Tory Donor Pressured Robert Jenrick To Approve Housing Plan With Swipe At 'Marxist' Council

Documents state minister was “insistent” scheme was pushed through before a new levy would cost Richard Desmond-backed project millions of pounds.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick.

Media mogul Richard Desmond sent a series of texts to Robert Jenrick making clear the minister’s approval for a controversial housing scheme would save Desmond paying millions to a “Marxist” council.

Jenrick, the housing secretary, has been under fire for waving through the development at the former Westferry Printworks site on London’s Isle of Dogs in January, despite the scheme being rejected by the local council and planning inspector over concerns about the lack of affordable housing.

His decision, now quashed, was deliberately taken in time for Desmond, a Tory party donor, and his Northern & Shell company to avoid being liable for a new Tower Hamlets Council levy that could have cost between £30m and £50m.

After weeks of pressure, Jenrick’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on Wednesday night released all “relevant information” connected to the decision.

They include a number of revealing texts between Desmond and the under-fire secretary of state, as well as documents stating Jenrick was “insistent” a controversial development scheme was pushed through before the new levy came into force.

The texts appear to have been initiated by Jenrick in November last year shortly after the pair discussed the proposal at a Tory party fundraising dinner.

On the night of the event, November 18, Jenrick texted the media mogul saying it was “good to spend time with him” and looked forward to seeing him again.

In another exchange two days later, ex-Daily Express owner Desmond tried to arrange a meeting with the housing secretary on December 19 as well as a site visit to the Westferry Printworks.

He complained about dealing with “Marxists” and apparently referenced the so-called Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which would pay for vital public services in one of London’s poorest boroughs, as well as the “speed” at which the decisions needed to be made.

He wrote: “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 [sic] 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.”


Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of child poverty in Great Britain and is the tenth most deprived local authority in England.

Jenrick replied declining a meeting until after a decision had been made due to his position.

He said: “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, one way of [sic] another – and I can’t provide any advice to you on that, other than to say that I will receive advice from my officials after the general election assuming I remain in office and will consider it carefully in accordance with the rules and guidance.”

Further text message exchanges followed in December, beginning on December 13 when Desmond congratulated the housing secretary on the Conservative election win.

He said: “Robert, fantastic day today! So happy and relieved as the whole country is. Well done for keeping calm.”

Another message from Desmond followed on December 23, 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 (sic) meaning we have to stop and reduce social housing.”

According to the documents released by the government, Jenrick did not reply and it was not until January 22 that he got back in touch, after he approved the development, overruling both Tower Hamlets Council and a planning inspector.

Jenrick has already conceded his decision was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias” and confirmed his approval was deliberately issued before the new CIL policy could be adopted.

But in the cache of documents, which run to 129 pages, correspondence between the civil servants suggest for the first time that the “viability” of the scheme, if the levy came into effect, had an influence on Jenrick’s decision. Viability refers to the amount of profit the developer could reasonably expect to make in return for the risk it accepted by building.


In a January 9 email between staff at the MHCLG, one notes: “On timing, my understanding is that the SoS [secretary of state, Jenrick] is/was insistent that decision was issued this week ie tomorrow (Friday) – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime.”

Another email from the following day added: “LB [London Borough of] Tower Hamlets is adopting a new local plan and CIL regime next week. The appellant [Desmond] believes that the proposal would not be viable if it was liable to CIL charges.”

A judicial review of his decision triggered by Tower Hamlets Council has meant Jenrick was able to avoid publishing correspondence relating to the application in open court. Planning permission is now to be decided by a different minister.

Richard Desmond.
Richard Desmond.

Jenrick has been facing accusations of “cash for favours” and accusations of making a “morally wrong” decision, and the release follows Labour pressure in the House of Commons.

Late on Wednesday night, Labour’s shadow communities secretary Steve Reed raised a point of order in the Commons chamber, claiming there were “significant discrepancies between what [Jenrick] told the House and what is revealed in the documents”.

He added: “Specifically that he did not immediately notify officials following his dinner with the applicant Richard Desmond, that rather than closing discussion down with the developer, as [Jenrick] implied, he instead initiated contact with him the next day via text.

“And the letters confirm that he rushed through the decision deliberately to help the developer avoid a £30 to £50 million levy payable to Tower Hamlets Council.”


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