Northern Ireland news

DUP MLA's sideline business lobbying for planning applicants

Brendan Hughes

DUP MLA Trevor Clarke, and left, some of the planning application forms involving Versatile Consultancy

A DUP MLA is running a sideline business lobbying on behalf of planning applicants, an Irish News investigation can reveal.

Trevor Clarke earns thousands of pounds as a partner in Versatile Consultancy, which represents applicants in the council planning process.

It has been listed as the agent for several planning applications in the Antrim area in recent years.

Files detail phone calls and correspondence between Mr Clarke and council officials about the applications.

A constituency office worker also sent emails about the plans "on behalf of Trevor Clarke MLA".

When one application came before the council's planning committee this year, Mr Clarke attended and spoke in its favour.

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On other occasions, a DUP councillor who works in Mr Clarke's constituency office supported the applications in his position as a member of the planning committee.

Councils can charge hundreds of pounds in fees for the submission and processing of planning applications.

Letters acknowledging receipt of payment cheques were sent to Versatile's office address.

Mr Clarke, an MLA for South Antrim, declared Versatile Consultancy on his Stormont register of interests, but no information is given on the nature of the business.

Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Sir Alistair Graham, the former head of a public standards watchdog, said it appeared to be a "major conflict of interest" and a breach of the assembly code of conduct, which prohibits paid advocacy.

"Particularly in planning issues, elected public officials have heavy moral and legal responsibilities, and they need to demonstrate at all times that they are operating in the public interest and there is no actual or perceived opportunity of personal financial gain or a public perception of a conflict of interest," he said.

A DUP spokesman for Mr Clarke defended the business, saying it provides "advocacy" that goes "beyond anything offered in the representative role of an MLA".

Since May 2017, seven planning applications have been submitted to Antrim and Newtownabbey council which list Versatile as the agent acting on behalf of applicants.

Versatile's office address is recorded on planning applications as a unit in Ballyrobin Business Centre, near Belfast International Airport

One of the mobile phone numbers listed as contact information for Versatile is the same as a number used by Mr Clarke's car sales business, and a print business run by his son Adam Clarke.

Both Clarke Car Sales and AC Print are based at Mr Clarke's home address outside Randalstown.

A second mobile number listed for Versatile is a contact number for Lisa Tully, who is a daughter of DUP Mid Ulster councillor Paul McLean and had worked in Mr Clarke's constituency office. She currently works in DUP MLA Joanne Bunting's office.

Lisa Tully had worked in Trevor Clarke's constituency office, and currently works in DUP MLA Joanne Bunting's office

The planning applications involving Versatile mostly relate to proposals for private domestic properties.

Of the seven, three were approved, two refused, one withdrawn, and the most recent – submitted in June – is still under consideration.

The Irish News spoke to some of the applicants. They said Mr Clarke had assisted in submitting their planning applications, but they were unaware of what Versatile's role was.

"I don't know who Versatile is but I just know Trevor. He in his evening time, he gave me help filling out the application," one person said.

One of the dwelling applications was considered by the council's planning committee in March.

Planners had recommended refusal, but Mr Clarke attended the meeting and spoke in favour of the plans. He asked councillors to defer a decision in order to consider relevant documents.

He is listed in the minutes as "Trevor Clarke MLA". There is no reference to Versatile.

His wife, DUP councillor Linda Clarke, also attended.

The applicant told The Irish News he had "asked Trevor to see if he could put [the application] in and he put it in for me", but he was unaware of Versatile's role.

Seven members voted to refuse the plans and three abstained. How each individual councillor voted was not recorded.

Among the committee members is the DUP's John Smyth – the current mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey council, who works in Mr Clarke's constituency office.

On two applications which planners had advised for approval, Mr Smyth was the councillor who made the proposal to follow the planners' recommendation.

Files for the seven applications, seen by The Irish News, include correspondence between Mr Clarke and council officials.

