Why is the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, at the centre of controversy over a building development in London?
Jenrick knew that billionaire former media tycoon Richard Desmond had only 24 hours to have an east London property development approved before council community charges were imposed that would have cost him more than £40m. He and his government department initially backed Desmond’s plan to construct 1,524 apartments on the site. The minister later accepted that his approval in January of Desmond’s project on the old Westferry Road printworks on the Isle of Dogs was unlawful.
What was the £40m charge that Desmond could have avoided for?
The council area where the proposed property development was to be sited is in the poorest borough of London – Tower Hamlets. The £40m charge is part of the local council’s community infrastructure levy (CIL). This is a local “tax” on residential and business property developments in Tower Hamlets that the council then uses to reinvest in poorer communities in areas such as health clinics and educational facilities.
Why did Jenrick reverse his original decision on Desmond’s Isle of Dogs development?
The housing secretary admitted that any “fair-minded and informed observer” could conclude there was a “real possibility of bias”, although he insisted he was not actually biased in favour of Desmond’s project. He then quashed his original decision and has now handed over the final say on whether the project will go ahead to another minister. However, the Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets and others including an ex-Tory councillor believe he did this to avoid having to release crucial documents relating to his original decision. Mayor John Biggs remarked that Jenrick’s “reluctance to disclose them speaks volumes”.
Why has the Labour party called for an inquiry into the affair?
Richard Desmond, the former owner of the Daily and Sunday Express alongside the Star titles, has donated thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. Desmond paid £12,000 to attend a Tory Carlton Club fundraising dinner last November at which he and other property developers sat with Jenrick.
There are also allegations that Jenrick gave a “behind closed doors” briefing on government plans for the property sector at an event hosted by a PR firm that had acted for Desmond on the controversial Isle of Dogs site. Given his financial support for the Tories, Labour says there are “cash-for-favours concerns” that must be investigated.
Will there be any lasting damage to the housing secretary or the Conservative party?
One long-serving Conservative councillor in Tower Hamlets, Andrew Wood, has already resigned from the Tories in protest over the affair and has called on MPs in parliament’s housing select committee to launch an investigation. Downing Street says Boris Johnson has “full confidence” in Jenrick. A Tory party spokesperson insisted this weekend that “government policy is in no way influenced by party donations – they are entirely separate”.
However, the controversy has raised suspicions once again over the links between big business and the party, which enjoys the largesse of multi-millionaires and billionaires such as Desmond. Nor is the affair likely to fade away in the foreseeable future.
The Liberal Democrats have raised questions in parliament about whether the housing secretary has broken the ministerial code. The code is a set of rules and guidelines to uphold proper standards of conduct amongst ministers. The code instructs all ministers to “declare and resolve any interests and relationships” and “take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias”.