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.