Belfast Telegraph

Departing housing chief wasn't asked to go, insists Nelson McCausland

By Adrian Rutherford

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland has denied asking for the resignation of a senior Housing Executive official who has quit his post days before a damning report into multi-million pound contracts is published.

Brian Rowntree announced he was stepping down as chairman of the organisation ahead of an audit which is likely to raise “truly alarming” concerns over how taxpayers’ money was abused.

The independent report was commissioned by Mr McCausland amid allegations of overcharging and poor practice by east Belfast construction firm Red Sky.

The inquiry — which looked at the wider issue of Housing Executive contracts — is understood to have also highlighted concerns relating to other contractors.

On Monday, it emerged that Mr Rowntree had tendered his resignation to Mr McCausland after eight years as chairman.

In an email to 3,000 Housing Executive staff, he referred to “personal stress” and “a challenging relationship” with the Department for Social Development.

That relationship boiled over last July in the wake of the Red Sky construction firm saga.

The Housing Executive announced it was ending a £7m contract after a probe into the company’s work practices.

However, within weeks of replacing Alex Attwood as Social Development Minister, Mr McCausland asked the organisation to extend the contract past the initial deadline.

When the Housing Executive resisted and threatened him with a judicial review, the minister said its response was “aggressive” and described a letter he received from its chairman as sounding like “a declaration of war”.

Speaking on Monday night, Mr McCausland — who will reveal the details of the audit’s findings to the Assembly today — denied that Mr Rowntree’s resignation had been a personal matter and insisted that it “will become a lot clearer” following today’s report.

“This is not a personal matter — this is a practical matter and it’s a matter of concern about public expenditure,” the minister told the BBC.

“The important thing is that we’ll get the first stage in getting out the information — the facts about the concerns that I have rightly described as truly alarming,” he added.

In his email to staff, Mr Rowntree said that neither he nor his board had been given the opportunity to address matters contained in that report.

“I believe that there are imminent statements which are about to be made by the minister... relating to events and reports which neither I as chairman nor my board have had an opportunity to address.”

Background

Nelson McCausland was due to make a statement to the Assembly on Tuesday about the contents of a report on contracts carried out by accountancy firm ASM Howarth. It began its work in autumn 2011, following the termination of the Housing Executive's £7m-a-year contract with construction firm Red Sky amid allegations of overcharging and sub-standard work.

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