Steve Reed has written to Robert Jenrick demanding answers over the Westferry Printworks Development scandal following the release of documents relating to his handling of the planning application.
In a letter to Jenrick today, the Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary called for the minister to explain the discrepancies between the account he gave to parliament and the published documents.
He has also called on the Housing Secretary to release any remaining documents not subject to freedom of information requests, “in the interests of transparency and given the controversy” around the decision.
Commenting on the case, Reed said: “These breathtaking documents raise far more questions about the Secretary of State’s relationship with Richard Desmond than they answer. Whether the Prime Minister likes it or not, this matter is far from closed.
“An explosive and unprecedented case of a Secretary of State quashing his own unlawful, biased decision to approve a “cash-for-favours” planning decision that saved a Conservative donor over £150m demands the utmost transparency.
“That is why the Secretary of State must come back to the House of Commons to explain himself and why he must publish all remaining evidence. The public need to know there is not one rule for the Conservatives and their wealthy friends and another rule for everyone else.”
The letter from Labour follows the release of 129 pages of correspondence relating to a decision by Jenrick to overturn his own approval of a Tory donor’s planning application for a development after admitting “apparent bias”.
The Housing Secretary has admitted that he published his decision in time for the developer to avoid a new charge – known as a community infrastructure levy – which would have cost the developer additional £30m to £50m.
Labour has highlighted that as well as approving the decision the day before the new charge was introduced, Jenrick had overruled his advisors to reduce the amount of affordable housing in the development – saving Desmond a further £106m.
Business minister Nadhim Zahawi defended his colleague this morning, denying that Desmond had ‘bought’ the approval and arguing that any ordinary member of the public could influence their MP by becoming a Tory donor.
A spokesperson for No. 10 said that Jenrick had “set out his account in public and in parliament, including publishing the relevant documentation. In light of this account the Prime Minister considers this matter closed”.
Below is the full text of the letter sent by Reed today.
Dear Secretary of State
Westferry Printworks Development
Thank you for releasing documents relating to your decision on the Westferry Printworks Development following yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons.
I recognise you agree that transparency is important in allowing proper democratic scrutiny of the way you exercise your powers as Secretary of State. In that spirit, a number of questions arise from the documents and I would be grateful for your response.
1. In a memorandum dated 20 November your private office contact MHCLG officials in the following terms:
“Morning (and you thought you wouldn’t hear from me over purdah!!!)! Quick thing from me, SoS has flagged a case in Westferry London Docklands (redevelopment of a printworks or something like that?). He understands a ministerial decision on this is likely to be coming up soon and also that there may be some sensitivity with timing of final decision. Given this he has asked that advice be prepared for the first few eays of the new Gov so a decision can be made and communicated before xmas. Does this all sound ok?”
Please can you explain the following:
- Does the ‘sensitivity with timing of final decision’ refer to the date that Tower Hamlets CIL was due to come into force?
- Given that this email was sent from your private office to MHCLG officials you clearly did not receive information from officials about this ‘sensitivity’, but the email is sent two days after you sat next to Richard Desmond and executives from Northern & Shell and Mace at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner. It seems likely this was the source of your information but you have not declared this, so please can you confirm what the source of this information was?
2. You eventually quashed your decision on the Westferry Printworks Development for reasons of ‘apparent bias’ but you have never explained what, precisely, this ‘apparent bias’ was. I presume this reason arises from advice you received from MHCLG officials or legal advisers when they advised you of the likely outcome of Tower Hamlets’ judicial review of your decision. Please can you share the advice you received detailing the exact nature of the ‘apparent bias’ that made your decision unlawful?
3. You have released documents relating to the Westferry case that would have been subject to FoI. In the interests of transparency and given the controversy surrounding this decision, will you now also release the remaining relevant documents that would not have been subject to FoI?
4. Please can you confirm what contacts you had with other ministers or their representatives about the Westferry decision, including in person or by electronic means such as texts, and disclose the content of those communications or conversations?
5. There is a significant discrepancy between your reports and Mr Desmond’s of how long you viewed a promotional video about Westferry on his phone. Please can you confirm whether Mr Desmond is correct in claiming that you viewed the video for three or four minutes and then thanked him for showing it to you?
6. Please can you confirm who in MHCLG you notified about your dinner with Mr Desmond and why you did not notify them at the earliest opportunity?
I look forward to your reply.
Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government