Owl losing count over Robert Jenrick’s questionable meetings

Robert Jenrick ‘breached planning propriety’ over Holocaust memorial site

The cabinet minister at the centre of a planning scandal is facing questions over a second case. The government department headed by Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, took control of a plan for a national Holocaust memorial days after he met the project’s main backers.

The idea of a memorial has wide support but the proposed site at Victoria Tower Gardens, a grade II listed park near the Palace of Westminster, is contentious. Opponents, including the Royal Parks and English Heritage, say it will obstruct protected views of parliament and alter the park’s character.

The application was called in by Esther McVey, then the housing minister, in November after Jenrick, her boss, recused himself because he had publicly backed the memorial.

Calling in the application stripped Westminster city council of its power to rule on the £102m project.

Jenrick is now facing questions after it emerged that he had met two of the project’s chief backers, and their lawyer, days before the application was called in.

The minister met property tycoon and philanthropist Gerald Ronson, who sits on the board of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, on October 7, public logs show. In a second meeting, on the 29th, he met the co-chairman of the foundation, Lord Eric Pickles. The foundation subsequently wrote to Jenrick to ask that the project be called in, announcing the request on its Twitter feed at 3.51pm on November 5.

That evening, it was. The move came hours before parliament was dissolved ahead of the general election. Pickles, who had previously said he had “not the slightest doubt [the memorial] will be built”, tweeted that he and the foundation’s other co-chairman, Ed Balls, were “delighted” by the decision to strip Westminster of its decision-making power.

The new controversy comes as Jenrick is at the centre of scrutiny over his decision to approve a Tory donor’s £1bn development despite the objections of planning officers and the local council.

Richard Desmond, the former owner of Express Newspapers, wants to build 1,500 homes on the site of Westferry Printworks in east London.

Baroness Deech said in the House of Lords last week that Jenrick’s meetings over the memorial appeared to be “another example” of “a breach of the guidance on planning propriety”, which states that ministers must not behave “unfairly” and that “privately made representations should not be entertained unless other parties have been given the chance to consider them and comment”.

She later said there was a “quite obvious conflict of interest because the minister, Mr Jenrick, has said repeatedly that [the memorial] will be built”.

The plans for a Holocaust memorial were announced in 2015 by David Cameron, the then prime minister. The proposal is for a memorial comprising 23 bronze fins, plus an education centre.

After being stripped of the case, Westminster council’s planning committee rejected the proposal unanimously in February, saying it contravenes rules on size, design and location.

Jenrick’s department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), says the final decision will be made “independently” by the new housing minister, Christopher Pincher, following a public inquiry.

A judicial review has been sought by London Parks & Gardens Trust, which claims Jenrick and his staff cannot be impartial.

Jenrick is also the plan’s applicant because the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation is part of his department.

MHCLG said it could not comment on the judicial review but that “all planning decisions taken by ministers are taken in line with published propriety guidance, which states that planning decisions must be made solely on the basis of valid planning matters”.

It made no comment on Jenrick’s meetings.


Nudge nudge, Wink wink: ‘I followed the rules,’ said minister

“Three Homes” Robert Jenrick watched housing promo video on Richard Desmond’s phone.

Gabriel Pogrund, Emanuele Midolo, Tom Calver and George Greenwood www.thetimes.co.uk

Robert Jenrick watched a promotional video for a £1bn housing development on media mogul Richard Desmond’s personal mobile phone weeks before overruling his officials and approving the scheme.

The secretary of state for housing, communities and local government viewed the clip promising a “new urban oasis” in east London during a Conservative Party fund-raiser held at the Savoy Hotel last November. The disclosure came in a rare interview with Desmond, who said: “What I did was I showed him the video.” He said the minister watched it for “three or four minutes”, adding: “It’s quite long, so he got the gist.”

The allegation is a challenge to Jenrick’s claim that he did not discuss the development in any way at the £900-a-head dinner and will reignite a “cash-for- favours” row over his decision.

On January 14, eight weeks after the dinner, Jenrick overruled a planning inspector and approved the plan to redevelop Westferry Printworks into luxury flats. It is the only time he has rejected official advice to back a scheme. It later emerged that he acted less than 24 hours before a local levy would have come into force, requiring Desmond to pay £40m. He also waived affordable housing rules, a decision estimated to have saved the former Daily Express owner a further £106m.

Last month, Jenrick reversed his approval for the scheme because he accepted it was “unlawful” due to “apparent bias”.

