It's Time Robert Jenrick Examines His Conscience

The housing secretary should take a deep breath and resign, Rushanara Ali writes.

Far from putting an end to the matter, the release by Robert Jenrick of some of his papers relating to the Westferry development scandal has only generated more questions for him to answer.

The papers would have been released under Freedom of Information laws anyway; yet he still refuses the full disclosure that Labour has been demanding. The question must now be why?

The Westferry affair is complicated and labyrinthine, with many twists and turns. However, one big truth has emerged from Labour scrutiny: the minister responsible for taking the decision over a multi-million-pound planning application sat next to the billionaire developer and his associates at a fundraising dinner, and was shown a promotional video for the scheme.

Mr Jenrick subsequently took a timed decision which materially benefitted the developer Mr Richard Desmond, by some estimates to the tune of £50 million, and at the same time deprived our cash-strapped local authority of the same amount.

Tower Hamlets Council had unanimously rejected billionaire Desmond’s new proposals, which clearly prioritised the developer’s purse over providing for residents. By reducing the ratio of “affordable homes” from 35% to 21%, Mr Desmond saved £106 million. So the local community has been denied over £150 million worth of affordable homes, surgeries, schools and shops. This disgraceful situation was made public thanks to the relentless campaigning and championing of local people and by Tower Hamlets Deputy Mayor Rachel Blake, and the Mayor, John Biggs along with other local Councillors.

When Labour hauled Mr Jenrick in front of the Commons yesterday, we witnessed a weapons-grade attempt at deflection and obfuscation. Tory MP after Tory MP sought to blame Tower Hamlets council. All Tower Hamlets councillors, representing our local communities, have ever wanted to do is see more affordable homes, shops and schools for local workers and families, and not titanic Manhattan-style skyscrapers for oligarchs and hedge fund managers. The luxury flats on offer not only price out local communities, their eye-watering price tags also stretch the budgets of high-earners in the City and Canary Wharf.

“Robert Jenrick should examine his conscience, take a deep breath, and resign.”

Britain's Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick speaks during a coronavirus media briefing in Downing Street
Britain's Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick speaks during a coronavirus media briefing in Downing Street

Mr Jenrick’s contortions were presented as paragons of ethical behaviour. He claimed over and over again the Tom Jones defence: It’s not unusual, he claimed, for Ministers to ignore the advice of their planning inspectors, to sit with billionaires over Savoy dinners and watch slick videos about planning applications, and to admit to acting unlawfully but then carry on in ministerial office regardless.

This is certainly a breach of the ministerial code. Yesterday’s papers also drag the senior civil service into the matter, and run the risk of the politicisation of the civil service.

On the Today Programme this morning, the business minister Nadhim Zahawi seemed to suggest that local Conservative fundraisers, in Doncaster for example, are regularly witness to local people lobbying their MPs over planning applications. This appears to be a brazen admission that Tory fundraising dinners are organised for lobbyists to meet ministers and MPs reviving the question of cash for access.

The plain truth is that it is all highly unusual. Highly irregular, indeed. That’s why the Leader of the Conservative group on Tower Hamlets council resigned from his office and his party, citing directly Robert Jenrick’s behaviour and calling for a police investigation.

That’s why the journalists of the Times and Daily Mail, no less, have pursued the story. That’s why my colleague Steve Reed MP, the Shadow Communities Secretary, has tirelessly sought the truth. As the former leader of Lambeth council, he knows the planning laws backwards, and he recognises that on Westferry something smells rotten.

Robert Jenrick should examine his conscience, take a deep breath, and resign. However the real tragedy is not Mr Jenrick’s hubris but that once again the communities of the East End have been left high and dry by property developers cutting corners and seeking a swift return.

Still our local residents are living in tower blocks with Grenfell-style cladding, which the Government has not yet paid to have removed. Tower Hamlets has one of the highest numbers of high-rise buildings with ACM cladding in the country, and there are over 20,000 people on the housing waiting list.

Despite valiant efforts by the local council, the area is blighted by overcrowding and poor-quality accommodation. Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of child poverty in the country, with nearly six out of ten children living in households suffering from the debilitating effects of poverty.

The Westferry scandal reveals yet again that some property developers are like sharks scenting blood in the water, seeking to take advantage of surging real estate values in our area. They come, they build, they create glittering towers filled with million-pound apartments, and having made a killing, they swim silently away, scattering a few crumbs in the direction of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. Surely the East End deserves better than this.

Rushanara Ali is Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.