Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick has expressed confidence “all the rules were followed” when he approved a major property scheme involving a Tory party donor.
The Housing Secretary told MPs he took a decision over the 1,500-home Westferry development in “good faith with an open mind”, amid Labour warnings he was embroiled in a “cash for favours” row “that now reaches inside Number 10 Downing Street”.
Mr Jenrick also said Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government officials knew he was attending a Conservative Party fundraising dinner, that he had “inadvertently” sat next to Westferry developer Richard Desmond, and that the project was raised with him at the event.
He added that he told Mr Desmond he could not discuss the matter.
The Metropolitan Police have told Mr Jenrick they will not be investigating allegations connected to the development, MPs heard.
He swerved a Commons grilling on the issue last week but opposition MPs made sure they quizzed him at his department’s questions session.
The Westferry Printworks redevelopment in east London, said to be worth £1 billion, was controversially approved in January by Mr Jenrick against the recommendation of a planning inspector.
The decision has since been reversed after legal action by Tower Hamlets Council, which had voiced concerns over the size of the development when the plans were submitted in 2018.
In a statement in May, the local authority said the “timing of the decision appeared to show bias” by the Cabinet minister as it was made a day before new infrastructure charges came into force, allowing the developer – former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell firm – to avoid paying between £30 million and £50 million extra to the council.
Two weeks after the minister stepped in to approve the scheme, Electoral Commission records show that Mr Desmond personally gave £12,000 to the Conservatives.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Jenrick said: “I took that decision in good faith with an open mind. And I’m confident, confident that all the rules were followed in doing so.
“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.
“And my predecessors did so on a number of occasions.”
Mr Jenrick said he is taking advice on what further documents can be published relating to the case.
Labour’s Liz Twist (Blaydon) asked why Mr Jenrick did not immediately recuse himself from taking a decision on Westferry instead of “unlawfully trying to force it through”.
Mr Jenrick replied: “My department knew about my attendance at the event before I went to it, they knew about the fact I had inadvertently sat next to the applicant, I didn’t know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table, and I discussed and took advice from my officials within the department at all times.”
Labour’s Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) asked Mr Jenrick if he knew a new levy costing the developer tens of millions of pounds extra would come into force the day after he signed planning consent.
He replied: “That was a matter of public record referred to in the Planning Inspectorate’s report that my department received in November so all parties would have been aware of that.”
Labour’s Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) said a whistleblower in Mr Jenrick’s department had said there is “no record” of the Tory fundraising dinner in official documents, adding: “This is potentially a serious breach of the ministerial code, especially as the Secretary of State himself has just admitted that it is a highly contentious application.”
Mr Jenrick said he had already told MPs the department was “fully informed” of his attendance at the event, adding: “I discussed with my officials the applicant had raised the matter.
“Of course I advised the applicant I was not able to discuss it and so I think I’ve answered her question comprehensively.”
SNP MP Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) pressed him over his “entirely unsatisfactory” answers, adding: “Will he now explain to this House… why he thinks it is appropriate for him to remain in post while the police investigation into his behaviour is ongoing?”
Mr Jenrick criticised Mr Sheppard for making “factually incorrect” points, adding: “I understand that a Labour member of the House of Lords did make an allegation to the police.
“That was swiftly assessed by members of the Metropolitan Police and they informed that there were no criminal matters to investigate and they had no intention of taking it further.”