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.”

One thought on “Nudge nudge, Wink wink: ‘I followed the rules,’ said minister

  1. “I followed the rules…” Ah – those “one rule for me, entirely different rules for normal people” rules.

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