Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has admitted he regrets sitting next to a Tory donor at a fundraising dinner before approving his application for a controversial planning development.
Mr Jenrick made the admission after weeks of pressure to reveal more about why he fast-tracked Richard Desmond’s £1bn development at the Westferry Printworks in east London – potentially saving the businessman up to £50m.
But he told on MPs on Wednesday that his actions had been “perfectly fair”.
The cabinet minister faced allegations of “cash for favours” after it emerged he had to quash his approval of the Westferry development, conceding it was “unlawful” due to “apparent bias”.
Documents released earlier this month showed Mr Jenrick was “insistent” with officials that the plans be signed off speedily at the start of January.
And text exchanges between him and Mr Desmond were also released after they sat next to each other at the Conservative fundraiser, in the weeks before 2019’s general election.
Labour claimed the move to approve the application before Tower Hamlets Council’s community infrastructure levy (CIL) came into force would have saved Mr Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50m.
Mr Jenrick has insisted he had no interest in whether the finances of Mr Desmond, the former owner of the Daily Express and Channel 5, benefitted from avoiding the additional fee.
“I think it was a perfectly fair decision to try and get this done, one way or another, before the CIL charge came in,” he told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.
“Who that benefits is of no interest to me. I’m not interested in the personal finances of the applicant.
“I’m interested in making a fair decision on the basis of the facts before a material change in circumstances occurs.”
He told MPs that the inspector’s report into the project had also found “the viability of the project might be compromised were the CIL to come in”.
Mr Jenrick admitted that elements of the initial decision to approve Westferry could have been dealt with better.
“I think this could have been handled differently and I regret that I was sat next to the applicant at a dinner in November,” he said.
He added that “with hindsight it would have been better not to have exchanged text messages with the applicant” after the dinner.
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