Boris Johnson Backs Cabinet Minister in Planning Row

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson backed Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick after allegations he saved Conservative Party donor Richard Desmond millions of pounds by waving through a controversial housing project.

The Westferry Printworks redevelopment project, in east London, was approved in January by Jenrick against the recommendation of a planning inspector and was later reversed after legal action by the local authority.

Tower Hamlets Council said the “timing of the decision appeared to show bias” as it was made a day before new infrastructure charges came in to force, allowing Desmond to avoid paying between 30 million pounds ($38 million) and 50 million pounds to the Labour-run authority.

The two men met at a Conservative Party dinner, but Jenrick refused to discuss the development project when Desmond raised it with him, Housing Minister Chris Pincher told the House of Commons on Thursday as he answered questions about the deal on Jenrick’s behalf.

“The applicant raised the issue of Westferry with him at that dinner,” Pincher said. But Jenrick “made it absolutely clear that he could not discuss planning matters, that he would not discuss that planning matter and the issue was closed,” he said.

Two weeks after the housing plan was approved, Electoral Commission records show Desmond gave 12,000 pounds to the Conservatives. Desmond is founder of Northern & Shell Plc, which used to publish celebrity magazines, including OK!, as well as the Daily Star and Daily Express.

“This sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favors,” Steve Reed, who shadows Jenrick for the opposition Labour Party, told lawmakers as he urged the housing secretary to publish all his correspondence on the decision. “The public needs reassurance that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative Party fund raising dinners.”

Johnson’s spokesman James Slack told reporters the prime minister has confidence in Jenrick. “The housing secretary has rejected the suggestions there has been any bias in the actual decision,” he said.

Johnson, who was elected in December, is loathe to lose senior ministers so early on in his tenure. He stood by his Home Secretary Priti Patel over allegations she bullied a senior civil servant and has not yet released a report on the incident. He also refused to fire his key aide Dominic Cummings over allegations he broke lockdown rules during the coronavirus pandemic.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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