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Exclusive: Robert Jenrick in new UK 'cash for favours' row

Boris Johnson’s embattled housing minister took charge of another controversial planning decision – days after the property developer donated thousands to the Tories

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
4 July 2020, 8.30pm
Which home?
Ian Vogler/Daily Mirror/PA Wire/PA Images

Boris Johnson’s embattled housing secretary Robert Jenrick has been drawn into another row involving Tory donors and controversial planning decisions, openDemocracy can reveal today.

Property developer Mark Quinn made major donations to the Conservatives directly before and after Jenrick chose to take responsibility for deciding on Quinn’s bid to build 675 houses in Sittingbourne, Kent.

Shortly before Jenrick became involved in the decision, the developer, Quinn Estates, gave £11,000 to the Conservatives. Less than three weeks later, the firm donated a further £26,500 to the party.

Jenrick has recently faced calls to resign for showing unlawful “apparent bias” in fast-tracking a planning application by another Tory donor, the billionaire Richard Desmond, in London earlier this year.

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Labour has demanded Jenrick explain the latest concerns around big donations to the Conservative party and planning decisions made by his department.

“Robert Jenrick has yet more questions to answer about another cash for favours planning decision,” said shadow housing secretary Steve Reed.

“The public need to know that the planning system cannot just be sold to Tory donors.”

The Quinn case was taken over by the housing department less than a month after Jenrick was promoted to secretary of state, and is still currently live.

The minister has insisted the case was handled by civil servants and he had not taken any decisions relating to it.

The public need to know that the planning system cannot just be sold to Tory donors

Steve Reed, Labour shadow housing secretary

Quinn Estates had applied for permission to build a major housing development, a primary school, a rugby club and shops on agricultural land in Sittingbourne, against significant local opposition.

In July 2019, the Swale local council signalled their intention to reject planning permission outright. Quinn appealed, and the issue was due to be decided by a local planning inspector.

But a letter sent by a senior civil servant on Robert Jenrick’s behalf on August 13 said that “the Secretary of State considers that he should determine it himself.”

A spokesperson for the department for housing and communities said that the decision to take responsibility for the appeal was standard practice and that although the letter authorising the move was written on the minister’s behalf, Jenrick had not been involved in the decision itself.

“No advice has been issued to the Secretary of State on the appeal and he has not taken any decisions relating to it,” the spokesperson said.

However local residents in Sittingbourne have now called on Jenrick to recuse himself from deciding on the appeal, and have expressed concerns about the minister's suitability to make a judgement in a case involving another Conservative donor.

“I’m very worried that he could make a planning decision that demonstrated ‘apparent bias’ but not change it or even have to apologise for it,” says Swale Independents councillor Mike Baldock who has long opposed the proposed Quinn Estates development.

"People need to be able to trust democracy and the planning system. That trust is fast eroding, and suspicions that certain people can influence decisions that affect thousands of residents through political donations are doing nothing to stop that erosion."

Cash from property tycoons

The links between the Conservative party and property developers have dominated headlines in recent weeks.

Jenrick faced widespread criticism after admitting he’d over-ruled local officials who had rejected Richard Desmond’s proposed £1 billion Tower Hamlets housing development. After Jenrick fast-tracked the planning process, the property developer was able to avoid paying £45 million to the Labour-controlled local council.

Desmond – who had sat beside Jenrick at a £900-a-head Conservative fundraiser at the Savoy Hotel in London late last year – subsequently registered £12,000 worth of donations to the Conservatives.

In a BBC interview, business minister Nadhim Zahawi said that voters who wanted to raise planning issues with their MPs could – like Richard Desmond – pay to attend a Tory fundraiser.

People need to be able to trust democracy and the planning system

Mike Baldock, Swale Independents councillor

Meanwhile a recent openDemocracy investigation found that property tycoons and construction moguls have donated more than £11million to the Conservatives since Boris Johnson became prime minister – a significant increase on their contributions during Theresa May’s premiership.

'Build a compelling case'

Mark Quinn is Canterbury-based property developer who has given generously to the Conservative party, both in his own name and through companies that he controls.

Quinn Estates, and the company’s owner Mark Quinn, have donated around £140,000 to the Conservatives’ central party and Tory MPs across the south-east of England in recent years, including almost £10,000 to Epping Forest MP Eleanor Laing and £5,500 to Folkestone MP Damian Collins.

Quinn companies have a number of projects in those constituencies, including a major proposed development in Epping Forest and a mix housing scheme in Folkestone that was given planning permission last year.

In March 2017, Quinn Estates also had a meeting with then transport minister Chris Grayling, recorded as “road scheme discussion”. Quinn has also previously offered to build a hospital in Canterbury if he was given planning permission for another housing scheme.

Asked about his approach to planning in 2018, Quinn said “Brown envelopes? Planning is given by a democratically elected committee. All their accounts are checked. We’re not allowed to do anything to jeopardise that.”

“You just have to build a compelling case and that’s what we’ve done.”

'We can't cope'

Quinn Estates first applied for planning permission to build in Sittingbourne, on agricultural land in the parish of Borden, in 2017 with another local property developer.

Despite significant local opposition, the then Conservative-controlled Swale council supported the proposed development. In January 2019, the council’s planning committee ruled that the developers would need to provide a ‘section 106 agreement’ detailing how much money they would be willing to provide for infrastructure in the area.

In May, the local council was replaced with a non-Tory coalition. The following month, the new administration rejected Quinn Estates’ section 106 agreement.

In late August Swale council’s planning committee ruled that it would have rejected Quinn Estates’s application – but by then the matter was with the secretary of state.

Most appeals are heard from local inspectors. But, under planning law, developments that meet certain criteria – such as the proposed Sittingbourne scheme -– can be taken over by the secretary of state.

Planning appeals that are decided by the secretary of state are said to be “recovered”. Jenrick has made around 20 such decisions since becoming housing secretary last July.

In a letter the following month, Jenrick said that he was taking responsibility for the final decision in Sittingbourne as Quinn Estates’ proposed scheme “would significantly impact on the government’s objective to secure a better balance between housing demand and supply and create high quality, sustainable, mixed and inclusive communities.

“The reason for this direction is that the appeal involves proposals for residential development of over 150 units or on sites of over 5 hectares, which would significantly impact on the Government’s objective to secure a better balance between housing demand and supply and create high quality, sustainable, mixed and inclusive communities.”

Nicola Butlin of Borden Residents Against Development (BRAD) said that many locals are concerned that Jenrick will be deciding on the development.

“I thought the whole point of government inspectors was that they could deal with this kind of thing themselves?” she said.

“The feeling in the village is we just can’t cope with what is proposed. We have a really bad traffic problem as it stands now, let alone introducing a whole load of new houses.”

For now, the future of the Sittingbourne development remains unclear. A local planning inspector in Kent sent a report to the housing secretary for consideration more than six months ago. A decision was due in May but the secretary of state has yet to make a ruling.

Swale Independents councillor Mike Baldock warned that the Conservatives risked losing votes in key constituencies.

“The way the Tories are supporting these developers is hurting their heartlands. This used to be a solid Tory seat. In 2019, I got over 1,600 votes. The Tories only got 700.”

Quinn Estates have yet to respond to a request for comment.

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