The Jenrick-Desmond row lays bare the rotten heart of the UK planning system

“The law was broken. There is no argument. At a dinner, a planning minister, Robert Jenrick, sat next to a developer who attempted to lobby him to allow a gigantic £1bn project in London’s Docklands. He then reversed a public decision of his own department, and he expedited it to save the developer, Richard Desmond, some £40m in local levy. His party then accepted an admittedly paltry sum of money from Desmond.”

Simon Jenkins www.theguardian.com

To be fair to Jenrick, he denies none of this and, on legal advice, reversed his decision with lightning speed.

Ministers have resigned for less and have survived far worse. Jenrick’s boss, Boris Johnson, was lobbied by Desmond like mad and backed his scheme. He has since shown he regards sackings as nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with politics. Be loyal and you can do anything you like. In that at least, Johnson is consistent with his own behaviour. To sack Jenrick would be arrant hypocrisy. For Jenrick to go would be merely dignified.

The trouble with planning decisions is that they can seem arbitrary, which means merely matters of opinion. Possibly corrupting factors can always be at play. Jenrick’s Labour critics might reflect on an earlier Docklands development, in which a Labour cabinet minister overrode the grade-one listing of the finest historic docks in Europe, London Docks. He outrageously saw them demolished to favour a developer who also owned the (then) Labour-supporting Sun. The minister was Peter Shore, the docks were in Wapping, and the favour was to a certain Rupert Murdoch.

There is nothing new in the politics of property. Desmond and Jenrick might ask how the Vauxhall Tower got approved, or the Shard, or the Walkie Talkie, in many cases against strong local opposition. Centre Point was the result of a murky LCC deal over a roundabout. Conrad Hilton threatened Harold Macmillan that he would boycott London if prevented from breaking rules against towers around Hyde Park.

Civic vanity is the most potent of planning motives. At present not just London but Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Middlesbrough and even Norwich are promised random luxury towers that bear no relation to historic setting or social planning, any more than they relieve local housing need. The London property market, in particular, is now chaotic, massively distorted by money laundering and its status as a depository of the world’s spare cash. I am all for a vigorous London economy, but not this way.

Though figures remain wild guesses, it is estimated that 5% of central London homes may now lie empty. Industry experts estimate one-third of high-end flats in central London go to overseas buyers. The Guardian found just 30 of 214 flats in Vauxhall’s Tower had anyone on the electoral roll. This is the market at which Desmond and Jenrick were aiming, either second-home pieds-à-terre or empty investments for overseas buyers. They are about profits, not homes. This is not planning but anti-planning.

Tower Hamlets council can hardly complain. It has accepted the projected Spire London just up Westferry Road from Desmond’s nine-tower scheme, planned to be 67 storeys of more than 800 luxury apartments. The key to the scheme’s approval was a £50m payment by the developer to the council. Desmond, anxious to avoid making such a payment himself, texted Jenrick to say “we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!” London developers call such sweeteners “legalised bribes”, as they do not go to individuals. After a decade of austerity, hard-pressed councils find it hard to say no. That Tower Hamlets resisted Desmond is the true measure of his project’s monstrosity.

Such banana-republic antics are why planning has always been layered. It begins with local democracy – now the last real discretion left to local people. Local decisions are no less vulnerable to corruption than national ones, but at least they are accountable locally.

Overseeing them is an appeal structure to a Whitehall inspectorate. But this is polluted by ever more intrusive centralised direction, typified by the Jenrick saga. In the case of London tall buildings, it is further complicated by the London mayor being able to overrule a borough decision, even if then overruled by a minister.

The bottom is now falling out of the luxury market. Prices are estimated to be 20% below the peak and declining fast. The huge Earls Court development in west London went belly-up. If the London Spire is also on hold, it may be that Desmond has been saved from a white elephant.

Either way, this affair has exposed the decay of Britain’s urban planning. Central and local government should long ago have called a halt to the reckless boom in foreign investment, one that had nothing to do with domestic housing supply. Absentee owners should have been stopped from building London properties and leaving them empty. If Jenrick really meant his decision was to get “more homes built”, he would have insisted Desmond ensured they were only for UK occupiers in perpetuity. He did not, as it would have wrecked profitability. So he can’t have meant it. Aesthetic and skyline control should have been established for historic centres.

Rumours are now that Jenrick – on the instructions of Dominic Cummings – is proposing to introduce centrally imposed commissions with no local control. It is recipe for planning by legal appeal. The best argument for Jenrick to go is perhaps not what he did, but what he is about to do.

• This article was amended on 26 June 2020 to remove “UK” from a headline reference to “the UK planning system”. Planning is a devolved function.