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DUP MLA denies involvement in business lobbying for planning applicants represents conflict of interest

Trevor Clarke MLA

A DUP MLA has denied that his involvement in a business lobbying on behalf of planning applicants represents a conflict of interest.

The South Antrim MLA Trevor Clarke is a partner in Versatile Consultancy, which represents applicants in the council planning process.

He set up the consultancy after losing his assembly seat in the 2017 election, but later that year he was co-opted back into the assembly to replace Paul Girvan who had become an MP.

The firm has been involved in several planning applications in the Antrim area and the Irish News reports Mr Clarke spoke in favour of one of the applications in March when it came before a council planning committee earlier this year.

Mr Clarke told the Belfast Telegraph that he did not speak on behalf of the application as an MLA but as a private individual on a commercial basis.

Mr Clarke confirmed that he has declared Versatile Consultancy on his Stormont register of interests.

The DUP MLA said that he would be asking the respective ombudsmen to investigate the matter.

A DUP spokesman said “it is important those in public office are seen to hold to the highest standards in transparency". 

"Whether it is the Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards or the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards, these are the proper mechanisms to investigate this matter," the spokesman said.

"The party will consider the findings of any investigation.”

Sir Alister Graham, former head of a public standards watchdog, told the Irish News that the situation appeared to be a conflict of interest and a breach of the assembly code of conduct which bans paid advocacy.

"Particularly in planning issues, elected public officials have heavy moral and legal responsibilities, and they need to demonstrate at all times that they are operating in the public interest and there is no actual or perceived opportunity of personal financial gain or a public perception of a conflict of interest," he added.

Mr Clarke, speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, said: "Rather than trial by media I am happy to take any opinion from the assembly, but I feel a wee bit aggrieved that I actually went to the assembly and declared by interests.

"This wasn't some form of media scoop that they have just found out I have done something underhand. I was upfront and honest, as I have been in my whole career."

Mr Clarke said that when he set up the business in 2017 he wasn't working as an MLA.

"People come to me for the complete planning package. We organise the plans the drawings and everything else," he said.

"The other stuff where they have muddied the waters slightly is where they see this is an MLA's role.

"It certainly isn't. On a monthly basis I represent people as an MLA, there is no money that changes hands, I am happy to do that and I will continue to do that. The other one is distinctly different.

"I think if the media took time and spoke to MLAs and asked how many of them actually do up the applications, fill in the application forms, do the maps, do drawings and submit all of that for free, I think you won't find that there is anybody that does that. I think it is a bit misleading in the story."

Asked whether he refuted comments from Sir Alister Graham that the situation may represent a "conflict of interest" Mr Clarke said: "If this former public standard watchdog head is saying there is a conflict, then that needs to be looked at.

"I have no issue with that, but if that is the case, then I wouldn't have been doing that.

"However, I think the two things are distinctly different, I declared what I do, I am not hiding anything."

In relation to speaking in favour of the planning application in March, Mr Clarke said: "They have said I was called as an MLA, if I was ever called as an MLA I am sure I would have corrected that. If you listen to the recording [ of the council meeting] I think you will find I was called as Trevor Clarke and not an MLA. That is my understanding.

"I am not making any denial. I am involved in Versatile and doing planning applications but that is distinctly different from what I do as an MLA."

Mr Clarke said that if an individual comes to him with a planning query for him to handle from start to finish that this was "distinctly different" from going to an MLA in their role to support you.

"On the night of a council meeting, it shouldn't matter if you are a member of the public an MLA, a QC or anything else, it (the planning decision) should be based on the planning case that has been put, regardless of who puts the case," he said.

"I think is were it is different. I would go regularly and support constituents as an MLA and I then I go in a commercial capacity where Versatile is involved in the case. I think we have only been once where we have spoken in a case for Versatile ,others have either been decided by delegated authority by the planners or they have been refused."

Belfast Telegraph