Riddle of Tory minister Jenrick, the media mogul and a £1bn housing development

“Three homes” Robert Jenrick appears to be doing his own thing again. – Owl

“Housing secretary Robert Jenrick gave a “behind closed doors” briefing on government plans to reform the property sector at an event hosted by the public affairs firm which acted for Richard Desmond on his controversial £1bn east London housing development.”

The revelation piles further pressure on the Conservative party over its links to the former media tycoon whose application to build more than 1,500 homes at the site of the former Westferry print works on the Isle of Dogs was approved by Jenrick. He later withdrew approval after Tower Hamlets council launched legal action against the decision.

The public affairs firm, Thorncliffe, which acted for Desmond’s Westferry Developments Limited, helping promote the project to local people and other interested parties, hosted the Jenrick briefing in early February – a month before the government published its planning white paper.

According to a report in Property Week, Jenrick, at the “closed-door meeting”, discussed the government’s intentions to overhaul the property sector and provided examples such as making first-time buyers eligible “for around 30% market sale discounts”.

A spokesman for Jenrick said the meeting was an official “stakeholder” event, and he had been accompanied by a private secretary, a senior civil servant.

Steve Reed, the shadow communities and local government secretary, called on Jenrick to explain his links with Thorncliffe. “These latest revelations demand urgent answers from the secretary of state and from No 10: we need to know how many times they met Thorncliffe, why Robert Jenrick gave them a behind-closed-doors briefing about the future of the planning system, and the full nature of their role in the Westferry Printworks proposal.”

Thorncliffe, which describes itself as “political and community consultation experts”, hosted an event at the Carlton Club in May 2016 where Sir Eddie Lister, deputy mayor of London under Boris Johnson, and the man who approved Desmond’s original Westferry application, was the star draw. On its website, the firm describes Lister as “a great friend of Thorncliffe” who is “a great influence on Boris”.

Last week the Times reported that Johnson had three meetings with Desmond in the months before Lister approved the original scheme. Westferry subsequently applied to double the number of apartments on the site from 722 to 1,524.

This new application was publicly approved by Jenrick on 14 January, the day before a levy was introduced that would have resulted in Westferry paying an additional £40m to Tower Hamlets, London’s poorest borough.

Last week, it emerged Desmond paid £12,000 to attend the Tory party’s Carlton Club fundraising dinner last November, at which he and others involved in the development sat on a table with Jenrick. A spokesman for the minister confirmed that the developers raised the application, but insisted that Jenrick refused to discuss it.

The spokesman told the Observer: “The secretary of state – like other cabinet ministers present – attended the dinner at the invitation of the Conservative party. There is therefore nothing to declare.”

The ministerial code of conduct states: “If a minister meets an external organisation or individual and finds themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a social occasion – any significant content should be passed back to the department as soon as possible after the event.”

The spokesman said: “I can confirm that the department was informed of the dinner. To suggest otherwise is factually incorrect.”

However, a source close to the department claimed no record of Jenrick’s dinner with Desmond had been recorded in official documents relating to the Westferry application.

Andrew Wood, a councillor in Tower Hamlets, who resigned from the Tory party over Jenrick’s decision, has called for the Cabinet Office and MPs on the housing select committee to launch investigations. He asked why Jenrick accepted Westferry’s proposal to reduce affordable housing on the site from 35% to 21%, and to ignore two planning experts who questioned the merits of the scheme which will now have to be redetermined.

Richard Patient, managing director of Thorncliffe, declined to say how many times the secretary of state had met with the firm, and added that it had never undertaken political lobbying on behalf of Westferry Developments. Media representatives for Westferry did not respond to requests for a comment.

New inquiry launched into Britain’s ‘wild west’ electoral laws

A group that advises the Prime Minister has announced a review of Britain’s out-dated electoral campaign rules.

Author: Josiah Mortimer  www.electoral-reform.org.uk
The independent Committee on Standards in Public Life is an independent advisory body to the Prime Minister on ethics in public life. The group has launched a public consultation following growing concern over the ‘wild west’ in electoral laws in today’s digital age.

