Labour has pressed the government to explain why Robert Jenrick intervened in a planning decision to save a property developer millions of pounds, as the communities secretary ducked a parliamentary question on the subject by sending his deputy instead.
Steve Reed, the shadow communities secretary, queried why Jenrick did not personally answer the urgent question on his connections to the former Express newspapers owner Richard Desmond, even though he was apparently at parliament.
Jenrick instead sent the junior communities minister, Chris Pincher, to field questions on Labour demands for clarity about his decision over a huge property development in east London led by Desmond.
In January, Jenrick overruled the local council and the government’s planning inspectorate to approve the 1,500-apartment, 44-storey complex on the site of a former newspaper printworks on the the Isle of Dogs.
The decision came a day before the introduction of a community infrastructure levy (CIL) imposed by Tower Hamlets council, which would have charged Desmond’s company at least £40m, to be used for local education and health projects.
After the council challenged his decision, Jenrick accepted it had been unlawful. It has since emerged that Jenrick sat on the same table as Desmond at a Conservative fundraising event in November, and that Desmond donated £12,000 to the party two weeks after Jenrick sided with him in the planning matter.
“This sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favours,” Reed told Pincher in the Commons. “If he wants to restore trust, the secretary of state must immediately publish all documents and all correspondence relating to this decision. The public needs reassurance that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fundraising dinners.”
Reed said Labour wanted full transparency over Jenrick’s decision in January. He said the minister’s “extraordinary step of admitting his decision was unlawful because of apparent bias” in the court case launched by the council meant he avoided having to hand over correspondence detailing his actions.
Reed added: “Can the minister tell us what that apparent bias was?”
Pincher argued it was not uncommon for ministers to decide against planning authorities, and dismissed any impropriety. Jenrick, Pincher said, had informed his department of all conversations he had with Desmond, including at the November event, and “has no relationship with the applicant”.
He said Jenrick admitted fault at the court case because both he and the council wanted to end the matter swiftly: “The way to achieve that, technically in law, is to accept the action that was brought by the local authority to the court. That is why he made the decision that he did.”
Jenrick, Pincher said, had never discussed the issue of the CIL payments with Desmond, and knew nothing of the billionaire’s donation to the party, which Pincher said was payment for a ticket to an event. He said: “I don’t think there is anything further that needs to be added.”
In a tweet, Reed questioned why Jenrick had not come to answer questions about his own actions: “He’s sent a junior minister to do battle for him but apparently he’s on the estate and has been spotted in the tea room …”
The Scottish National party’s Alan Brown, also responding to the Commons question, likened the matter to the government’s backing for Dominic Cummings in that it was “a minister defending the indefensible”.
Brown said: “When the secretary of state personally approves a planning application the day before a deadline that saves the developer £40m fees in infrastructure payments, it begs serious questions. When it transpires that the developer then donates to the Tory party, then to the public this is a matter that simply stinks.”
Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said the prime minister continued to have confidence in Jenrick.
Asked why Jenrick had sent Pincher to answer Labour’s questions, instead of facing them himself, he said: “It’s appropriate for the housing minister to respond to questions in the house on housing and planning matters. This is a housing and planning matter.”