The Jenrick/Desmond saga debunked in 10 points
Financial Times - CC BY 2.0
With debate raging about Messers Jenrick and Desmond and who said what, when and to whom, the DI team thought it might be helpful to unpack all the noise with absolute clarity for our esteemed clients and friends. Here goes:
1. Jenrick raised the the Westferry Printworks case with officials two days after meeting the scheme’s developer
It has previously been revealed that Robert Jenrick met Richard Desmond, the developer of the Westferry Printworks site, at a Tory party fundraising dinner a couple of months before his decision. However, the newly published documents reveal how soon after the 18 November dinner Jenrick's particular interest in the case was noted by officials. Two days after the dinner, an MHCLG official reported receiving an urgent enquiry from the Secretary of State’s office. “SoS has flagged a case in Westferry London Docklands (redevelopment of a printworks or something like that?)” the enquiry read. “He understands a ministerial decision on this is likely to be coming up soon and also that there may be some sensitivity with timing of final decision.”
Nothing wrong here. He was doing what a sensible minister should: finding out the background to a controversial issue shortly to come before him.
2. One day after the dinner, the housing secretary arranged a further meeting with Desmond
On 19 November, the day after his dinner with Desmond, Jenrick emailed a parliamentary colleague: “Could you contact this lady and set up a meeting with Richard Desmond.” Correspondence from Desmond’s office reveals a meeting was quickly arranged for 19 December and Jenrick was advised he would be “welcome here at our offices for a cup of tea first then they can head over to the development to take a quick look.” The meeting was subsequently cancelled.
A clear mistake borne out of a total lack of experience. This is what happens when inexperienced MPs, not having done time in the salt mines of being a backbench MP and then a junior minister for years, become SoS too quickly.
3. MHCLG officials said Jenrick was “insistent” a decision be issued before CIL charges kicked in
Jenrick has previously conceded that the timing of his decision on the case was influenced by his desire to ensure the development was not forced to pay charges of around £40 million under a CIL charging schedule adopted by Tower Hamlets Council in mid-January. The documents reveal the strength of Jenrick’s feelings on the matter. On 9 January, an MHCLG official emailed: “My understanding is that SoS is/was insistent that decision [sic] issued this week ie tomorrow - as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime.”
Despite what opposition conspiracy theorists might like to think, there is nothing wrong here. The SoS was keen to consent the scheme and could see that any delay in decision-making would render it unviable. This is what ministers should do.
4. Jenrick took his decision against the advice of his own planning experts
Officials within MHCLG advised the housing secretary that they were in agreement with an inspector’s recommendation that the application should be refused. In a briefing note dated 13 December 2019, they said: “We consider there are no material considerations which indicate that the proposal should be determined other than in accordance with the development plan. We recommend that you dismiss and refuse planning permission. Do you agree?”
Again, no problem here either. It is the SoS in law who must make the judgement. It’s his decision, not civil servants or the inspector’s. History is full of examples where a SoS has refused or approved applications against officials’ advice.
5. MHCLG officials raised concerns about the potential for a legal challenge
Advised that Jenrick intended to approve the application, MHCLG officials warned that the decision could be the subject of a legal challenge. In an email sent on 10 January, one official said the SoS was “entitled to reach a contrary decision to any inspector but the reasoning for this must be clear”, adding: “I am reluctant to produce another document to highlight things that might in itself end up as evidence in any challenge.” The nature of the document the official had been asked to produce is unclear from the correspondence. The same day, a member of the MHCLG planning casework unit emailed: “Risk is unfortunately inevitable when we disagree with an inspector’s recommendation, particularly when, as in this case, it is very thoroughly argued and evidenced.”
Once more, nothing wrong here. Civil servants are just stating fact: there is always risk of JR and that is more so if a SoS determines against civil servant or an inspector’s advice.
6. Desmond texted Jenrick about the scheme several times in the weeks before decision
After meeting Desmond at the fundraising dinner, Jenrick texted the developer: “Good to spend time with you tonight Richard. See you again soon I hope.” In the following weeks, Desmond contacted Jenrick several times to lobby him about the Westferry Printworks application. At one point, Jenrick told Desmond: “At SoS 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.” Nevertheless, on 23 December, Desmond texted the SoS state: “We have to get the approval before January 15 otherwise payment of £45 million pounds to Tower Hamlets meaning we have to stop and reduce social housing.” The texts can be read in full here.
To have entertained back and forth comms with an applicant of a live application currently before him is just plain dumb. Again, this is born out of a complete lack of experience.
7. The Tory donor told Jenrick he wanted to avoid giving a ‘Marxist’ council ‘loads of doe [sic]’
On 20 November, Desmond texted Jenrick, expressing his appreciation that progress on the case could help him avoid making additional payments to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets under its soon-to-be-introduced CIL. “We appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe for nothing!” said Desmond. “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.”
Nothing for Jenrick to answer for specifically here – they are Desmond’s words not his – but again he should have not been engaged in the conversation in the first place!
8. Jenrick has defended his decision to allow the appeal in advance of CIL charges
The housing secretary wrote to Clive Betts, chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, advising of his decision to publish the documents relating to the Westferry Printworks case. In the letter, Jenrick defends his efforts to decide the case before CIL charges would apply. “There was no bias in favour of the developer, but a perfectly legitimate interest in making a decision, one way or the other, prior to the material change that was due to occur on 15 January,” he said. “To characterise it otherwise is entirely wrong.”
No problem. The SoS was doing his job.
9. But the secretary of state has also expressed ‘regret’ at his handling of the case
Jenrick also advised that, while he felt the case has been “politicised by the opposition”, he acknowledged “the strong argument that things could and should have been handled in a different manner”. The housing secretary said he should not have exchanged phone numbers with Desmond. “The dinner, and the contact that followed, has allowed for baseless innuendo and false accusations to be spread,” he said.
Even such an inexperienced SoS had by this point finally woken up to his error, not in the actual decision-making or due process but in the perceptions surrounding his actions.
10. Guidance for ministers on propriety in planning decisions will now be reviewed
The housing secretary told Betts he has asked MHCLG officials to review existing guidance for ministers on how to ensure propriety in planning decisions. Jenrick said he had asked for a review of Planning Propriety Guidance “to see how there can be clearer, practical guidance to ministers and civil servants.” He added: “This will help ensure the highest standards of conduct in public life, whilst recognising the need for interested parties –including local members of parliament – to be able to make representations on the public interest.”
This is buck passing, trying try suggest things aren’t clear when they manifestly are. He could just read and understand the existing advice!