The Committee is inviting views on the way donations and campaign expenditure by candidates, political parties and non-party campaigners in election and referendum campaigns are regulated and enforced by the Electoral Commission, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Police. The consultation is now open, and closes on Friday 31st July.

Last October, the ERS also launched the Loophole List of gaps in our electoral law that are putting democracy at risk. Some of the loopholes mean that donors based in foreign tax havens, or operating through untraceable shell companies can pump in money to influence our political parties. Others allow for unscrupulous individuals to pay for anonymous ‘dark’ ads on line, or pump out disinformation during election periods to sway the result.

Announcing the review, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Jonathan Evans said: “We intend to look at electoral regulation from first principles – what really matters in this area? What values and principles should guide regulation of finance during elections?”

The Committee has a lot of clout, helping to push for the Electoral Commission to be set up 1998. Since then, digital campaigning has ‘revolutionised the way parties and campaigners engage with voters’: “It has made it harder to track how much is being spent, on what, where and by whom,” Mr Evans said.

This review will look at the system for the regulation of election finance and whether it meets the challenges of elections in the 21st century.

This consultation should be read alongside the terms of reference for the review, to get a clear idea of what they’re looking for.

Anyone with an interest in bringing campaign rules into the 21st century can make a submission. The Committee is welcoming submissions from members of the public, so this is your chance to have a say. 

Read the ERS’ Reining in the Wild West report for more information on how to bring our electoral law into the digital age – and put voters first.

The ERS also contributed to the All Party Political Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency’s January 2020 report Defending our Democracy in the Digital AgeThis ground-breaking report set out 20 recommendations on how to protect UK elections and referendums from ‘dirty money and dodgy data misuse’.

Hinkley Point C: Dust cloud released as nuclear site silo is damaged


A tower at the Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor site was damaged early on Wednesday (June 10th), releasing a dust cloud in the area.


Hinkley Point C


A spokesperson for EDF, which is building the site, said the silo suffered structural damage at about 7.30am.

They said the tower, which was being used to make concrete, did not collapse and nobody was injured.

A spokesman for EDF said: “At around 7.30am a silo in the concrete batching plant at Hinkley Point C suffered structural damage, releasing a dust cloud around the area.”

“Nobody has been injured and the emergency services were not required. An investigation is underway to understand the cause of the event.”

A large dust cloud was caused because the silo contained finely ground particles of Ground Granulated Blast Furnace Slag (GGBS), which are added to the concrete mix, the spokesperson said.

How Devon could have kept its covid infection rate even lower with the right leadership

“As corporate director of Ceredigion county council, Rees, 51, is credited with designing and implementing a “homemade” contact-tracing system that has helped turn Ceredigion into the safest county in mainland Britain, with the lowest infection rate of any local authority.”

Why didn’t we in Devon do something similar?

As owl has mentioned before, Owl believes it was because no one in Devon took overall responsibility for coordinating and managing the local expertise and effort available in the most serious emergency since WWII – see piecemeal response to “please come back later” campaign. All decisions have been taken in Whitehall and local leaders appear to have been content for that to happen.

Early contact-tracing in Welsh county credited with keeping coronavirus infection rate low

Tony Allen-Mills www.thetimes.co.uk

In a quiet corner of Wales renowned for the beauty of its coastline, a former biology teacher named Barry Rees has emerged as a reluctant hero of the battle against the coronavirus. He would much rather no one talked about him, in case all his good work is undone.

As corporate director of Ceredigion county council, Rees, 51, is credited with designing and implementing a “homemade” contact-tracing system that has helped turn Ceredigion into the safest county in mainland Britain, with the lowest infection rate of any local authority.

“Barry is a bit shy,” said Ben Lake, the Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion, which stretches along Cardigan Bay with a sparsely populated hinterland climbing into the Cambrian mountains. “He’s very modest, but a lot of credit needs to go to him for driving this effort forward.”

