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Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has said he “inadvertently” ended up sitting next to Richard Desmond at a fundraising dinner before he went onto approve the Tory donor’s property scheme.
Jenrick has admitted he “unlawfully” gave the go-ahead to the 1,500-home development at the former Westferry Printworks site on London’s Isle of Dogs in January.
His decision came weeks after the dinner and the day before Tower Hamlets Council approved a new rate for its Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) – a move that would have increased the property owner’s financial liability to the authority by between £30m and £50m.
The Mail on Sunday first reported that Desmond sat next to Jenrick at the bash in November last year. Jenrick says he refused to discuss the project when it was raised by Desmond.
Figures from the Electoral Commission also revealed Desmond gave the Tories £12,000 two weeks after Jenrick approved the scheme.
Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Jenrick said he was “confident that all the rules were followed” and that he would “entirely stand behind the decision”.
Labour’s shadow housing secretary Steve Reed accused Jenrick of being caught up in a “cash for favours” row.
Jenrick handed Desmond’s £1bn project a last-minute reprieve after the local council and the independent planning inspectorate both decided it should be refused. They had said it lacked enough affordable housing and conflicted with local conservation policy.
Jenrick said on Monday: “It isn’t unusual for a secretary of state to come to a different conclusion to a local authority.
“It isn’t unusual for a secretary of state to come to a different conclusion than a planning inspector, no disrespect to the great people who work there.”
But he told MPs he had now handed “all of the relevant information” on the decision to the cabinet secretary.
Jenrick said he had “inadvertently sat next to” Desmond at the dinner. “I didn’t know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table,” he said.
In March Tower Hamlets council began legal action alleging that the timing of the decision appeared to show bias.
Jenrick accepted his decision letter was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias” and confirmed it was deliberately issued before the new CIL policy could be adopted.
He agreed planning permission should be quashed and decided by a different minister.
A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “Government policy is in no way influenced by party donations – they are entirely separate.
“Donations to the Conservative Party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”