henry’s doing mixed up with Mr Desmond is anyone’s guess.
By now, a thin film of sweat had formed on Jenrick’s forehead. Fifteen minutes under the Commons lights will do that to you. Before long his brow was shinier than a saveloy in a chippie’s broiler.
Meanwhile, just inside the chamber door sat the Prime Minister’s PPS Alex Burghart (Con, Brentwood and Ongar). Preparing a match report for the boss, no doubt.
Jenrick scored a decent hit following an intervention from Apsana Begum (Labour, Poplar and Limehouse) in whose constituency the development falls. Miss Begum appeared critical of the decision to grant the application.
Yet Jenrick said when he asked officials what representations she’d made when it was first lodged, they had told him she had ‘taken no interest’ in it at all. Boom! Miss Begum reeled in her neck. Worth noting was Jenrick’s menace toward Reed, whom he went for doggedly at the end.
He accused him of ‘living for smears and innuendos, not substance’.
It was biting stuff. Reed affected an air of apathy by giving his goatee whiskers a casual rake of the fingernails.
As the Minister returned to his seat, the attacks resumed. David Linden (SNP, Glasgow E) said the whole business ‘stunk to high heaven.’
Rupa Huq (Lab, Ealing Central and Acton) claimed that ‘the wheels were coming off this oven-ready Government’. Jenrick continued to sit there, twisting and turning, though just about keeping his mouth above the surf.
For how long?