Desmond defended Jenrick last night, saying that after watching the clip, the minister said: “I’m sorry Richard. I can’t discuss it.” He said: “But the poor bloke’s getting pilloried, I suppose, and it’s really not fair on him.”

The tycoon instead blamed Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, for the scandal, alleging that he privately offered his support for the scheme before doing a U-turn. He said Jenrick was a “pro-building minister”, while Khan’s conduct was “crap” and was “just trying to stop Britain being great”. He said: “[Sadiq’s] guys are the baddies. Jenrick is just a man who wants to build houses. It went to the government a year ago! A f***ing year ago, man!”

The fundraising dinner at the heart of the scandal took place in the capital on November 20, where the prime minister, Boris Johnson, delivered a speech. At the time, Jenrick, 38, had seized control of the planning application from the local council and was about to rule on whether it would go ahead. As guests bonded under golden chandeliers in the Lancaster ballroom and awaited a speech from the PM, Desmond showed him the cinematic tour through his dream development.

The video itself is utopian. Cranes arch over a glistening waterfront as pedestrians sip artisanal coffee and stroll across landscaped grass. Behind them are 1,500 new homes and a new school. The 12-minute video shows how the Westferry Printworks, a disused site on London’s Isle of Dogs, could be transformed into a 1,500 home waterfront community. The youngest minister in Boris Johnson’s cabinet and a friend of his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, Jenrick insists that the details of the scheme were not discussed.

Similarly, Desmond, says the dinner might be a raw illustration of how power works, but did not approach corruption. He said: “I’ve had lots of dinners, mate. You’ve had lots of dinners. I have [Labour MP] David Lammy to the house over Christmas. I’ve been to dinner with Sadiq Khan and his wife. You know? I mean, it’s business . . . you want to know what’s going on, don’t you?” Asked why Jenrick approved the project despite opposition from the mayor and the council, he said: “He’s a pro-building minister.” Desmond added: “All we ever wanted to do, all we want to do, is build more homes in London in a first-class development, where in fact Joy [his wife] and I are going to have an apartment. We want to be proud of it. We’ve even, for a piss-take, called it Desmond Boulevard.”

When Tower Hamlets council challenged Jenrick’s decision in March, saying it broke planning rules, inconvenient facts emerged. The minister had given approval just a day before a new tax on big developments, the community infrastructure levy, was due to take effect and cost Desmond £40m. A property consultancy, BNP Paribas Real Estate, acting for the council, calculated that a separate decision by Jenrick to waive affordable housing rules saved the tycoon £106m.

Jenrick told MPs last week that it was “not unusual” for ministers to overrule planning officials. But analysis reveals it was the first of 27 decisions made during his tenure in which he has rejected advice and given a project the go-ahead.

Desmond, 68, said he “never even discussed [the levy]” and that reducing the proportion of affordable homes was needed to make the scheme viable. But instead of defending his decisions and being forced to disclose documents, Jenrick performed a U-turn last month, accepting that his decision was “unlawful” as it created the “appearance of bias”. He handed the final decision to another minister and recused himself.

Then it emerged that Desmond had declared a £12,000 gift to the Tories in late January, a fortnight after Jenrick approved the plan and his first donation to the party for three years.

Speaking from his home in Hampstead, north London, Desmond dismissed the donation as too small to be significant. “We’re being asked to put down £800m [at Westferry]. I mean, quite big numbers, aren’t they?” He said the donation was simply the cost of his table at the dinner in November.

But the event has raised other questions. On the other side of Jenrick was Richard Martin, commercial director of Northern & Shell, Desmond’s company behind the Westferry plans. They were joined by Martin Ellice and Rob Sanderson, the group’s joint managing directors, and David Grover, the development executive at Mace, the construction company overseeing the scheme. Henry Bellingham, an MP turned lobbyist, and the Daily Express and Mirror editors, were also there.

Desmond says he did not know Jenrick would be next to him. Conservative Party headquarters did not respond to a question asking how seating was arranged. Chris Pincher, the housing minister, told MPs nine days ago he had “no idea” if Desmond had asked for the table.

When the tycoon spotted Jenrick arriving at the table for the 8.15pm dinner, the former owner of Channel 5 assumed that they would talk shop. He said: “I thought, oh, that’s good, he wants to know a bit more about the development, good!” As the men sat down, Desmond showed him the video. Desmond said Jenrick saw just enough of the 12 minutes to get the “gist” of it and thanked him. Desmond is adamant Jenrick then said he could not go further, saying: “I’m sorry, Richard. I can’t discuss it.” Desmond said he then “turned” to talk to others at the table. He said: “That was the end of it.”

