Northern Ireland news

The paper trail that revealed DUP MLA Trevor Clarke's sideline planning applications business

Brendan Hughes

DUP MLA Trevor Clarke

DUP MLA Trevor Clarke is running a sideline business lobbying on behalf of planning applicants, an Irish News investigation has revealed.

The paper trail which sheds light on the business has raised concerns of a "major conflict of interest" – and a breach of the assembly code of conduct.

In January, Mr Clarke updated his Stormont register of interests to include Versatile Consultancy under 'employment and earnings'.

He describes himself as a "partner" in Versatile, earning "between £1,001 - £2,000" for two hours worked per month.

However, no details are given on the nature of the business.

Seven planning applications have been submitted to Antrim and Newtownabbey council which list Versatile as the agent acting on behalf of applicants.

Analysis: DUP MLA's planning consultancy business raises serious questions

The earliest was submitted in May 2017, and the most recent in June 2019. They are mostly proposals for private domestic properties.

The application forms list contact details for Versatile, including an office address and some mobile phone numbers.

Forms were signed "L McLean".

One of the mobile numbers is the same as a number used by Mr Clarke's car sales business, and a printing business run by his son, Adam Clarke.

A second mobile number on the forms is a contact number for Lisa Tully.

Mrs Tully is a daughter of DUP Mid Ulster councillor Paul McLean.

She had worked in Trevor Clarke's constituency office. She currently works in DUP MLA Joanne Bunting's office.

Decisions on planning applications are made by local councils. A planning committee made up of councillors votes on whether to approve or refuse proposals.

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.

Of Versatile's seven applications, three were approved, two refused, one withdrawn, and the most recent is still under consideration.

When one application came before the planning committee in March, Mr Clarke attended and spoke in its favour.

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

The applicant told The Irish News said Mr Clarke helped him with the application, 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 council mayor. He also 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.

A DUP spokesman said Mr Smyth was unaware of Versatile, and "at all times" considered applications "only on the planning merits of the case".

Examining the seven application files, the documents include correspondence between Mr Clarke and council officials.

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

As recently as January, Mrs Tully wrote to planners using Mr Clarke's constituency email address.

The emails were signed off "on behalf of Trevor Clarke MLA" and included his constituency office address and phone number.

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

Paid advocacy is prohibited under the Stormont assembly code of conduct.

It says 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.

"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 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."

Stormont is supposed to have a Commissioner for Standards who investigates complaints about the conduct of MLAs.

However, because of the collapse of power-sharing in 2017, there is currently no standards watchdog in post to investigate this issue.

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."

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

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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