The secretary of state may think he has come through the Westferry debacle, but the truth is his political career is finished, says Paul Finch
Robert Jenrick’s post, as secretary of state for housing and other matters, includes his quasi-judicial role in the planning system. He is the decider of last resort (though, thank goodness, subject to judicial review); you might say he can operate as both judge and jury, since he is entitled to overturn the advice of planning inspectors and the decisions of local authorities.
This is an extraordinarily responsible job which requires behaviour of the highest standards. Jenrick has not behaved as he should have done in respect of the way he has dealt with the proposed development by the former porn publisher Richard Desmond on his Westferry site in London’s Docklands.
You might have excused Jenrick’s attendance at a dinner where he was persuaded to look at details of the development on Desmond’s mobile phone. You might have given him the benefit of the doubt over his eagerness to promote housebuilding, a key element of government policy, and indeed the London mayor’s. You might have noted that, far from being a ‘Tory donor’ in the sense implied by much of the media, Desmond was in fact a donor to other parties – and the £12,000 he give to the Tories after his favourable treatment by Jenrick must be the stingiest thank-you of all time.
What is completely unforgiveable is his failure to resign, with some dignity left, after he quashed his own approval for Desmond’s mega-development because of ‘apparent bias’. Jenrick has claimed that since it was not real bias, then all is well. The response to that is either ‘Tell it to the marines’ or, in the argot of Tower Hamlets, ‘Pull the other one’.
The reality is that, under pressure from a ‘developer’ fearful of being landed with a gigantic bill from Tower Hamlets in the form of Community Infrastructure Levy, Jenrick rushed through an appeal decision on grounds which were invalid. Resignation should have ended the matter, not necessarily Jenrick’s future career. Instead, he has produced documents to support his case. Like pulled teeth, they are not a pretty sight.
Why Boris Johnson is supporting him (I write as someone who in general is a Boris supporter) can only be out of loyalty, and probably a residual hostility to Tower Hamlets Council, a byword for corruption not so long ago. That is not good enough today; the council has worked hard to clean up its act, and its leader John Biggs is a politician of considerable bravery and integrity.
The only bravery Jenrick has shown is enduring an hour of attempted humiliation in the House of Commons. He may think he has come through this, but the truth is his political career is finished, because his sense of judgement has been found to be utterly wanting.
Every decision he takes as long as he lingers on in office, regarded with contempt by officials, distrust by the planners, uncertainty by developers and disgust by the public, will be a liability for the government. Handing over decisions to his junior minister minions will not be sufficient. He must go – things are not going to get better for him.
That is not entirely the end of the matter, however. This scandal is not just about one politician’s behaviour, but about the circumstances and policies which created the context. Can anyone explain why proposals for large housing schemes result in local authority planners and their political masters going into panic mode, assuming that this sort of development is objectionable?
All their policies say exactly the opposite. And why is the taxation system used to penalise, uniquely, the only people who are building much-needed housing at scale?