Robert Jenrick has insisted he does not regret the decision to approve a controversial property scheme in east London, but said he wished he had not sat next to and shared text messages with a Conservative donor behind the project.
The housing secretary’s comments come after he faced calls to resign in June over his links with the billionaire developer Richard Desmond and his move to overrule the local council and give the green light to the 1,500-home Westferry Printworks scheme.
The go-ahead for the development on London’s Isle of Dogs was eventually quashed and Mr Jenrick accepted the decision had been “unlawful by reason of apparent bias” after Tower Hamlet Council launched legal proceedings in the High Court.
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Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – as the government unveiled its overhaul of planning reforms in England – Mr Jerick was quizzed on why people should “trust him” with the proposals after the Westferry saga.
“Well I don’t think this does give more power to developers, it creates a much more certain system. It will, for example, fix the challenge of developer contributions once and for all,” the cabinet minister said.
Pressed again by presenter Nick Robinson not to “change the subject”, Mr Jenrick went on: “I’ve set out the events around that decision and there are definitely lessons to be learnt. I wish I hadn’t been sat next to a developer at an event and I regret sharing text messages with him afterwards.
He added: “But I don’t regret the decision, because I think it was right to get housing built on a brownfield site on a part of London that desperately needs it.
“The system that I’ve helped to design that is set out in the proposals we’re publishing today will actually move us forward significantly on some of the challenges that that case rose.”
Mr Jenrick came under fire for sitting next to Mr Desmond at a Tory fundraising event in November 2019, but previously said he had no knowledge of the businessman’s donation to the party and had acted on the “merits” of the case throughout.
A cache of correspondence released in June showed the cabinet minister was “insistent” that the Westferry case be completed ahead of the introduction of new planning regulations which would have cost the developer more than £40m.
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But Mr Johnson said he had full confidence in the housing secretary, with Downing Street insisting at the time the prime minister considered the case “closed” after cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, reviewed documents relating to the scheme.
The housing secretary added that he had “no idea” how much property tycoons had given the Tories since Boris Johnson became prime minister when challenged on the BBC. “Ministers are not involved in those issues, that is entirely for the Conservative Party,” he said.
On the government’s planning reforms, published today in a White Paper, the cabinet minister insisted “design and quality” were at the heart of the government’s new proposals. Responding to criticism from the Royal Institute of British Architects which said the plans are “shameful” and do “almost nothing to guarantee the building of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes”, Mr Jenrick told talkRADIO: “I think that is complete nonsense.
“More money is going to be spent on social infrastructure as a result of these reforms than has been in the past, and a much simpler system.
“These reforms are going to really help smaller builders. This isn’t going to help the big volume house builders, this is designed to help smaller builders get a footfall in the market – they’ve declined significantly over the course of the last 20 or 30 years.”