The Westferry Affair – the Fallout

Recent events have focused attention on conflicts of interest and potential ‘cash for access’ in UK politics. Following his first post on the Westferry affair, Joseph Sinclair, a lawyer taking our Master’s in Corruption and Governance, examines the fall-out and wider implications.

 A Recap (see full background here)

The Conservative Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, has been implicated in a “cash-for-favours” arrangement with Richard Desmond, a billionaire property developer. Desmond’s company, Westferry Developments, sought to build 1,524 residential units to which the London mayor and local authority had objected.

Jenrick and Desmond had sat next to one another in a £900-per-head fundraising dinner. They spoke about the development and Jenrick was shown a video. The pair texted one another after dinner. Desmond said to Jenrick: “we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe for nothing!” The message referred to the £45m community infrastructure levy (“CIL”) due to be paid by Desmond’s company if the development was not approved by 15 January 2020.

Documents published show that Jenrick’s office put considerable pressure on civil servants to get the decision to him before the CIL deadline. Against his department’s advice he approved the development on 14 January 2020. On 29 January, Desmond made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party.

The local authority took the matter to court. On agreeing to quash the decision, Jenrick’s department accepted that the fair-minded observer would conclude a real possibility of bias towards Desmond’s company.

Further Developments

Jenrick told the Commons that he made the decision with an open mind and approved it with the view to the development producing 250 “affordable homes”. The Cabinet Secretary said that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, considered the matter closed.

Further allegations against Jenrick have been raised. In 2019, another property developer, Mark Quinn, gave the Conservative party £11,000. Shortly thereafter Jenrick’s department became involved in Quinn’s appeal against the refusal of planning permission for 675 homes in Kent. Three weeks after Jenrick’s involvement, Quinn donated a further £26,500. Jenrick denies being directly involved.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee wrote to Jenrick with several questions, including a request to outline the measures in place to avoid such [an] obvious conflicts of interest”. They asked Jenrick why a target of 20% of affordable homes was deemed acceptable instead of the local authority’s required 35%. Jenrick responded by saying that the plan offered 142 more homes than the original permission given by Boris Johnson as London Mayor. He went before the Housing Committee on 22 July 2020 to answer questions.

What Does the Westferry Affair Tell Us?

This had the appearance of a significant conflict of interest, meaning that Jenrick ought to have recorded the meeting and recused himself. He told the Housing Committee that he did not because he was not advised to do so. This approach to monitoring conflict does not accord with the self-governing positive obligations in the Ministerial Code. The PM’s in fully investigating Jenrick’s against the Code actions also shows serious shortcomings in its operation.

While the platitude “build build build” bounces around the Commons, we need to ask who is going to benefit. Johnson has announced “…the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war”. His government will “…scythe through red tape”. Will we see affordable sustainable housing or a perpetuation of what we see in London: multi-million pound new-builds sitting empty?

The Conservatives have received more than £11 million in donations from property developers since Johnson became PM. The government is also being taken to court over dishing out questionable contracts for personal protective equipment. A report by the National Audit Office on the £3.6bn Towns Fund suggests pork barrel spending. The fund is intended to help struggling towns. Yet all but one of the 61 towns chosen at Jenrick’s discretion to receive support were Conservative-held or were targets seats for the election – including his own.

Desmond’s relationship with the Conservative leadership is deep-rooted. A chummy email from Desmond to Johnson revealed in an FOI request reads:

Thank you so much for your book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, I will read it over the half term and when I say read I mean read. Keep in touch.

 I will see you on 22 Oct at 8 am at the Ruby Breakfast, London Hilton Park Lane, where I will be supporting you as always.

Boris’ diaries show countless opportunities for them to cross paths: Johnson had been for lunch with Desmond at Northern & Shell’s offices on 30 September 2015 and met Desmond for a drink at the Corinthian Hotel near Whitehall on 09 September 2015.

There should be real concern about the probity and motivations behind the government’s latest moves to remove ‘red tape’. Greater discretion gives the government free rein to favour their own ambitions or their cronies’.

What more does the Westfair affair tell us? Well­–

  • The public wants greater accountability

A survey commissioned by the i newspaper that found that only 23% of the public felt Jenrick should remain in the Cabinet. 41% believed that the PM backing Jenrick showed weak leadership. In a June 2020 survey of Conservative party members, Jenrick had an approval rating of -23.0% with 41.32% taking the view he should resign from government.

  • British politics is cheap, as the FT’s Henry Mance notes

Jenrick sought to approve a programme that denied £45m in CIL to one of the poorest boroughs in the UK. He argued that this was a “material change” which put the likelihood of the project in jeopardy. Whether you believe the reasons he gave or not, the Conservative coffers gained £12,000. A measly sum one might say.

  • Party fundraising remains a murky business

How Desmond and Jenrick came to sit next to one another remains a mystery. Jenrick told the Committee that he only found out he was sitting next to Desmond when he was at the table.

Members of the Conservative party have raised concerns that their co-chairman and superstar fundraiser, Ben Elliot, is not “…sufficiently careful to avoid unfortunate juxtapositions”. Elliott, the Duchess of Cornwall’s “favourite nephew”, is involved in his own scandal involving the use of public money for a “personal project”. His PR firm was previously retained by Desmond to lobby the government.

  • Measures for highlighting and resolving conflict in planning are insufficient

 Jenrick said that cases which come before him and other ministers are invariably complex. Decisions will often be based on subjective judgement which may depart from the planning inspectorate (there have been 14 such cases in the last 3 years).

In spite of this, on the decision’s face, there was no indication of Jenrick’s perceived or actual bias. It took a claim for judicial review and considerable political and public pressure to bring the light the extent and nature of Jenrick’s conflict. This clearly needs to change towards a transparent system of declaring conflicts. As the BBC’s Nick Robinson said, Jenrick has the power to back projects at the “stroke of a pen”.

‘Cash for access’ undermines the integrity of political representation. The Westferry affair embodies this notion. While the scythe is taken to the red tape, it seems that the Conservative party’s coffers and the colour of the constituency in the next election might be the prime motivations, rather than helping those in need of affordable and safe housing.

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