Labour calls on Conservatives to repay Richard Desmond’s donation in Westferry planning scandal
Labour has called on the Conservative Party to repay the £12,000 donation made by billionaire businessman Richard Desmond. The donation was raised in an urgent question in Parliament today about Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick’s unlawful decision to approve Mr Desmond’s billion-pound Westferry planning application just days before he handed over the cash. The pair had been seen dining together at an exclusive Conservative Party fund-raising event just weeks before Jenrick forced the scheme through.
The Secretary of State refused to come to the House of Commons to face questions over his behaviour despite being seen in the MPs’ tea room moments earlier.
Mr Jenrick has admitted that his decision to over-rule Tower Hamlets Council and his own planning inspector was unlawful, but has not explained what the ‘apparent bias’ was that Government officials say lay behind it. Labour is calling for Mr Jenrick to come clean and publish all documents and correspondence relating to his decision to grant planning consent.
Housing Minister Christopher Pincher, standing in for Robert Jenrick, failed to answer questions about the Secretary of State’s role in the scandal despite Labour sending him the questions in advance.
Steve Reed MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:
“Instead of answering questions about his behaviour, Robert Jenrick sent in a junior minister to speak on his behalf while he laid low in the tea room. This attempt to avoid scrutiny shows contempt for the public who are concerned that Government ministers are offering cash for favours in the planning process.
“Robert Jenrick dodged questions from MPs about his biased and unlawful decision to over-rule his own advisors and force through a billion-pound luxury development which saved Richard Desmond tens of millions of pounds in tax. Just weeks later, Desmond made a generous donation to the Conservative Party.
“The Conservatives have broken confidence in the planning system. They can only mend it by returning the donation to Mr Desmond and Robert Jenrick should immediately publish all correspondence with Richard Desmond so the public can see the true reasons for his decision.”
Notes to editors
FULL TEXT of Urgent Question by Steve Reed
Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State will not have public confidence to overhaul the planning system until we have full transparency over his unlawful decision to force through the Westferry development.
He gave consent to the scheme on 14 January in the teeth of opposition from Tower Hamlets Council and his own planning inspector, who both considered the scheme over-sized and lacking affordable housing.
When Tower Hamlets took out a judicial review to challenge the Secretary of State, he took the extraordinary step of admitting his decision was unlawful because of apparent bias. That meant he avoided publishing all correspondence revealing the true reasons behind his decision in open court. Can the Minister tell us what that ‘apparent bias’ was?
The developer, Northern & Shell, is owned by the billionaire Conservative Party donor Richard Desmond. Mr Desmond sat next to the Secretary of State at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner just two months previously and admits they discussed the development.
The Ministerial Code requires ministers to act with integrity, so did the Secretary of State disclose his conversation with Mr Desmond to the Department before granting permission? And since these circumstances clearly raise a question of bias, why did the Secretary of State not immediately recuse himself from taking this decision?
The Secretary of State gave the scheme consent one day before a Community Infrastructure Levy came into force – so did he know he was helping Mr Desmond dodge a potential £50m tax bill? Will the Secretary of State now disclose what contacts he or his representatives had with the developers about this tax?
By an astonishing coincidence, just two weeks after the Secretary of State took his decision, Mr Desmond made a donation of £12,000 to the Conservative Party.
This sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favours.
If he wants to restore trust, the Secretary of State must immediately publish all documents and all correspondence relating to this decision. The public need reassurance that the integrity of the planning system cannot be auctioned off at Conservative Party fundraising dinners.
- Christopher Pincher MP, Minister of Housing refuses to answer specific questions raised by Steve Reed MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am very happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, and certainly never question your judgment.
The hon. Gentleman asked first about the nature of the decision of the Secretary of State for a redetermination. The Secretary of State, with the support of the Mayor of Tower Hamlets and others in the local planning authority, believed the best course of action was for a swift redetermination of this particular issue. 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 the Secretary of State made the decision that he did.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the Secretary of State acted properly and with propriety in making clear to the Department all discussions that he has had with applicants; yes, he did. At all times he has disclosed any conversations that he has had with applicants.
The hon. Gentleman also requests me to describe my right hon. Friend’s relationship with the applicant. My right hon. Friend has no relationship with the applicant, so that question is irrelevant. Both the applicant and the local authority have asked my right hon. Friend to make a site visit. My right hon. Friend, in discussion with officials in our Department, weighed up the pros and cons of such a site visit and decided against.
As for the decision on 14 January, which is outlined publicly and which the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members can see online, that decision is all very clear. There were no discussions about the CIL issue between my right hon. Friend and the applicant. My right hon. Friend has been very clear about his involvement with the applicant. I do not think anything further needs to be added.
The applicant has, I think, paid for tickets to a Conservative party event. That is apparently where the funds came from. Ministers have no knowledge of funds provided to political parties through donations or through payment for tickets. These are spendings made by donors which go to parties of all persuasions. They are declared in the proper and usual way. None of this is known to Ministers, and none of it is discussed by Ministers. It certainly was not discussed on this occasion.
- Steve Reed MP sends questions to the minister in advance, so he has time to prepare full answers before he comes to the Chamber.