He blames Khan, saying the mayor encouraged him to raise the scheme’s housing density at an event for the Queen’s birthday at the Royal Albert Hall in 2018. “Khan rushed up to me . . . ‘You haven’t got enough buildings on your site. Would you like to have more buildings?’ And that’s where it all started.”

Desmond enlarged his project from 700 homes, approved under Johnson as mayor, to 1,500. A year later, he appealed to the government for a decision, arguing that Tower Hamlets was taking too long, while cutting the proportion of affordable homes from 35% to 21%. Khan and the council expressed opposition. Desmond said yesterday that at midday on October 22, 2018: “Sadiq’s people [Rajesh Agrawal, deputy mayor for business, and James Murray, then deputy mayor for housing] came into my office and started waffling. I said: ‘Are you backing me on this f***ing development!?’ His planning man, James Murray, said ‘yes’. I said, will you confirm to me you’re backing this?’ Yes, yes, it was all fine. Then they U-turned.”

Labour sees it differently. Steve Reed, the shadow communities secretary, said: “It looks like Mr Jenrick auctioned off the planning system to a billionaire donor at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner. If that’s the case, this is a major breach of public trust.”

Asked why there was such controversy, Desmond conceded his reputation was unlikely to have helped. “There’s nothing I can do. I mean, the more I do, the worse it is,” he said.

The publisher, whose wealth was calculated as £2bn by The Sunday Times Rich List, is determined to push ahead. “It’s not me with a fag packet having a quiet chat with a bloke over a bowl of chicken soup, it’s an enormous amount of work for all parties, enormous. This is a one-off scheme where we want to make something really great for the area.”

On Jenrick, he added: “The guy made the right decision. More houses for more people. How could that be wrong?”

The cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, is examining the case, but No 10 has denied it amounts to a formal investigation.

Last night, Jenrick’s spokesman said: “Mr Jenrick and the applicants were put on the same table for the dinner, although Mr Jenrick was not aware of this prior to arriving at the venue. The planning application was raised, but Mr Jenrick said that it would not be appropriate to discuss the matter or for him to pass comment on it.”

This is a turning point — now cut the quips and lead – Sunday Times Editorial

“…Most of the failures in Britain’s response to Covid-19 have arisen from an excessively centralised and top-down approach. There has been nothing world-beating about the development of a test, trace and track system. The development of the NHS’s own, and unique, tracing app has been a Whitehall farce.

Localised outbreaks are highly likely, as the government’s science advisers have learnt, and the response should be local, through public health officials who know their areas and have the experience to act. They can do so effectively. For, once we are out of this lockdown, with its huge costs to the economy, business and education, there must never be another one.”

The Sunday Times www.thetimes.co.uk 

The drumbeat from Westminster is getting louder and points to an unmistakable conclusion. Boris Johnson will this week announce that the two-metre social distancing guidance will be reduced to one metre from July 4. Pubs, restaurants and cafés, many of which would not be viable if the two-metre guidance had remained in place, will have a chance of salvaging some trade.

It is too late for the millions of pints of beer that have had to be thrown away, but this move is better than the alternative of continued closure or trading so restricted that it is hardly worth the effort.

Reducing the two-metre guidance also provides a better opportunity for sorting out schools in time for next term. Gavin Williamson may not inspire much confidence, but the education secretary’s ambition of getting all pupils back into school in September, backed by the prime minister, has a far better chance of success if social distancing guidelines are relaxed.

We have reached a crucial stage in the response to Covid-19. The past few days brought two pieces of genuinely good news. One was the discovery by a team of Oxford University scientists that the decades-old steroid dexamethasone reduces the death toll among those who are seriously ill with the coronavirus.

The other was the announcement on Friday by the chief medical officers for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that the Covid-19 alert level can be reduced from four to three. Ministers had hoped that this could have happened sooner, but it is better late than never.

Now it is up to the prime minister. There is still a chance to save what is left of the summer. He once talked of picking the ball up from the back of the scrum. It is important that he does not drop it again. His most recent address to the nation, on May 10, with its questionable equations and talk of world-beating systems, was a bit of a mess.

The first requirement this week, then, is clarity. It will be a moment when the things that Mr Johnson is good at, the colourful turn of phrase and mischievous delivery, are not required. As we move out of a public health emergency, people want clear and consistent messaging, not sub-Churchillian rhetoric.

