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HOUSING SECRETARY Robert Jenrick defended his actions in a “cash for favours” scandal today by saying that it was an “occupational hazard” for planning ministers to be lobbied by developers.
He also said it was “perfectly fair” that he fast-tracked a controversial housing development in January that could have potentially saved billionaire former press baron Richard Desmond as much as £50 million in a tax imposed by Tower Hamlets council.
His justification comes after him having had to quash his own approval for Mr Desmond’s 1,500-home scheme on the Isle of Dogs earlier this year after conceding that the decision was unlawful due to “apparent bias.”
On Wednesday, Mr Jenrick was grilled by the housing, communities and local government committee over his role in the approval of the scheme, which saved Mr Desmond from a hefty tax bill and reduced the amount of obligatory social housing on his site.
The pair exchanged text messages following a meeting at an exclusive Tory dinner last November, and Mr Jenrick’s department described him as being “insistent” that the project be approved.
Mr Desmond had texted Mr Jenrick after the dinner to say that the scheme should be approved quickly before the council’s community infrastructure levy (CIL) was enforced, so that “Marxists” in Tower Hamlets’ town hall did not get “doe [sic] for nothing.”
Two weeks after the scheme was approved, Mr Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.
Labour claimed that the move to approve the application before the CIL came into force would have saved Mr Desmond’s Northern and Shell company, which used to own Express newspaper and Channel 5, up to £50m on the scheme, which was reported to be worth £1 billion.
Giving evidence to MPs on Wednesday, Mr Jenrick said: “I think it was a perfectly fair decision to try and get this done, one way or another, before the CIL charge came in.
“Who that benefits is of no interest to me. I’m not interested in the personal finances of the applicant.
“I’m interested in making a fair decision on the basis of the facts before a material change in circumstances occurs.”
But he admitted that elements of the initial decision to approve Westferry, which was made contrary to a planning inspector’s advice, could have been “handled differently.”
Mr Jenrick also said that he “regrets” having been sat next to Mr Desmond at the dinner, and that it would have been “better not to have exchanged text messages with the applicant” afterwards.
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