Jacob Rees-Mogg faces questions over land for housing development

Jacob Rees-Mogg is facing questions over whether he will benefit financially from a family trust that is believed to hold land proposed for a new 60-house development in the face of huge local opposition.

Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com 

Rees-Mogg, who spoke in favour of reforming planning laws when a cabinet minister, is not listed as owner of the land adjoining Underhill Farm in Somerset, where developers have applied for planning permission.

However, there is evidence to suggest the land is held in trust for members of the Rees-Mogg family – a structure that may help them minimise inheritance or capital gains tax bills and legally allows its ultimate beneficiaries to remain secret.

The development, part of which is in Rees-Mogg’s own constituency, is being fiercely opposed by people living in the area, with more than 135 objections from neighbours to the plans and opposition from Midsomer Norton town council on the grounds of ecological concerns, traffic and pressure on services.

Curo, the developer, applied for planning permission for the site in July. Since then, neighbours have raised environmental concerns about loss of wildlife, including deer who roam free in the field, and buzzards, as well as worries about overcrowding, traffic pollution, and noise.

Asked whether he had an interest in the trust that holds the land and whether he or a close family member had the potential to benefit from it financially, Rees-Mogg declined three opportunities to comment.

Underhill Farm and the adjoining plot proposed for development are listed separately on the Land Registry as owned by a business manager, Thomas Meadows, who has former links to the Rees-Mogg family companies, and a tax planning lawyer, Richard Cussell.

Rees-Mogg previously applied for planning permission in his own name at Underhill Farm in 2015, even though it was officially listed as being owned by Meadows and Cussell, and there is a house on this plot named Mogg Parlour. Rees-Mogg’s company, Saliston, also bought a bungalow on a road bordering the site in 2019.

Rees-Mogg has declared that he is the beneficiary of a family trust on his register of ministerial interests, although it is not clear whether this is the same trust. He also declares a financial interest in property, land and related farm buildings in Somerset on his register of MPs’ interests.

This is separate from his family home, the £2.9m 17th-century mansion at Gournay Court, his £5m five-storey London townhouse, and at least one more London property believed to be in Pall Mall.

Rees-Mogg’s father, William Rees-Mogg, declared on his House of Lords register that he owned building land at Underhill before his death in 2011.

Rees-Mogg has never commented publicly on the development. However, he has publicly praised the developer, Curo, a social housing association and house builder.

In the Commons in December 2021, while the planning application was already being prepared, Rees-Mogg said Curo did a “really good job”.

He added at the time: “The government are committed to increasing house building. The sheer volume of house building is what ensures that there are houses for everybody. Whether it is social or affordable housing – however it is defined – we need to build more, which is why it was announced in the Queen’s speech that there would be a planning bill.”

Rees-Mogg has several times personally spoken in favour of loosening planning laws and co-written a book about increasing housebuilding. Measures proposed by Liz Truss’s government, in which he was business secretary, included relaxing regulations on planning relating to EU rules, affordable housing, nutrient pollution and biodiversity.

Helen Morgan, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for housing, said Rees-Mogg should be transparent.

“If Jacob Rees-Mogg has nothing to hide then he has nothing to fear. It is right and proper that the public know whether he is set to profit off this land or not,” she said.

“If he does have an interest, then people will rightly want to question why he, when a minister, pushed for loosening housing laws. Local communities have a right to scrutinise who profits from large housing developments. Rees-Mogg’s constituents have a right to full transparency.”

A spokesperson for Curo said they understood the land proposed for development was held in trust but they had not communicated with the owners. “We are a not-for-profit housing association. Our development arm exists to build desperately needed new social housing in our region. We have been working with the appointed land agent to secure planning permission for new homes; we have never had any discussions regarding this site with the land owners,” the spokesperson said.

In its application, the developer has made the case that it can minimise ecological impact to meet its obligations and that the site meets local need, while making a “positive contribution to the character of the existing surrounding settlement”.

Cussell said he was unable to comment. Meadows did not reply to requests to comment.

The proposed development is in Ston Easton in Mendip council area, which allocated the land in its local plan, but the access road and closest settlement is in Midsomer Norton in Bath and North East Somerset, where more people are objecting to the proposals. Midsomer Norton is Rees-Mogg’s constituency, but Ston Easton is covered by neighbouring Conservative MP James Heappey.

Ston Easton is the village where Rees-Mogg spent much of his childhood living in a manor house, Ston Easton Park, before it had to be sold by his father in the late 1970s.