In a potential scandal that has rather gone under the radar thanks to the ongoing fallout from the Dominic Cummings affair, it’s been revealed in recent days by various national newspapers that the Housing Minister, Robert Jenrick, approved a controversial £1 billion housing development months after being lobbied about it at a fundraising dinner.
Richard Desmond – the former owner of Express Newspapers and Channel 5, and the founder and current owner of Northern & Shell – is said to have lobbied Jenrick at the event when they were sat next to each other at dinner.
Desmond’s application to build 1,500 homes was green-lighted by the Housing Secretary in mid-January, just the day before Tower Hamlets council was due to approve a change in community charges which would have cost Northern & Shell some £40 million.
Jenrick has admitted showing ‘apparent bias’ in giving permission for development on the site of the former Westferry Printworks to go ahead. The approval has now been quashed.
Desmond, a former donor to the Tory party, was seated next to Jenrick at the Carlton Club political dinner in November, according to a report by the Mail on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Times states that the commercial director of Northern & Shell and senior figures from Mace, the construction company hired for the project, also attended the event – where tickets cost over £900.
A spokesman for Jenrick said that the developers had brought up the topic of the Westferry Printworks development on the Isle of Dogs during the event.
The spokesman commented: “They were put on the same table for the dinner, although Mr Jenrick was not aware of this prior to arriving at the venue. The developers did raise their application, but Mr Jenrick informed them that it would not be appropriate for them to discuss the matter with him, or for him to pass comment on it.”
However, eight weeks later Jenrick approved the application in spite of opposition from planning officers and the local council, who complained that the scheme was too tall for the area, would stop novice sailors from using a nearby sailing club for several months of the year, and did not include enough affordable homes.
Court documents reveal that Jenrick made the decision earlier than anticipated, enabling Desmond to avoid the £40 million charge.
At Sunday’s daily coronavirus briefing, when questioned about the row, Jenrick insisted he had made the decision to ensure more new homes were built in the country. He also insisted the case had been judged on its merits and would have enabled ‘hundreds of affordable homes to be provided in one of London’s most deprived boroughs, which would have been extremely valuable’.
While the target for large housing developments in London is 35% affordable housing, this is rarely the case, and for this scheme there would have been 21% affordable housing.
The Housing Secretary’s decision was challenged by Tower Hamlets council, with the local authority seeking disclosure of any ministerial communications over the scheme. Jenrick subsequently accepted ‘apparent bias’ in the timing of the decision and quashed it.
On Saturday, the Times ran a story on alleged tensions between Jenrick and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, with a source close to both parties claiming that the approval of Desmond’s development appeared to have been the latest in a series of ‘increasingly petty attempts’ by the secretary of state to antagonise Khan, who has been a vocal critic of central government during his tenure as Mayor.
Labour has now written to the Cabinet Office calling for a thorough investigation, but the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government strongly rejected the notion that there was any actual bias in the decision. Despite this, it had nonetheless agreed that the application would be redetermined.
At the time of writing, Desmond has yet to respond to a request for comment or make any formal statement about the issue.
As well as donating £10,000 to the Conservatives in 2017, Desmond previously gave the Labour Party £100,000 and Ukip £1.3 million.
Northern & Shell previously invested considerable sums in online letting agent OpenRent in a media-for-equity partnership in 2014, and also had holdings in Emoov/Tepilo before the agency went bust in December 2018.
Last year, it was revealed that Desmond’s company suffered an £18.7 million hit as a result of Emoov’s collapse.