Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is under fire from the opposition parties over his decision to grant planning permission for a £1bn property scheme two weeks before the developer donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.
He denies any link between the events, but his critics say he still has questions to answer – he will face MPs on Monday at his regular departmental question time.
Did he disclose his contacts with the developer?
Robert Jenrick shared a table with property developer Richard Desmond at a fundraising dinner for the Conservative Party last November, a couple of months before he gave the green light for Mr Desmond’s £1bn Westferry Printworks scheme to build 1,500 homes in Docklands, east London.
A spokesperson for the housing secretary told the Daily Mail: “The developers did raise their application, but Mr Jenrick informed them that it would not be appropriate for them to discuss the matter with him, or for him to pass comment on it.”
Housing Minister Christopher Pincher said in the House of Commons on Thursday that “at all times he (Mr Jenrick) has disclosed any conversations that he has had with applicants”.
But did Mr Jenrick offer or was he advised to withdraw from the decision-making process because of this contact with Mr Desmond?
Why did he approve planning permission?
On 14 January, Mr Jenrick overruled a planning inspector and gave permission to build.
This was the day before a new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) came into force that would have meant the developer paying an extra £40m to support projects in Tower Hamlets, London’s poorest borough.
Tower Hamlets Council said this gave the appearance of bias in favour of the developer and so it appealed, arguing that the secretary of state shouldn’t be influenced by “a desire to assist the developer to avoid a financial liability”.
Legal papers seen by the BBC state that Mr Jenrick was advised by his civil servants that “a decision should be issued before the council adopted its new Local Plan and CIL charging schedule.”
There were concerns that a delay “could impact on the viability of the proposed development”.
Why did he then quash his own decision?
In May, Mr Jenrick accepted the timing of this decision “would lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility” of bias – and that the decision should be quashed and a different minister should decide.
Tower Hamlets Council and others believe he did this to avoid having to release documents relating to the decision.
Labour Mayor John Biggs said: “We may never know what emails and memos the secretary of state received before making his decision and what influence they had, but his reluctance to disclose them speaks volumes.”
Did he breach the ministerial code?
The ministerial code – a set of rules and principles issued by the prime minister which outlines standards of conduct – states that “if a minister meets an external organisation or individual and finds themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a social occasion – any significant content should be passed back to the department as soon as possible after the event”.
Ministers must also “declare and resolve any interests and relationships” and “take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias”.
The Liberal Democrats have written to Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to ask whether Mr Jenrick breached the code.
Sir Ed Davey, the party’s interim leader, wrote of “an increasingly expanding web of links between Mr Jenrick and Mr Desmond”.
The Electoral Commission published figures this week showing Mr Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservatives a fortnight after Mr Jenrick gave planning permission. Labour says this raised “cash-for-favours concerns”.
But a Conservative Party spokesperson said: “Government policy is in no way influenced by party donations – they are entirely separate.” And No 10 said the PM had “full confidence” in Mr Jenrick.