A second requirement is that the government leads, not follows. “Guided by the science” has been the mantra for many months but, as we report today, the government appears to be guided as much by opinion polls and focus groups. Those polls show a drop in Conservative support and in Mr Johnson’s approval rating, particularly after the Dominic Cummings episode, but also that the public is cautious about easing lockdown measures. The main justification for the harebrained 14-day quarantine scheme for arrivals from abroad appears to be that it is popular with voters. Although we have faith in the great British public on many things, we would not expect people to be experts on virus transmission.

It is not surprising that people are cautious about easing the lockdown. For three months or more the government has been telling them to stay at home or keep their distance. But now is the time for leadership. The quarantine scheme, which currently includes arrivals from low-infection countries, is as daft as it looks and is no doubt being widely flouted. When the law is an ass, it can expect to be kicked. An alternative, a testing system for arrivals, with quick results, is already on the table.

Mr Johnson’s big fear, of course, is getting blamed for a second wave of the virus. Ministers haughtily dismissed the easing of measures in other countries, as they did the initial lockdowns, on the grounds that these countries were setting themselves up for second waves which Britain would avoid. But that, by and large, has not happened and, where there have been further outbreaks, these have not been widespread. In Germany and South Korea, which have been more successful at managing the pandemic than the UK, further outbreaks have been localised and identifiable.

That is an important message and lesson. Most of the failures in Britain’s response to Covid-19 have arisen from an excessively centralised and top-down approach. There has been nothing world-beating about the development of a test, trace and track system. The development of the NHS’s own, and unique, tracing app has been a Whitehall farce.

Localised outbreaks are highly likely, as the government’s science advisers have learnt, and the response should be local, through public health officials who know their areas and have the experience to act. They can do so effectively. For, once we are out of this lockdown, with its huge costs to the economy, business and education, there must never be another one.

Build 100,000 ‘homes for Covid-19 heroes’, say UK council leaders

At least 100,000 homes should be built every year to rent to key workers who have helped fight coronavirus and to the families of those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, according to a report by the Local Government Association.

The cross-party LGA says the modern day “homes for heroes” plan would also help regenerate the economy and create many thousands of jobs, while massively cutting the nation’s huge housing benefit bill.

Its report, to be published this week, says the 100,000 target should become part of the government’s wider ambition for building 300,000 homes a year. The new social housing could also be used to accommodate the many thousands of rough sleepers who were placed in hotels and other temporary places during the pandemic.

The LGA’s report, Building new social rent homes – an updated economic appraisal, is evidence of growing pressure on ministers to use house building as central part of economic regeneration measures, which the prime minister Boris Johnson has said will be announced by the chancellor Rishi Sunak within weeks.

The LGA research found that investment in a generation of social housing would create £320bn for the country over 50 years through increased economic activity. It also found that every £1 invested in a new social home generates £2.84 in the wider economy with every new social home generating a saving of £780 a year in housing benefit.

David Renard, LGA housing spokesman and Tory leader of Swindon borough council, said the scheme would be a modern day version of the “home for heroes” house building projects after the world wars. “As the nation comes through the biggest crisis we have faced since the second world war, we owe it to the health, care and other essential public service workers, who have risked their lives to keep the country running, to provide them with affordable, high-quality homes,” Renard said.

“The government should let councils take charge of the housing recovery, by giving them the powers and tools to build more of the affordable homes the country desperately needs.”

Groups of housing associations, developers and architects have been pushing similar ideas as the effect of the pandemic on construction and the wider economy has become clear.

The LGA wants ministers to expand council housing by bringing forward and increasing its £12bn extension to the Affordable Homes Programme, announced in the budget earlier this year, with an increased focus on homes for social rent. The vast majority of homes delivered under the scheme – which involves private and public- sector funding – are for ownership not rent.

The council leaders also say the “right to buy” system should be reformed with councils able to retain 100 per cent of receipts from the sale of homes.

Not Invented here! – NHS Covid app developers ‘tried to block rival symptom trackers’

Prof Tim Spector, of King’s College London, said that NHSX had treated his Covid symptom tracker research team as “the enemy”. “We were hampered from the beginning, in March when we first contacted NHSX,” he told the Observer. “They were very worried about our app taking attention away from theirs and confusing the public.

