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Jenrick fails to show for key question as ‘cash for favours’ row grows

Beleaguered Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is under growing pressure to explain his part in a planning decision - now deemed illegal - which was shortly followed by the developer donating thousands of pounds to the Conservative Party.

Yesterday Jenrick was criticised for failing to conform with tradition in the House of Commons; he failed to come to the chamber for an emergency question on the planning controversy. Instead he sent his junior colleague, housing minister Christopher Pincher.

The controversy has its roots when Robert Jenrick and former newspaper magnate Richard Desmond sat on the same table at a Tory fundraising dinner in November last year. 

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In the New Year, Jenrick approved a plan put forward by Desmond to build 1,524 homes and many other kinds of development on an east London site, Westferry Printworks, despite a planning inspector recommending against giving it permission.

Only 21 per cent of the housing would have been regarded as affordable, significantly below the 35 per cent typically required.

Last month - in an announcement which was made during the Dominic Cummings affair and which received little publicity at the time - Jenrick admitted acting unlawfully in the decision, following legal action initiated by the local Tower Hamlets council. 

Jenrick’s January decision was made just one day before the council adopted planning rule changes which would have meant that Desmond would have had to pay between £30m and £50m more to the council.

Now - in a further twist to the story - the Daily Mail has this week discovered that Desmond donated some £12,000 to the Tory party two weeks after Jenrick’s January decision.

Scotland Yard has said it is “assessing” the issue and Jenrick was expected to face an urgent parliamentary question on the subject yesterday in the Commons - but instead he sent his junior colleague, Housing Minister Christopher Pincher.

In the Commons, Pincher told MPs that ministers never knew about party donors.

“These are…spendings made by donors that go to parties…declared in the proper and usual way, none of this is known to ministers, none of it is discussed with ministers…wasn’t discussed on this occasion” Pincher reported.

Now the Opposition is on the case with Steve Reed - Labour’s housing and communities spokesman, shadowing Jenrick - wanting more disclosure.

Reed told MPs yesterday: “The sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favours…the public needs reassurance that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fund-raising dinners.” 

The issue is all the more embarrassing for the government as Jenrick is currently floating proposals to give the private sector more involvement in a leaner, faster planning system for major developments.

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