The controversy surrounding the lobbying of planning officials by Environment Minister Sammy Wilson looked certain to escalate today, as documents revealed the scale of the politician's representations to his own department.
Released papers show that Mr Wilson — whose brief includes responsibility for planning — wrote to DoE officials directly on 26 constituency cases in his first three months in office, and also discussed 32 cases in face-to-face meetings. Some of Mr Wilson's letters spelt out his opinions on applications and were clearly intended to influence decisions.
His ongoing representations to planners have sparked questions within the DoE, and have prompted one boss to issue guidance on dealing with Mr Wilson’s letters.
Departmental chiefs have firmly backed the Minister's right to continue lobbying in his capacity as an MP and MLA.
But civil service union Nipsa has voiced concerns about officials being placed in an “invidious position” — being pressed on cases by a politician who is also their Minister.
Documents released to the Belfast Telegraph under freedom of information include in
ternal emails from within DoE Planning Service.
In an email in August to Planning Service director Anne Garvey, an official stated that her office had received 12 requests on constituency cases since Mr Wilson's appointment as Minister.
“His correspondence cases have not differed in any way since he became Minister,” the email added.
The following day, Ms Garvey sent an email to Planning Service Chief Executive Cynthia Smith, referring to “previous discussions about correspondence from the Minister”.
The message said in one case officials were dealing simultaneously with a letter from Mr Wilson supporting an applicant, and a request from the applicant to meet the Minister.
In her reply, Ms Smith signalled that the minister's representations would be raised with the DoE's top official, permanent secretary Stephen Peover.
The Planning Service boss further stated that concerns had also been raised by the head of another DoE section, Northern Ireland Environment Agency chief Roy Ramsay.
Ms Smith's email said: “I have raised this with Stephen and I am aware that Roy Ramsay has similar type concerns from his agency's perspective. When Stephen returns from leave we will discuss (again) with the minister.”
Ms Garvey was asked about the situation again in an email in mid-September from a Ballymena-based official.
It stated: “I was just wondering had there been any progress on this issue since the last emails from yourself and Cynthia on 18/19 August at which Cynthia indicates that Stephen Peover will discuss this with the minister when he returns from leave.”
The following week, Ms Garvey emailed officials setting out the official line on how planning staff should deal with the minister's constituency representations.
It stated: “Correspondence directly from S Wilson in his role as councillor, MLA or MP should be handled in the normal way, similar to other political representatives and a copy of all the correspondence and the reply retained on the application file, as is the norm.”
Both the minister and the DoE have stressed that Mr Wilson will not be making representations on planning cases where he will be taking the final decision.
This would cover proposed large-scale developments that have been given ‘Article 31’ designations as major applications.
The department also released to this newspaper 47 scanned pages of planning-case representations made by Mr Wilson since his ministerial appointment in June.
These included 26 letters on constituency planning cases, 32 cases discussed in meetings with officials and three telephone calls on applications.
The correspondence included expressions of support and opposition to various proposals. Others simply sought clarification or updates.
The MLA wrote to planners in June on a Newtownabbey application and stated: “I have looked at the plans and the site and I must say I would be very surprised if Planning Service would look positively on this scheme.”
In another letter that month, he queried problems facing a proposed Carrickfergus development and said he could not “understand why the planners have now taken the view that has been expressed to my constituent”.
In July, Mr Wilson wrote to express “surprise” at a refusal recommendation for hot food bar plans in Carrickfergus.
He asked: “Is this a mistake or have the planners changed their mind on this issue? I would appreciate an answer from you as soon as possible so that I can advise my constituent.”
A DoE spokesman today said: “As MPs and MLAs, ministers can raise issues relating to their constituencies with divisions and agencies within their departments.
“A conflict of interest would only arise where a minister is involved in the final decision making process on a particular issue. Any such conflict will be avoided.”
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph last week, Mr Wilson said there was no question of him seeking to pressure planning officials.
He said he was entitled to do his job as an MLA and MP, and claimed there had been mischief making.
“First of all, I would never, ever dream of going in and saying, ‘I'm a minister, you get that sorted, you do what I say'. I know where the limits are there, and if I did my officials would be equally entitled to tell me to naff off,” he said.
“Of course they'll listen to my views and everything else but I'm not entitled to bully them into making decisions I particularly want them to make.”
Mr Wilson also criticised the Belfast Telegraph, claiming a report last month on unease within DoE was “unsubstantiated”.
But Alliance leader David Ford said officials were “at the least” being placed “in a difficult position”.
He added: “This would not apply if his party colleagues were doing the lobbying.”
Earlier this week, it emerged that Mr Wilson had been fined £40 for riding his motorcycle without tax or MOT.