Planning has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last two weeks, shining a spotlight on the lack of transparency, the influence of vested interests, and the undermining of local decision-making.
As the new Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning it is my job to hold the government to account, to scrutinise and challenge their work. I’m not here to oppose for opposition’s sake, but to try and push the government into the right place, especially in this current Covid-19 crisis. However, if the process of opposition exposes something fundamentally wrong, then the gloves come off. Fair play is a fundamental British value and we cannot have one rule for a privileged few and another for everyone else. The Jenrick affair, coming hot on the heels of the Cummings scandal, is a classic case of “do as I say not as I do”.
The facts are clear. The Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick gave the go-ahead to a contentious redevelopment project in the Isle of Dogs just weeks after he sat next to Richard Desmond, the developer behind the scheme, at a Conservative party fundraising dinner just before the December General Election. Mr Jenrick has admitted that the application was a topic of conversation that night.
In January, the Housing Secretary approved the planning application for the redevelopment of Westferry Printworks in London’s Docklands, despite advice from his department’s Planning Inspectorate and Tower Hamlets Council that the proposals did not contain sufficient affordable housing. The decision by Mr Jenrick to approve the planning application by Northern & Shell on January 14 came just one day before an increase in the Community Infrastructure Levy was due to be imposed by the council at a cost of £40m to Mr Desmond’s company.
Is the timeline of these events merely a coincidence? Because of Mr Jenrick’s refusal to provide Ministry documents about his decision, we don’t know the answer. It’s vital that papers on Mr Jenrick’s decision-making are now made public. The public need to know that government Ministers are not abusing their power to do favours for billionaire friends and Tory Party donors. Mr Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, the former owner of the Daily Express and Daily Star newspapers, gave the Tory party £10,000 in 2017.
In an astonishing development, after being taken to court by the local authority, Mr Jenrick accepted that his approval of Northern & Shell’s planning application for the Westferry Printworks was unlawful. In March, Tower Hamlets took legal action against Mr Jenrick’s decision, arguing that the timing of his decision appeared to show bias towards Mr Desmond. Indeed, the former leader of the Conservative Group in Tower Hamlets resigned from the party over the affair.
After the court ordered Mr Jenrick’s department to release the documents, the housing secretary accepted his approval of Northern & Shell’s planning application had been “unlawful by reason of apparent bias” – an act which allowed him to avoid disclosing documents surrounding his decision.
This is not acceptable, and certainly not the end of the matter. Not only has the Secretary of State acted unlawfully but he has contradicted the Nolan Principles and further eroded trust in the planning process. I have now written to the Cabinet Secretary requesting that he investigate this matter.
I await a response.