New housing secretary Michael Gove is facing calls to return £100,000 in donations he received last month from a property developer, with political opponents warning of a potential conflict of interest.
Robert Booth www.theguardian.com
Parliamentary records show that Gove registered two donations of £50,000 from a German property developer, Zak Gertler,three weeks ago. The Gertler family developed offices in Germany and has been linked to property deals in London and Birmingham after moving into the UK in the 1990s. The new housing, communities and local government secretary previously accepted £10,000 from the same donor in July 2016 to help his abortive party leadership bid after the Brexit referendum, and the same amount again in June 2019.
Gove is now in charge of planning in England and faces a decision on whether to scrap reforms championed by his predecessor Robert Jenrick, which were set to give developers a freer hand over where and what to build – particularly housing, to meet the government’s target of 300,000 a year.
Gertler is not understood to be involved in housing in the UK, but Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Conservative planning reforms are already handing more powers to developers, and now it seems the new housing secretary is accepting donations from them too. To avoid any conflict of interest, Michael Gove must return this money.”
Jenrick became embroiled in a conflict of interest row when it emerged that the Conservative party accepted a donation from Richard Desmond shortly after Jenrick approved plans for a £1bn housing development by the property developer.
Steve Reed MP, Labour’s shadow communities secretary, said: “Michael Gove’s predecessor was sacked because Conservative MPs knew his disastrous planning reforms showed their party was in the pockets of wealthy developer donors, so there are serious questions to answer about whether this just means more of the same.”
Gertler has previously invested in commercial property in the UK, according to reports, and owns a UK-registered property services company, Gertler Properties Services, which says in its filing at Companies House that its business includes “development of building projects”.
Gertler, who is German but lives in Israel, according to Companies House records, has been contacted for comment through his family’s company in Frankfurt. There is no suggestion he has requested anything in return for the donation. He is described by the Jerusalem Post as a close friend of Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He reportedly hosted a 70th birthday party for the politician at his apartment in Tel Aviv.
He is among several repeat donors to the new housing secretary who include Lord Harris of Peckham, Charles Wigoder, a telecoms entrepreneur, Alan Massie, also a property developer, and Lord Wolfson, the chief executive of clothes retailer Next.
Meanwhile, the property industry, environmental groups and councils are waiting for Gove to decide how to reform the planning system. Gove was previously the Conservative housing spokesperson, in opposition to Tony Blair’s Labour party in 2006 and 2007, and during that time he suggested that better design of new homes could help reduce antipathy, telling parliament that he agreed with Prince Charles on that.
In one parliamentary contribution, he said: “Many of us believe that housing development should be organic – in sympathy and in tune with the local neighbourhood – so local materials should be used.”
In an interview with Building magazine in 2006, he said: “I don’t like centrally set housing targets. I’d like to see the back of regional government and regional plans and I don’t think having housing targets is helpful.”
Steve Reed said: “If the secretary of state wants to prove that his party is not in the pockets of the development industry, he should confirm that the government’s planning reforms are dead and buried.”
A spokesperson for MHCLG said: “All donations made to the secretary of state have been declared publicly and the proper process followed.
“The department has robust processes in place to ensure any potential conflicts of interest are managed appropriately. Ministers continue to be bound at all times by their obligations under the ministerial code.”
I like the idea that money that has been, shall we say improperly donated, to a political party should not benefit that party.
But simply returning such funds means that any dodgy outfit seeking to gain improper influence through donations faces no financial consequences if the deal fails.
May I suggest a rule change – to the effect that any donations deemed improper are not returned to donors but are forfeit to needy causes, or to fund more fraud and other serious offence investigators. After all, the donor never expected to see the money again so won’t miss it and, as today’s report on violence against women reveals (as though it was unknown\) , there is a desperate shortage of the highly qualified investigator staff needed to address the problem.
It might also dissuade attempts to bribe political parties.