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DUP backs Iris Robinson over support for developers’ building proposals

The DUP has backed Iris Robinson over links between firms she lobbied for and property deals involving the MP and her First Minister husband.

The Belfast Telegraph today reveals details of Mrs Robinson's strong support for projects tabled by two developers — Ken Campbell and R&A Developments.

Mr Campbell has been in the headlines as one of two businessmen who bankrolled the new cafe business of Mrs Robinson's teenage lover in 2008. He also sold Mr and Mrs Robinson an office building the previous year.

As this newspaper revealed last week, Land Registry documentation on this office sale records a £1 transaction, but Mr Robinson and Mr Campbell have insisted the full price of some £200,000 was paid. The office has been Mrs Robinson's advice centre in Newtownards.

In 2009 the top DUP couple sold this same office — at North Street in the town — for £207,500 to a consortium headed by tycoon Adam Armstrong of R&A Developments.

Mrs Robinson has been a long-time vocal supporter of a massive retail development tabled by Mr Armstrong's company for Newtownards. Her backing for this multi-million pound Castlebawn project included lambasting planners for their handling of the scheme some two months before she and her husband were involved in a sale deal with the tycoon.

Mrs Robinson, meanwhile, spoke out in the summer of 2008 in favour of a controversial housing development plan involving Mr Campbell. This was around the same time she was obtaining £25,000 from the builder to help finance her young lover Kirk McCambley's new cafe business, the Lock Keeper's Inn. It was also less than a year after she and her husband had bought the Newtownards office building from Mr Campbell.

The Strangford MP's backing for Mr Campbell's housing development scheme later brought her into conflict with objectors.

Asked by this newspaper at the weekend about the lobbying links to Mr Campbell and Mr Armstrong, a DUP spokesman said: “Mrs Robinson and all elected representatives have a duty to represent constituents who seek their assistance.”

The Belfast Telegraph also asked if the 2009 sale of the office building to Mr Armstrong and associates was through the open market or by a private arrangement.

In reply, the party spokesman said: “The North Street sale was an arm's length transaction for full market value.”

The same question was put to Mr Armstrong's business grouping, but this newspaper was told it would be making no comment.

The North Street office details raise further questions about Mrs Robinson's lobbying for developers and whether the £25,000 cafe funding received from Mr Campbell should have been declared in the Assembly and House of Commons register of interests.

Facts established by the Belfast Telegraph include that:

l In March 2007 Ken Campbell's firm purchased the North Street premises with the price recorded at Land Registry as £195,000. Some six months later Peter and Iris Robinson bought the office from him. Land Registry documentation includes the phrase “in consideration of the sum of one pound”.

Mr Campbell said last week that the Robinsons paid full price and that the £1 “reflects the conclusion of a trust arrangement in place at that time”. He declined to provide any further clarification.

In an interview with the Sunday Times published yesterday, Mr Robinson said: “It is a complex legal issue. Apparently it was bought in trust and the trust was bought out for £1, but the property was bought for over £200,000 and on top of that it is made clear that all stamp duties and other stuff was paid on it.” Mrs Robinson's subsequent lobbying for Mr Campbell's housing development project in Newtownards led to her clashing with a local objectors group. In a terse reply to a letter from the group in October 2008 the Strangford MP defended her involvement, describing Mr Campbell as a “reputable builder” she had “known for many years”. This letter was sent a year after Mr Campbell had sold the Robinsons the North Street office, and a few months after Mrs Robinson had obtained £25,000 from the builder for the cafe business of her young lover Kirk McCambley.

l In April 2009, Land Registry papers record the North Street office being sold by the Robinsons for £207,500. This was just weeks after the First Minister had learned of his wife's affair.

The Newtownards office was purchased from the DUP couple by a grouping headed by Adam Armstrong of R&A Developments. His address was listed as in Gibraltar.

Mrs Robinson had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Castlebawn retail masterplan for Newtownards — a high-profile R&A Developments project.

Her backing included questioning ministers on the approval process for the scheme, both in the Assembly and in the House of Commons. On one occasion in 2001 she asked her then Regional Development Minister husband for an update.

In reply to her written question, Mr Robinson said: “I am pleased to report that progress is being made towards bringing about a satisfactory conclusion to the outline planning applications by Castlebawn Limited for its proposed development in Newtownards.”

In 2005 and 2008 public relations Press releases from the Castlebawn developers included quotes from Mrs Robinson praising the blueprint.

In February last year Mrs Robinson rounded on Planning Service over the time taken to green light the scheme. She said she was writing to her First Minister husband to voice her concern and commented: “Having been involved with the Castlebawn project since 2001, I have witnessed the developer jump through every hoop that was requested.”

These comments were made some two months before Mr Armstrong and his associates bought her Newtownards office. Planning Service is part of the Department of the Environment, which has been headed by a DUP minister since May 2007.

l Since the North Street office sale last year, taxpayer-funded payments have been made to the new landlord.

MLAs are not permitted rental expenses for advice centre premises that they own.

When that position changed in April 2009 Mrs Robinson was entitled to claim for rent, which was paid to “Trustees of R&A Developments”.

The Assembly has now confirmed that a total of £11,000 was paid out for the period April to December 2009.

Belfast Telegraph