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Media captionRobert Jenrick confirms he will release letters

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has agreed to release documents related to a controversial planning decision, after pressure from Labour MPs.

Mr Jenrick told MPs he would publish all “relevant” information relating to the Westferry scheme in East London.

The minister approved the scheme 12 days before the developer gave £12,000 to the Conservative Party.

Labour says the timing raises “cash for favours” suspicions – but Mr Jenrick insists he did nothing wrong.

He said the accusations made against him were “not simply wrong but actually outrageous”, but he admitted “things could and should have been done differently”.

“On reflection, I should have handled the communication differently,” he said.

Labour had tabled a motion seeking to force the government to release all documents relating to the controversy, something the minister had previously refused to do.

Opening a Commons debate on the matter, shadow communities secretary Steve Reed said it had “blown apart” public confidence in the planning system – and the only way to put that right was to publish the papers.

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PA Media

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Labour’s Steve Reed was pushing for the publication of documents

Mr Jenrick replied by announcing that he would publish all of the relevant documents, including details of discussions the government “would not normally release”.

He said the material would kill off “all the wild accusations and the baseless innuendo” coming from the Labour Party.

“This was a decision taken with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process,” he told MPs.

Analysis

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PA Media

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The planned development is in London’s Docklands area

By Steve Swann, BBC News

Robert Jenrick came out fighting today, lambasting Tower Hamlets council for their house-building record and laying into the London mayor.

It was a strong defence of the need to build more homes.

At the heart of this row is one key question: was Mr Jenrick successfully lobbied by a developer?

The decision to release the documents will have surprised his opponents, but will it provide an answer to that question?

We may soon find out.

Mr Jenrick denied claims by Labour’s Toby Perkins that he would not have published the documents without pressure from Labour and that they had been “dragged out of him”.

He said the material had taken time to pull together in response to a call from Labour MP Clive Betts, chairman of the communities and local government select committee.

“Transparency matters, openness matters and settling this matter because I certainly don’t want to be the subject of the innuendo and the false accusations that the Opposition are choosing to peddle,” he said.

‘Broken trust’

He added that it was “not unusual” for ministers to “come to a different conclusion to that of a local authority” and to overrule the government’s planning inspectors.

“I stand by the decision I made. I believe passionately that Britain needs to build houses.”

In a statement after the debate, Mr Reed said: “Labour has forced the government to publish some documents in relation to this ‘cash-for-favours’ scandal after it could not convince its own MPs to cover up this shocking case of Tory sleaze.

“This is an important first step but it remains the case that Robert Jenrick still has serious questions to answer about his relationship with Mr Desmond and his unlawful, biased decision to approve the development.”

MPs voted through Labour’s motion calling for publication of all documents related to the case, and Mr Reed said the government had to comply fully “to restore broken trust in the integrity of the planning system”.

Affordable housing

The row centres around a 1,500 home development at the former Westferry printing works on the Isle of Dogs, in East London.

The developer, former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond, personally gave the Conservative Party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme was approved, in January.

Labour says the timing of the decision to approve the scheme – just a day before a new community infrastructure levy came into force – would have saved Mr Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50m.

It later emerged Mr Jenrick had sat next to Mr Desmond, and three Northern and Shell executives, at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner in November 2019.

Labour says Mr Jenrick also overruled his advisers to reduce the amount of affordable housing required in the development, potentially saving Mr Desmond a further £106m.

Mr Jenrick’s decision was challenged by Tower Hamlets Council, forcing the secretary of state to back down and say what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.

Councillors asked the High Court to order the government to disclose emails and memos around the deal.

‘Images of development’

Rather than doing this, Mr Jenrick’s lawyers conceded the timing of his decision “would lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility” that he had been biased.

Mr Jenrick said Mr Desmond had tried to raise the scheme with him during the dinner, and had invited him on a site visit, but that he had told the businessman he could not discuss it and declined the site visit, on the advice of his officials.

Mr Desmond told The Sunday Times last weekend that he had shown Mr Jenrick a promotional video for the scheme on his mobile phone during the fundraiser at the Savoy Hotel.

When pressed by the SNP’s communities spokesman David Linden about Mr Desmond’s claims, Mr Jenrick said: “He said he showed me a part of the video and I don’t recall exactly what happened, but he did bring out his iPhone and show me some images of the development.”

He said he had “informed the developer it was not appropriate to discuss the matter and I couldn’t comment on it”.

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