Belfast Telegraph

Winkie Irvine faces 'sham tender' claims over housing charity contract

Top loyalist's property firm branded "not fit for purpose" by whistleblower

By Ciaran Barnes

UVF boss Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine is facing a New Year nightmare over “sham tender” and safety allegations involving a property firm and a housing charity.

The top loyalist sits on the board of a property firm which has been branded “not fit for purpose” after winning a lucrative contract to renovate 47 houses in the Shankill area.

Irvine is also a director of the publicly funded charity which awarded the contract — the Woodvale and Shankill Community Housing Association (WSCHA).

Now, a whisteblowing building surveyor who worked for the charity has made a string of serious allegations against both the housing association and its subsidiary building firm, WGS which also includes Winkie Irvine on its board.

Surveyor Dr Edward Cooke accuses the charity of letting out potentially dangerous properties, and says he was effectively silenced and sidelined after raising health and safety and other concerns.

The scathing criticisms — which will put the business interests of senior UVF and PUP figure Irvine in the spotlight — are set to be aired in a legal battle this New Year.

But already shocking claims made by experienced chartered surveyor Dr Cooke have been made public by the NI Courts and Tribunals Service.

Dr Cooke quit his post with housing charity (WSCHA) in June this year and is claiming constructive dismissal.

Evidence of his allegations emerged at a recent pre-hearing application brought by Dr Cooke to amend his claim — and the decision including his statements have been published.

WSCHA is a charity tasked with renovating and maintaining hundreds of homes in the Woodvale district at the top of the Shankill in Belfast.

As well as making serious mismanagement accusations against its board — which includes Winston Irvine — Dr Cooke is scathing of the loyalist’s WGS firm.

Since April, Irvine has been a registered director of the companies WGS New Developments Ltd, WGS Green Energy Ltd and WGS Property Enterprises Ltd.

Dr Cooke alleges that the housing charity is “badly structured” and “lacking managerial expertise”.

He says the charity awarded WGS a lucrative contract to carry out improvement work to 47 homes on Cambrai Street and Disraeli Street. Mr Cooke also refers to a “sham tender” process.

“This was a mistake as WGS is not fit for purpose,” Dr Cooke wrote in his statement to the tribunal. He said serious flaws in its work had been found in a pilot scheme in the area.

He went on to accuse WSCHA of letting out “potentially dangerous properties” and breaching health and safety regulations.

He said WSCHA was considering embracing procurement strategies that he considered posed serious conflict of interest problems and could be potentially damaging to the long term future of the association.

“I am at a loss why the board would contemplate using WGS after completing a much smaller scheme that was delivered late, that should have incurred damages, that omitted fundamental works and that encompassed sub-standard specifications.”

The chartered surveyor with 35 years’ experience also complained that his “expertise” in these matters was “continually overlooked".

He further alleges that after raising earlier issues around health and safety, he was “ignored”, his work was “reduced”, and that he was left to “twiddle his thumbs”.

Dr Cooke eventually resigned in the summer, saying in a letter to the board: “In 35 years I have never before worked for a housing association where the employer declined to provide the competitive tenders with tender feedback information 14-15 weeks after the tender return date.”

In a summary of his tribunal evidence, Mr Cooke accuses the WSCHA of breaching Department for Social Development (DSD), Charity Commission, and health and safety regulations.

He also alleges that the housing body “entered into a sham tender at a cost to all tenderers”.

The tribunal has not yet heard the response of the WSCHA to claims made by Dr Cooke whose case will proceed later this year.

Winkie Irvine’s senior role in both WSCHA and WGS – the firms at the centre of Mr Cooke’s tribunal claims – show how he is becoming increasingly involved in property development.

Whistleblower makes other serious allegations

Whistleblowing surveyor Edward Cooke makes a number of serious allegations against his former employers in his industrial tribunal evidence.

As well as accusing the Woodvale Shankill Community Housing Association (WSCHA) of constructive dismissal, the building expert also alleges:

●  That the charity breached Charity Commission, and Construction Design Management (CDM) rules;

● It appointed an ex-chairman to several projects without a competitive tender in breach of government regulations;

● WSCHA ignored health and safety policies and procedures while entering into a “sham tender” at a cost to all tenders.

● It let four specific properties that were potentially dangerous and re-let homes that were potentially dangerous;

Mr Cooke also claims WSCHA held meetings without his attendance and “denigrated” his skills by omitting him from the procurement of three large green energy boiler projects.

He further alleges that he was purposely left out of a scheme that saw solar panels fitted to more than 300 houses, and that concerns he raised about fire risks at four properties on Rosebank Street were ignored.

It has to be stressed that at this stage Mr Cooke’s claims are unproven, with an Industrial Tribunal to decide later this year whether they are true.

UVF commander Winkie Irvine is one of seven individuals listed on the Charity Commission website as being a member of the WSCHA board of trustees.

He is also a director of the companies WGS New Developments Ltd, WGS Green Energy Ltd, and WGS Property Enterprises Ltd, which were given work contracts by WSCHA.

cbarnes@sundaylife.co.uk

CLARIFICATION

*All of Dr Cooke's comments and allegations were taken from a pre-hearing application decision published online by Employment Tribunals NI. www.employmenttribunalsni.co.uk

Dr Cooke has not given any newspaper interviews about this matter.

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