More Concerns over Tory donors, Robert Jenrick and planning decisions

The final decision on whether to allow 1,000 new homes to be built at Sandleford Park could be made by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, despite concerns of a conflict of interest as the owner of Bloor Homes – the developer which has submitted the appeal – has donated more than £1.3m to the Conservative Party.

Dan Cooper www.newburytoday.co.uk 

Plans for a major development at Sandleford Park – situated just off Monks Lane in Newbury– have been in the pipeline for more than a decade.

The first planning application was submitted by Bloor Homes in December 2015 but refused by West Berkshire Council in November 2017.

Bloor has since submitted a further four applications, but these have also been rejected by the council and the developer has now decided to appeal.

The appeal was due to be decided by a Planning Inspector, but the Secretary of State has exercised his powers to ensure that the decision is made by his ministerial team instead.

The reason given was that “proposals for residential development of over 150 units would significantly impact on the Government’s objective to secure a better balance between housing demand and supply”.

However, there are concerns Mr Jenrick’s team could be presented with a conflict of interest as the owner of Bloor Homes, John Bloor, made a £962,000 donation to the Conservatives in the lead up to the 2019 General Election.

He also made a donation of £400,000 before the 2017 General Election through his company, JS Bloor.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said Mr Jenrick may not have the final say and it could be “made by one of his ministerial team on his behalf and in his name instead”. They also insisted Mr Jenrick had not personally asked for the application to be called in.

West Berkshire Council executive member for planning Hilary Cole admitted she was “very surprised” to hear that the application would be decided by Mr Jenrick’s ministerial team.

“I was certainly surprised when I found out, but he is entitled to do so,” she said. “We have to go with it, we don’t get any say on the matter.

“The developer is entitled and within their right to appeal the refusal and we will see what will come of it.”

The founder of Say No to Sandleford – a campaign group which was set up to fight the proposals to build new houses at the site – said the situation may present “an awkward conflict of interest”.

Peter Norman added: “The trouble is any development called in by the Secretary of State will always be mired with suspicions as to the motivation behind it.

“Developers are major contributors to the Tory Party coffers and we have seen the Secretary of State get into trouble with past decisions because of this.”

In April 2020, Mr Jenrick faced calls to resign after official documents revealed he approved a £1bn property development in order to save the Tory donor’s company behind the scheme paying tens of millions of pounds.

Correspondence released by Mr Jenrick’s department revealed the minister was “insistent” the 1,500-home Westferry Printworks project be approved the next day to ensure tycoon Richard Desmond’s company avoided paying between £30m and £50m in council infrastructure levies.

The Newbury Weekly News asked the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) the following questions:

– Can Mr Jenrick reassure local residents he will remain completely impartial and won’t be influenced in any way by the applicant’s links to the Conservative Party?

– Does he see how this could be seen by some to be a potential conflict of interest?

– Will Mr Jenrick be required to declare an interest or declare that the owner of the company that wants to build the homes has donated money to the party he represents?

A spokesman for the MHCLG responded: “Planning decisions are made in line with propriety guidance to ensure transparency and fairness.

“The decision to recover this application was made by officials without ministerial involvement, and one of the planning ministers at the department will decide on the application in due course.”

In a letter to the council from the MCHLG it says: “Although the appeal was to be decided by an inspector, the Secretary of State considers that he should determine it himself.

“This means that instead of writing a decision, the inspector will prepare a report and recommendation which will be forwarded to the Secretary of State.

“This direction is being served on the inspector, the appellant (or their representative) and the local planning authority.”

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