Last week the council recorded three new cases of the virus, bringing its total since January to just 45 out of 75,000 residents. Only seven people have died in Ceredigion since the virus took hold of the rest of the country, a death rate one-tenth of the worst-affected parts of Wales. “We are very proud of what Barry and his team have achieved,” said Peter Davies, one of 13 councillors named Davies on the 42-member council.

There is only one snag to Ceredigion’s record, summed up by a Lampeter student on Facebook. “Shhh!,” wrote John Voloudakis. “If we publicise how low the Ceredigion infection rate is, the infected hordes will . . . seek out places they think will be safest, but bring more incubating virus with them.”

It was early in the year that Rees read reports of the contact-tracing schemes of southeast Asian countries. Before his county recorded a single Covid-19 case, Rees and his team set up a tracing scheme that has since been copied by the Isle of Anglesey and is being adapted by Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire councils.

On Friday, Rees appeared before the Welsh parliament’s health committee with Ceredigion’s chief executive, Eifion Evans, to explain how his tiny scheme succeeded where a broader national test-and-tracing effort stumbled. “It has inspired everyone,” said Dai Lloyd, the committee’s chairman.

“In Ceredigion we were facing losing 600 residents by the end of June if we did nothing,” Evans said. As Easter approached, the county’s population was close to twice its usual size, with thousands of students at Aberystwyth University and visitors flocking to Cardigan Castle and the sandy beaches of Tresaith, Aberporth and New Quay.

Even after the university closed and holiday camps and caravan parks shut down, epidemic models were still predicting 200 deaths in the area, Evans said. “We asked, what else can we do? Loss of life is not an option.”

It was at a “gold command” emergency strategy meeting that Rees “piped up”.

“We had scope to create a homemade system. We had colleagues with experience of tracing cases of legionella and food-poisoning. Given that our [virus] numbers were very low, we thought
contact-tracing could be effective,” he said. It proved more than a question of ringing around to ask locals who they had been in contact with. “We were moving to new ground in terms of using personal data,” said Rees, who joined the council two years ago after a 16-year career as a teacher. “We had data protection officers to ensure we were operating within legislation.”

For national tracing efforts, he noted, “the starting point . . . is receipt of a positive test result”. But Rees found a way of getting started much earlier. As one of the largest employers in the county with 4,000 staff, the council had “good information” on employees calling in sick with coronavirus symptoms. “We could follow them before they were tested. The fact that we were able to pick up some of our staff at a symptomatic stage, rather than waiting for a positive result, was very beneficial in turning this around.”

Rees is the first to acknowledge that many other factors helped contain the virus in Ceredigion, from the low density of the population to its distance from the main travel corridors of the M4 and A55, and the council’s rapid introduction of restrictive measures. Rees said his team had contacted every one of the confirmed cases and every member of council staff who reported virus symptoms. Not everyone was thrilled to hear from the tracking team.

“Some people can be quite defensive,” he said. “But the vast majority welcomed the intervention and felt supported by it.”

Last week it became clear that the council’s pride in its virus-beating status was tinged with angst over word getting out. The main fear in Ceredigion is that a return of tourists and students might mean a return of the virus.

The Welsh government has come under increasing pressure to follow England’s example in easing lockdown restrictions. “There is serious concern about the impact on the Welsh economy,” said Matthew MacKinnon, director of the Centre for Welsh Studies in Cardiff.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that Rees has done a terrific job, even if he shies from media attention. The council declined to make him available for interview, leaving unanswered the big question posed by Bev Espley on the county’s Facebook support group: “Why hasn’t it been done on a national level?”

Tories accused of dropping ‘donor club’ lists

The Conservatives have been accused of ditching a public register of the Prime Minister’s dinners with the party’s biggest donors — eight years after David Cameron introduced the measure following a cash for access row.

By Edward Malnick, Sunday Political Editor 13 June 2020 www.telegraph.co.uk 

Details of the party’s elite “donor clubs” have been removed from the Tories’ website, along with previous quarterly registers of donors invited to meals with Theresa May, Boris Johnson’s predecessor.

Party donors Mr Johnson is understood to have met since entering Downing Street include Richard Desmond, the publisher and property developer who gave £12,000 to the Conservatives on January 28.

