Behind the Tories’ brewing billionaire property scandal

Prime minister facing growing pressure to respond to allegations over ‘unlawful’ planning approval

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson takes part in the Thursday evening “clap for carers” 
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson has been dragged into a growing row over the approval of a £1bn property development, amid reports that he met with the Tory donor developer three times shortly before the project got the go-ahead.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick approved former media mogul Richard Desmond’s request to build 1,500 homes on the site of a former printworks in east London in January this year, “despite objections from planning officers and the council”, says The Times.

And the prime minister is now under pressure to answer questions over the decision, after the newspaper also revealed that Desmond had three meetings with the then London mayor while trying to gain initial permission to build 722 homes.

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Johnson and Desmond are said to have met “for drinks” at the Corinthia hotel in Westminster in September 2015, and to have had lunch together later that month. They met again in January 2016, according to The Times.

The planning application was approved weeks later, in April, by deputy mayor Edward Lister, now Johnson’s chief strategic adviser in Downing Street.

Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, then submitted a second application to almost double the development’s size that was approved by Jenrick.

However, the housing boss has subsequently admitted “apparent bias” in the timing of his decision, which was made just one day before Tower Hamlets Council was due to vote on changes to a community charge that would have cost Desmond between £30m and £50m.

The council had raised concerns that the building work “did not contain enough affordable homes”.

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In a further twist, the Daily Mail reported earlier this week that Desmond, the ex-owner of Express Newspapers, donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party shortly after Jenrick approved the scheme. The cash represented the tycoon’s first donation to the Tories since September 2017, according to Electoral Commission records.

Labour’s shadow housing minister Mike Amesbury has accused Jenrick of making an “unlawful” decision and called on him to “come clean and publish all correspondence with Richard Desmond about this case”, reports HuffPost.

Responding to those allegations, a Conservative Party spokesperson said that “government policy is in no way influenced by party donations”.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Johnson said that the initial application was “considered with due process and public hearings in 2016”, adding: “Only formal planning representations and material considerations were taken into account.”

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