This week, it emerged that, in January, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick overruled a decision by Tower Hamlets Council and the Government’s planning inspectorate and approved the Westferry Printworks property development plan in Tower Hamlets, London. Controversially, the developer for the project, billionaire Richard Desmond, had sat next to Jenrick at a Conservative fundraising dinner in November, corresponded with Jenrick via text message, and later made a personal donation of £12,000 to the Conservative Party two weeks after the development was approved. Most importantly, the timing of the decision in January enabled the developer to avoid paying a £40m Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) to the local council, which is run by the Labour Party.
Mr. Jenrick has insisted that he was not biased in his decision to approve the development plan, stating that he declined to visit the proposed building site. Instead, the Housing Minister argues he was driven by a desire to ensure more houses are built. In addition, Mr. Jenrick has stated that he made it absolutely clear throughout his exchanges with Mr. Desmond that he could not discuss planning matters. Indeed, documents released by Jenrick himself highlight that he texted Desmond at one stage stating “Richard. As secretary of state it is important not to give any appearance of being influenced by applicants of cases that I may have a role in or to have predetermined them and so I think it is best if we don’t meet until the matter has been decided.”
Nevertheless, it is clear from emails and letters released on Wednesday this week that Mr Jenrick’s continued support for the project after this point was in the face of direct opposition from officials in his department. Moreover, Jenrick had been explicitly told in a text from Desmond about the potential £45 million additional cost if the plan was not approved by January 15.
In a poll of 2000 UK adults conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies on Thursday 25th June, the day after Jenrick defended his behaviour in the House of Commons, only 43% of the public stated that they are aware of the recent events concerning the Housing Secretary.
In a follow-up question, our poll informed respondents that about Richard Desmonds £12,000 donation and highlighted that claim that the timing of the approval could have saved the developer at least £40m. With this knowledge, a clear plurality of 46% believed that the Housing Minister was wrong to approve the Westferry Printworks Development plan. Just 21% of respondents believe that Jenrick made the right decision, while 33% say they do not know.
There is a degree of partisan bias in how respondents responded to this question – a clear majority (57%) of 2019 Labour voters believe that Jenrick was in the wrong, while the breakdown is closer among those who voted Conservative in 2019. Nevertheless, when provided with this context, a plurality (39%) of those who voted Conservative in 2019 hold the view that Jenrick acted wrongly, and just 27% think he was right to approve the development.
Despite the row over whether the minister acted improperly, the Labour Party has not yet called for Jenrick to resign and Downing Street have said the Prime Minister believes the case is closed. The review of the development, which was challenged by Tower Hamlets Council, is now being handled by another minister. As further details around the case continue to emerge, we asked the public whether they believed Jenrick should resign. On our third and final question concerning the Jenrick situation, a clear plurality of respondents (46%) say that Jenrick should step down from his position in the Cabinet as Housing Secretary, while just 22% say they he should not.
However, it is again worth stressing that less than half of respondents were aware of the situation before completing the poll. It is therefore unclear if their opinions would remain be the same when, and if, the public becomes further acquainted with more information about the case, beyond the bare facts the text of our second question revealed to them, such as the expected economic benefits of the plan or the potential objections that Tower Hamlets Council may have raised about the development.
Officials within the Conservative Party may be somewhat concerned that a plurality of those who voted for them in 2019 believe Jenrick should resign. 37% think the minister should go and just 33% are in favour of him remaining in post. At this point, it seems likely that Downing Street is standing by the Minister and is not inclined to sack him. Johnson continues to ward off pressure on his subordinates to resign or be sacked, as he has also done just last month with his advisor Dominic Cummings. The direction of this controversy will depend significantly on press coverage and whether the opposition chooses to continue to press the issue.