The over-centralised approach, adopted by the Government across the board, to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic is costing us all dear. It ignores the wealth of expertise, effort and good will available in local communities to seek imaginative solutions and cut red tape. – Owl

NHSX, the health service technology unit responsible for the government’s failed contact-tracing app, attempted to block rival apps to protect its own, hampering efforts to track the early spread of the coronavirus.

Developers of several apps were urged to stop work by either NHSX or the Ministry of Defence, who told them their apps might distract attention from NHSX’s app when it was launched. Last week the app was abandoned after three months, with work beginning on an alternative design without any deadline.

Prof Tim Spector, of King’s College London, said that NHSX had treated his Covid symptom tracker research team as “the enemy”. “We were hampered from the beginning, in March when we first contacted NHSX,” he told the Observer. “They were very worried about our app taking attention away from theirs and confusing the public.

“Lots of signals went to places like the universities, my university, the medical charities and the royal colleges not to back our app because that would interfere with their one.”

When the pandemic hit the UK, tech workers, academics and health professionals responded to Boris Johnson’s call for a national effort by creating smartphone apps to help track the spread of the virus.

The Covid Sympton Study app has 3.5 million users and has helped chart the emergence of symptoms such as the loss of taste and smell. Evergreen Life, with 800,000 users, has been working with the universities of Liverpool and Manchester and spotted signs of the outbreak in Middlesbrough before tests had been carried out. The government’s app, meanwhile, was downloaded by tens of thousands of people on the Isle of Wight and never formally launched.

The rival apps could still form a vital part of the early warning system if, as some scientists fear, a second wave of Covid-19 hits the UK. The Covid Symptom Study app indicates that while the number of people reporting symptoms across the UK has been decreasing, numbers in London have remained static for the past three weeks.

Spector said that although people in the NHS had wanted to work with his team, they told him privately that everything needed to go through NHSX, which was set up by Matt Hancock after he became health secretary, and previously operated outside the main structure of the health service. “We naively thought they would sort of take our app over or incorporate them into one,” he said. “The whole point was to help the NHS, to find the hotspots so they could get the resources to the right hospitals.”

Instead, he said he was told the app was a problem. “The idea was that this NHSX app was going to be the saviour, another world-beating thing,” Spector said. “It was going to be an all-singing, all-dancing app that does everything: diagnoses you, it tells you about tests for you and who you’ve come into contact with.

“They were saying: ‘This will make your app redundant’. Their app would come out, there’d be a huge blaze of publicity and everyone would drop our app. We said: ‘Well, if that does happen, we’ll hand over and work with you, it’s in the interests of the country.’ Theirs just got more and more delayed – nothing ever happened. Ours got more and more successful,” Spector said.

Had ministers backed the app in England, more people would have signed up more quickly, Spector said. “We would have got more fine-grained data earlier. Their attitude prevented other branches of government working with us.” Users of the Covid Symptom Study who report symptoms can now order a test directly through the app. “That would have started earlier,” he said.

Spector said he was working with the joint biosecurity centre, which has been set up to create an early warning system for Covid-19 and other diseases. “Plenty of people within the NHS have been very helpful,” he said, naming Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser. King’s will be launching a campaign on Monday to persuade the government to support the app.

The devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland also adopted the app early on. “We have proportionally many more users there,” he said. “I know, from speaking to other people from the Ministry of Defence who were helping out, they put even more pressure on some of the other apps to close them down early.”

NHSX has set up “Project Oasis” to gather data from eight tracking apps. One technology firm characterised the relationship between them as “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.

Ian Gass of Agitate, which set up Ink C-19, an app designed to make reporting symptoms as simple as possible, said he was approached by the MoD in March and described the interaction as “not friendly”: “Not that it was aggressive, but I got the impression that there was just a lot of panic going on in governmental circles, and they didn’t know what to do or how to do it. They intimated that they’re doing stuff, and we don’t want others doing it.”

Agitate is a leading expert in tech security and Gass tried to advise NHSX in March that its app design, which attempted to use Bluetooth signals to sense when a phone came close to another, was flawed. In theory, the app was supposed to keep a record of other phones, and if a person developed symptoms, the app could send an alert to those phones. Yet the app only recognised 4% of Apple phones using Bluetooth.

“The whole overall approach at the moment is this weird, almost paranoid state where the government says publicly that they’re asking for help, but then they don’t want it,” Gass said.

Planning Applications for East Devon week beginning 8 June

Owl hasn’t posted planning applications for a couple of weeks (distracted by the changing of the guard). Owl has also been advised that applications for a particular week may not be finalised until the first few days of the following week. So here is the list for week beginning 8 June.