UK housing minister under fire over influence-peddling claim

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was facing calls Thursday to fire his housing minister over allegations that the official rushed through the approval of a contentious property development funded by a wealthy Conservative Party donor.

The allegations threatening to tarnish the government relate to Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s decision in January to approve a development of 1,500 homes in London’s Docklands that had been rejected by planning inspectors.

Jenrick’s approval came weeks after he met wealthy developer Richard Desmond at a Conservative fundraising dinner.

The pair later exchanged text messages and discussed setting up a meeting. In one message, Desmond urged quick approval of the development so “Marxists” did not get “loads of (money) for nothing.” That is an apparent reference to a levy about to be imposed requiring developers to give money to the local authority for key infrastructure.

The proposed development was in a London borough with high levels of poverty, run by the left-wing Labour Party.

A memo from an official in Jenrick’s department said the minister wanted the document approved “tomorrow” in order to avoid the new levy. Documents about the decision were released by the government after pressure from the opposition.

Jenrick approved the development, and two weeks later Desmond, a former porn publisher and ex-owner of the Daily Express newspaper, donated 12,000 pounds ($15,000) to the Conservative Party.

The local council challenged the approval of the development and it was later quashed.

On Wednesday, Jenrick said allegations he’d been improperly influenced were “outrageous” and insisted he had been unaware of Desmond’s donation to the party. But opposition politicians called for Jenrick to be fired.

“Jenrick’s calculated decision to push through a huge development just in time to save a party donor millions exposes something rotten at the heart of this Conservative government,” said Liberal Democrat housing spokesman Tim Farron.

Johnson has stood by Jenrick, but the controversy is heaping more pressure on a government still trying to rebuff criticisms that it was too slow and under-prepared to properly battle Britain’s coronavirus outbreak.

More than 43,000 people with COVID-19 have died in the U.K., the highest toll in Europe and the third-highest in the world after the United States and Brazil.

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