On 14 January 2020, Jenrick approved a £1 billion luxury housing development of 1,500 homes on Westferry Road, Isle of Dogs, proposed by Richard Desmond, a Conservative Party donor and owner of Northern & Shell. A Government planning inspector had advised against permitting the scheme, as it would not deliver enough affordable housing and as the height of the tower would be detrimental to the character of the area.
Jenrick approved the scheme on 14 January knowing that an approval by that date would enable Desmond to avoid having to pay a council-imposed infrastructure levy of between £30 and £50 million, which could have been used for funding schools and health clinics. Tower Hamlets London Borough Council then pursued a judicial review against Jenrick’s decision in the High Court, arguing that it had shown bias towards Desmond. It was also reported that Jenrick had helped Desmond to save an additional £106m by allowing affordable housing at 21%, instead of enforcing the local and London-wide planning policy requirement of 35%. This could have resulted in a total discount (and subsequent loss of revenue to the Exchequer) of approximately £150 million.
In May 2020, Jenrick did not contest the judicial review, conceding that his sign-off of the scheme was "unlawful by reason of apparent bias". He also confirmed that his approval had deliberately been issued before the new CIL policy could be adopted. This meant that Jenrick was able to avoid disclosing correspondence relating to the application in open court. His planning permission was quashed by the High Court, which ordered that the matter was to be decided by a different minister.
Jenrick maintained that although the decision had been "unlawful by reason of apparent bias", there had been no "actual bias". Desmond, whose company had donated to the Conservative Party in 2017, made a further personal donation to the party shortly after the approval was given. Andrew Wood, the leader of the Conservative group on Tower Hamlets Council, resigned because of his concerns over the property deal. The planning decision will now[when?] be re-determined by a different Government minister. In conceding the move did show "apparent bias", Jenrick effectively blocked the judicial review, which originally prevented documents between his department and the developer from being made public. Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs said: "We may never know what emails and memos the secretary of state received before making his decision and what influence they had, but his reluctance to disclose them speaks volumes."
In June 2020, Desmond told The Sunday Times he had lobbied Jenrick at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner held at the Savoy in November. He said he had showed Jenrick "three or four minutes" of a promotional video for the Westferry Printworks development on his mobile phone, adding "he got the gist". The interview was followed by a Labour Party opposition day motion debate in the House of Commons on 24 June, which forced Jenrick into releasing all "relevant" documents surrounding his dealings with Desmond, including private text messages between him and the developer that show discussion of the then live planning application beginning the night of the fundraising dinner.
One of the emails revealed that Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) officials were being pressured by Jenrick to work out how to overrule the Government's own planning inspector so he could approve the plans before any increase in the Tower Hamlets council community infrastructure levy (CIL), which Desmond would have had to pay. That Jenrick did not disclose to his department his potential conflict of interest until a month after his dinner raised concern. The release of the documents led to calls for Jenrick's resignation for his use of a public office for political favours.