Embattled Cabinet Minister Robert Jenrick has said he regrets sitting next to the Tory donor behind a £1bn housing development at a dinner and exchanging texts afterwards.
But he told MPs he was right to approve the contentious Westferry Printworks scheme in East London – despite later having to quash his own decision over “apparent bias”.
The Housing Secretary had been accused of “cash for favours” by Labour over the row, which centres on his decision to overrule the local council and planning inspectors in January to approve the 1,500-home scheme put forward by billionaire Richard Desmond.
It emerged in May that Mr Jenrick sat next to the developer at a Tory dinner in November, where the pair swapped numbers.
Government papers revealed Mr Jenrick was “insistent” the decision was rushed through in January before a new local levy came in, which would have cost the developer’s company an estimated £45 million.
Texts between the pair show Mr Desmond lobbied the top Tory over the project, and told him to act so the “Marxists” at the council did not get “doe for nothing”.
Weeks later, Mr Desmond personally donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.
Mr Jenrick told the Commons Housing Committee: “I think this could have been handled differently and I regret that I was sat next to the applicant at a dinner in November.
“I have also made clear that I had no idea that I was going to be sat next to him or his associates until I took my seat at the table.”
He said he was clear with Mr Desmond that it was inappropriate to discuss the development – but admitted that “with hindsight it would have been better not to have exchanged text messages with the applicant” after the dinner.
But he doubled down on his decision, and accused critics of a “wilful misreading of events”.
Giving evidence to MPs, Mr Jenrick said: “I entirely believe that the decision was the right one, there was no bias whatsoever and any suggestion of that is extremely unfair and, in most cases, a wilful misreading of events.
“But would it have been better not to have been sat next to the applicant? Yes. That wasn’t my decision.
“Would it have been better not to have had text messages with him? Yes and both myself and the department will learn lessons from the experience.”
He said his officials were aware of the events and “at no point did anybody advise me to recuse myself”.
In June, Mr Jenrick was forced to release a bundle of documents relating to the Westferry decision amid mounting political pressure.
The papers included an email where an official said he was “insistent” that a ruling be made before Tower Hamlets Council – one of the poorest boroughs in London – introduced a new Community Infrastructure Levy.
The levy could have added millions to the cost of the development, a point highlighted by Mr Desmond in correspondence with the Housing Secretary.
Mr Jenrick denied any impropriety, telling MPs: “I think it was a perfectly fair decision to try and get this done, one way or another, before the CIL charge came in.
“Who that benefits is of no interest to me. I’m not interested in the personal finances of the applicant.”
Shadow Housing and Planning Minister Mike Amesbury said Mr Jenrick still has “serious questions” to answer over the affair.
He said: “Jenrick has now admitted that he acted to prevent Mr Desmond having to pay tens of millions of pounds in tax to one of the poorest boroughs in the country – a decision he called ‘natural justice’ – but we still don’t know the full facts about his conduct in this case.
“The stench of this grubby affair won’t go away until Mr Jenrick comes clean: he needs to give a statement to the House answering all the Committee’s questions in full if the public is to have any faith in the integrity of the planning system.”