`Emails show housing secretary ‘passed Isle of Dogs £1bn Westferry deal to beat levy charge’ MPs told
PUBLISHED: 07:00 25 June 2020 | UPDATED: 22:19 01 July 2020
Newly released government documents show discrepancies in the housing secretary telling Parliament about his part in pushing through the controversial £1billion Westferry housing scheme 24 hours before planning levies were due to kick in.
Text messages and emails between Robert Jenrick and billionaire developer Richard Desmond appear to differ from his account to MPs yesterday over the two meeting at a Tory party fundraising dinner just weeks before he gave the Isle of Dogs scheme the green light.
He denied being influenced by sitting at the same table as Desmond where he was shown a Westferry promotion video and that he severed all contact with him.
But the messages released last night show a different account.
He sends a text to Desmond that night saying it was good spending time with him, adding: “See you again soon I hope.” Desmond replies: “Thanks Robert. I really appreciate your text. Will call your office tomorrow to arrange. Very best.”
What the minister told MPs was that Desmond tried to show him a Westferry promotion, then invited him to a site meeting, adding that he told the developer “it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss the matter” and that he immediately shut down all communication.
MP David Linden told the Commons: “The Minister should have run for the hills and never touched this issue ever again. This is worryingly close to example of cash for favours.”
But the secretary of state didn’t “run for the hills”, revealed by further contact with Desmond in the days following.
His department sent an email to Desmond to set up a meeting. Another email a day later said the secretary of state “understands that there may be some sensitivity with timing on final decision”.
"The secretary of state rushed the Westferry application through deliberately to help avoid a £30-50m levy to Tower Hamlets, money would have gone to fund schools, libraries, youth clubs and health clinics "
A text from Desmond a day later to arrange a site visit for December 19.
It added: “Good news finally the inspectors reports have gone to you today, we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe (dough) for nothing! We all want to go with the scheme and the social housing we have proposed and spent a month at the Marxist town hall debating, thanks again, all my best, Richard.”
The secretary told the Commons yesterday that he immediately severed all contact with Desmond after November’s fundraising dinner. But the messages continued.
He sent a text to Desmond saying: “Richard. As Secretary of State it is important not to give any appearance of being influenced by applicants of cases that I may have a role in or to have predetermined them and so I think it is best that we don’t meet until after the matter has been decided …”
But he received a text from Desmond in December, four weeks before his Westferry scheme gets the green light, saying: “Morning Robert. How does the advice look? We have to get the approval before January 15 otherwise payment of 45 million pounds to tower hamlets meaning we have to stop and reduce social housing thanks Robert. look forward to speaking soon. Best Richard”. But Jenrick doesn’t reply.
An email to Desmond from the Housing Department on January 9, the week before the go-ahead is given, states: “We have to provide reasoning to justify why the (secretary of state) is going against the recommendation of the inspector.
“On timing, my understanding is that (the secretary) was insistent that decision issued this week ie tomorrow – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the community investment levy regime.”
Jenrick insisted in the Commons yesterday that his decision was “made on the merits of the scheme” and blamed Tower Hamlets Council for failing to decide themselves after eight months.
But the council took the issue to the High Court to get all Westferry documents out in the open.
The move was forestalled when Jenryck’s housing department quashed his decision and not release the emails.
But pressure came from the Commons forcing their release anyway.
Mayor John Biggs said later in a statement to the East London Advertiser: “The documents Jenrick was forced to release are damning and look like he rushed through the decision to help save the developer money and short-change residents.
‘’The Minister referred (in the Commons) to our borough as ‘rotten’, and messages from the developer called our council ‘Marxist’. This name-calling says more about them and their disregard for residents who rightly want much-needed affordable homes and money for local services.’’
The shock revelations in the text messages and emails came during a separate Commons debate last night.
Labour’s Shadow Secretary Steve Reed told MPs: “There appears to be discrepancies on what the secretary of state told the Commons earlier, that rather than close down discussions (at the dinner) with the developer, instead initiated contact with him the next day which confirmed that he rushed (the Westferry application) through deliberately to help avoid a £30-50m levy to Tower Hamlets.
“That money would have gone to fund things like schools, libraries, youth clubs and health clinics in one of the most deprived communities anywhere in the country.”
The minister was accused in the Commons of “cash for favours” because Desmond gave £12,000 to the Conservative party soon after their fundraising dinner to push through a scheme that the East End opposed tooth and nail.
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