Under changes introduced by Mr Cameron, the Conservatives published lists of donors who attended dinners with the party leader, having joined the £50,000-a-year “leader’s group”.

But the page setting out details of the group, and past registers of such dinners, has been removed from the Conservatives’ website since the election.

On Saturday night, Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, said: “The public have a right to know which party donors get special access to the Prime Minister during a private dinner.

“Without this transparency the public will assume that it’s one rule for Tory donors and another for the rest of us.”

The disclosure came as Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, was embroiled in a row after it emerged that he had sat next to Mr Desmond at a dinner in November, two months before he approved the businessman’s application to build 1,500 homes in east London on the site of the Westferry Printworks. Mr Jenrick has said he refused to discuss the application at the dinner. 

Last week it emerged that Mr Johnson met Mr Desmond several times during his time as Mayor of London, and this newspaper understands that they have also held talks since Mr Johnson became Prime Minister. Mr Johnson has said he has never had any conversations about the proposed development.

On Saturday it emerged that Sir Edward Lister, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, had also attended the dinner in November, but a Conservative source said he also had no involvement in discussions about the scheme.

Previous versions of the register revealed dinners that Mr Cameron hosted in the official residence above No 11 Downing Street, as well as donors, including Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Russian finance minister, who attended meals with Mrs May.

Until earlier this year, the party’s website contained a “donor clubs” page. A description of the most elite group stated: “The Leader’s Group is the premier supporter Group of the Conservative Party. Members are invited to join the Leader and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches.” Membership of the group was listed as £50,000 per year.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “There is no question of any individual influencing Party or Government policy by virtue of any donations they may give to the Party or their attendance at Party events.

“Donations to the Conservative Party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”

The spokesman added: “We remain committed to publishing the register of Leaders Group meals and will do so in due course.”

On Saturday, Steve Reed, the Shadow Communities Secretary, called for the publication of all documents relating to the Westferry Printworks site, in order to ensure “public trust in the probity of the planning process.”

Oooh look what Diviani and Jones (LEP) are up to ….

In Owl’s view these two old men have been too influential for too long in the strategic planning of the South West. They represent the historic failure of our local economy to do anything other than bump along the bottom. And yet they are still listed as directors on the Community Interest Company called  Diverse Regeneration Company  which claims  to be experts in rural regeneration since 2005.

Until people like them step aside we will remain in a rut.

Paul Diviani was given the heave-ho by the electors of East Devon last May. Previously he had been a board member of the Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEP,  a member of Exeter and East Devon Growth point board, a member of Exeter and East Devon sub-regional spatial strategy steering group etc. He also will be remembered for initiating the East Devon Business Forum. Readers might be interested in looking in depth at his business experience, in pantomime amongst other things, and his academic qualifications here. He appears to have also joined DRG in 2012.

Tim Jones is Chairman of the South West Business Council (formally the Devon & Cornwall Business Council). He has recently finished a six-year term with the Heart of the South West LEP as Board Member and its founding Chairman. Also, an 11-year term as a Board Member of Devon Chamber.

Tim has active business interests and has been involved for over 35 years in a wide range of property issues.

Their photos seem to have been taken a very long time ago as well! So not moving forward!

Elections possible in Sidmouth after two councillors resign


Voters have a chance to request an election in the East and South Wards of Sidmouth Town Council following the resignations of councillors Louise Thompson and John Rayson this week for personal reasons.

John Rayson served on Sidmouth Town Council since 2015 and Louise Thomson since 2019. Chair of Sidmouth Town Council, councillor Ian Barlow said: “Both John and Louise brought their own unique skills to the council which benefitted many of the projects were are still working on. They put a considerable number of hours into their work as councillors on behalf of the community. Their presence in the Chamber will be missed.”

Any ten electors for the electoral area may give notice requesting that an election should be held to fill such vacancy.

Such a request must be signed and sent to the Returning Officer at East Devon District Council or sent electronically, which must incude a scan of the electors signature, to electoralservices@eastdevon.gov.uk by Midnight on July 2.