Northern Ireland news

DUP councillor fails to declare involvement in MLA husband's planning business

The DUP's Trevor and Linda Clarke, and inset, how The Irish News revealed Mr Clarke's planning consultancy business
Brendan Hughes

A DUP councillor failed to declare her involvement in her MLA husband's sideline planning business lobbying on behalf of planning applicants.

Linda Clarke's mobile number was supplied as a contact for Trevor Clarke's consultancy firm, newly emerged documents reveal.

The files directly connect Mrs Clarke for the first time to her husband's business since it was exposed last month by an Irish News investigation.

The couple have insisted they "made all the relevant declarations and adhered to all rules".

But Mrs Clarke, who previously sat on a planning committee, did not register with the council any connection to Versatile Consultancy.

Under the code of conduct, councillors are required to declare "any employment or business" in which they are involved.

Mr Clarke earns thousands of pounds as a partner in Versatile, which has been the planning agent for several applications in the Antrim area in recent years.

The South Antrim MLA has rejected concerns that his business is a conflict of interest that breaches the assembly code of conduct, which prohibits paid advocacy.

Mr Clarke has however moved to suspend the operations of Versatile.

The latest revelations come from the discovery of two more planning applications in which Versatile was listed as the agent.

On one of the applications, submitted to Causeway Coast and Glens council in September 2017, Mrs Clarke's mobile is listed as a contact number for Versatile.

Her mobile number is also handwritten on some papers within the file for the planning application, which was for proposed shop signs in Ballymoney but was later withdrawn.

The application form is signed 'Lisa McLean'. Lisa Tully nee McLean 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 – a role is paid for by the public purse.

Mrs Tully's mobile number has previously been discovered on other Versatile applications. She has previously declined to answer questions about her involvement in Versatile, saying it's "none of your business".

Versatile is not declared on Mrs Clarke's register of interests submitted to Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.

The mobile number on the planning documents is the same as Mrs Clarke's contact number on the council's website.

Under the council's allowances and expenses rules, councillors are offered either a mobile phone with a monthly contract paid by the council or up to £14.50 per month towards their personal mobile contract.

However, the council has insisted Mrs Clarke's mobile has not been paid for by the council, saying it has "made no contributions towards the cost of the contract or phone unit associated with this number".

Mrs Clarke, who also works in Mr Clarke's constituency office, is already the subject of a complaint to the standards commissioner over alleged conflicts of interest in the planning process.

It came after The Irish News revealed she did not declare an interest and continued to take part in votes for planning applications lobbied on by her husband.

Mr Clarke lost his assembly seat in March 2017's election, but was selected in June that year to replace Paul Girvan after he became an MP.

Mrs Clarke did not absent herself from a planning committee meeting in May 2017 when her husband made representations on two applications, and no declarations of interest were made, according to the minutes.

The applications did not involve Versatile but in correspondence on one of the proposals, Mr Clarke told officials he was "working alongside the agent who is currently out of the country".

Asked about the latest details, a DUP spokesman for Trevor and Linda Clarke said in a statement: "Linda Clarke has referred this matter to the Local Government Commissioner for Standards. She is happy for that office to carry out its work."

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