Some handwritten notes of phone calls refer to Mr Clarke as the "agent".

Planning application forms listing Versatile as the agent were signed "L McLean".

As recently as January this year, Mrs Tully wrote to planners using Mr Clarke's constituency email address, with the emails signed off "on behalf of Trevor Clarke MLA" and including his constituency office address and phone number.

The most recent application also involves correspondence sent to an email address connected to Adam Clarke.

Versatile's office address is recorded on the applications as a unit in Ballyrobin Business Centre at Karl Business Park, near Belfast International Airport.

Mr Clarke lost his assembly seat in March 2017's election, but was co-opted into another MLA seat in June that year.

He updated his Stormont assembly register of interests in January this year to include Versatile Consultancy under the heading 'employment and earnings'.

No details are given of the nature of the business, but Mr Clarke describes himself as a "partner" in Versatile, earning "between £1,001 - £2,000" for two hours worked per month.

According to the Stormont assembly code of conduct, MLAs "shall not, in return for payment or benefit, advocate or initiate any cause or matter on behalf of any outside body or individual". They also cannot "misuse" any public resources made available to them.

The code "applies to all conduct by members when acting in their capacity as a member of the assembly".

Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the British government's Committee on Standards in Public Life, expressed concern.

"Initially it seems to me that this MLA is involved in a major conflict of interest between his public responsibilities and his private business interests," he said.

He added: "He appears to have breached the MLA rules of conduct in not fully declaring the nature of the business he is a partner in.

"If he had declared the nature of the business he was receiving money for then he should not be involved in decision-making about planning issues."

A DUP spokesman for Mr Clarke said: "Trevor Clarke established Versatile Consultancy having lost his seat at the March 2017 assembly election.

"The business offers advocacy as well as site maps/drawings etc, beyond anything offered in the representative role of an MLA."

A party spokesman for Mr Smith said: "Ald Smyth was not aware of Versatile Consultancy nor Mr Clarke's role within it whilst he was a member of the planning committee.

"At all times he decided on applications only on the planning merits of the case."

Adam Clarke declined to answer questions, refusing to say what his role is in Versatile.

He questioned how The Irish News obtained his phone number, until it was pointed out to him that it is publicly available on the Northern Ireland planning applications website.

"It doesn't matter who my father is whether it's Pope John Paul or the Queen," he added.

"I'm making no comment on it."

Mrs Tully said: "Anything I do outside of my full-time job is none of your business."

Asked what her full-time job is, she repeated "that's none of your business" before hanging up.

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Profile: Trevor Clarke

TREVOR Clarke is a DUP assembly member for South Antrim.

He lives outside Randalstown with his wife Linda Clarke, a DUP councillor for Antrim and Newtownabbey.

Mr Clarke also employs his wife as staff in his constituency office.

First elected to the assembly in 2007, Mr Clarke lost his seat in March 2017 in the snap election called following the collapse of devolution at Stormont.

However, he was co-opted by the DUP to replace Paul Girvan after he was elected MP for South Antrim in June 2017.

As well as being a partner in Versatile Consultancy, Mr Clarke is a partner in Clarke Car Sales.

The Orangeman earns up to £3,000 from the car sales business for eight hours worked per month, according to his Stormont register of interests.

His wife is also a partner in the car sales business.

Mrs Clarke's brother Nigel McKee (22) was among Eight Protestant workmen murdered by the IRA in the 1992 Teebane bombing outside Cookstown, Co Tyrone.

In 2016, Mr Clarke made headlines after admitting in the assembly chamber that he did not know heterosexual people could contract HIV until a charity explained the facts to him.

His admission prompted criticism from Elton John when the singer was asked on television about the many enduring myths surrounding Aids and HIV.

"I'm not surprised. A Northern Ireland politician said the other day he didn't know that heterosexual people could get Aids, or HIV," he said.

"So, it's like, 'What planet are you living on?'"

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