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‘Jenrick is in an impossible position and should resign’

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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?

  • 9 Comments

Readers' comments (9)

  • Fair comment on Jenrick, though I wonder if his apparent intransigence is informed by the belief that Boris won't sack him.
    But the last two paras are open to question.
    Tower Hamlets and the statutory consultees didn't 'go into panic mode' over the developer's original proposal for this site, and it got planning permission - it was only when Desmond tried to double-stuff the site that alarm bells started to ring (except, apparently, in Jenrick's head).
    And to talk of much-needed housing is surely discounting the basic fact that more than 80% of it was not intended to be affordable, to most local folk, anyway.
    Given Desmond's business history his tactics in squeezing the maximum possible personal benefit from developing this site, regardless of the impact on anyone else, are entirely in character - though what his architects and other 'professional' advisers thought they were doing is open to question.
    If they all thought it would be a 'walkover', I wonder why?

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  • Incompetent Jenrick. If I were to hand pornographer Desmond a £40 M windfall, I might want 50% rather than a third of a percent.

    Tower Hamlets is a relatively sane Borough, not the 'Marxists' referred to by Desmond.

    Community Infrastructure Levy is the same rate for all developments, part to the Borough and part to GLA.

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  • CIL is a more complex beast than suggested. How did we manage to create the entire London Underground system without it? CIL exists because we abandoned the building of social housing at scale, an irresponsible strategy supported by the entire political class. This tax is irrelevant unless and until we revise that programme and build again on a huge scale. It is in this sense only that the repulsive Desmond can evoke any sympathy.

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  • No surprise that Paul's main gripe is that the Tories didn't squeeze Desmond for more than £12k. Anyone got a slice of pineapple so Paul can be served in the traditional manner?

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  • Anyone who has read the column will know that my ‘main gripe’ Is Mr Jenrick’s continuation in office, exercising quasi-judicial powers.

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  • Oh dear, Paul, surely we don’t have to explain 40 years of neoliberalism, privatisation and deregulation that has led to the current housing crisis and more?! Housing developments at scale as foreign investment tools for billionaires are not quite the same as affordable housing for the masses. The only question about this common or garden Tory sleaze is how much money was exchanged in backhanders and has ended up in Swiss bank accounts? It really makes little difference whether the incumbent resigns. If he does, he will merely be replaced by another Tory apparatchik. All tories are vermin, to quote Nye Bevin.

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  • Focusing on architecture issues (to start) To rush decisions for friends - that will leave lasting impact on communities for decades is reprehensible - even more so when it is a matter of lining pockets. I suspect the 12k had nothing to do with it - but the opportunity to make friends with the rich and the possible post-ministerial opportunities this brings could be a great motivator.

    The desire to ride roughshod over a well intended but incredibly underfunded system seems to be a habit of Mr Jenrick if Guardian reports with regard to his house extension to his substantial Westminster square townhouse are correct. Two refusals due to conservation area concerns, for a third to be passed only when submitted under a different (non-existent) name and called to committee by a conservative Councillor against established protocol to then be approved against officer advice 3 conservative votes to 1 labour looks to be highly dubious and looks to demonstrate a disrespect for the system he is supposedly in charge of.

    I suspect that those seeking to get away with development not in the interests of the public actually are happy with the underfunded nature of the system so they can manipulate it from outside knowing that the resources are not available to properly control them. Give the planning authorities the correct funding - a clear mandate and clear policy and the system may work - however one suspects that it working for the public may not be what is wanted by some.

    It is worth noting that Mr Jenricks home in Westminster is his primary residence according to the Telegraph - but he has chosen to adjust that to his estate in Hertfordshire recently to enable him to use both homes during lockdown. This seems to reflect on his general view on the importance of personal social responsibility which may explain the planning issues too.

    Mr Finch is right - acceptance of responsibility, an apology and resignation would be honorable and close the issue - however it appears that such an approach has fallen out of favour in this government.

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  • Perhaps Mr Jenrick's experience as a corporate lawyer for the Moscow clients of a US law firm with colourful connections gave him a somewhat different perspective on the meaning of integrity - and of course his Russia years give him something else in common with Dominic Cummings, as well as perhaps being unsackable.
    But then again, integrity is not exactly the forte of our current prime minister, either.

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  • Boris Johnson and his Government have rewritten the rule book on what should constitute a resignation matter.

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