Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Housing charity boss sets up home in association owned property

Woodvale & Shankill Community Housing Association own manager's residence while 700 languish on housing waiting list.

By Ciaran Barnes, Chief Reporter

A housing charity boss is living in one of her employer’s properties while owning a second home nearby.

For the past number of months Sarah Swain has been staying at an extended social housing bungalow at Kilcoole Gardens in north Belfast that Woodvale & Shankill Community Housing Association (WSCHA) bought for £82,500 last June.

That is even though the 43-year-old, who is the charity’s £40,000 per year operations manager, owns a house on nearby Joanmount Park for the past 12 years.

When Sunday Life challenged Swain early yesterday morning on the doorstep of the Kilcoole Park property she denied living there, saying: “This is my brother’s house, I don’t live here.”

Our reporter pointed out that neighbours told us Swain had been staying at the property for “months”.

We also explained that we had watched her earlier in the week leave the bungalow to take a child to school.

Keeping up her denials Swain, whose Audi car was parked in the drive, replied: “I’ve only been staying here a week, my brother is on holiday and I’m looking after the house for him.”

The WSCHA chief then claimed not to own a house on Joanmount Park, only to backtrack when this newspaper said it had Land Registry documents that showed she purchased the three bedroom semi-detached property for £60,000 in 2005.

Sunday Life also put it to Swain that there are 707 people on the Housing Executive waiting list for a home in the Greater Shankill and Ballysillan areas.

Of this number, almost 400 are deemed to be in ‘housing stress’, with many registered as homeless.

As the well-paid operations manager of WSCHA, it is Swain’s job to help these desperate families find affordable social homes in which to live.

She was asked would she accept that by staying at the Kilcoole Gardens bungalow, while at the same time owning a house in Joanmount Park, she was depriving these genuine cases of a home.

Swain replied: “Like I said, this is my brother’s house. I’ve only been staying her for the last while to look after the place while he is on holiday.”

Last night a spokesperson for WSCHA failed to respond to repeated Sunday Life requests for a comment.

The row over Sarah Swain’s ‘second’ home is the latest blow to hit WSCHA, which is also battling allegations that it was involved in a “sham tender” process and a claim that it is “not fit for purpose”.

Its board members include UVF godfather Winkie Irvine, who has been making increasing inroads into the property market.

WSCHA, which according to company accounts has fixed assets of £31m, used subsidiary firm WGS Residential Ltd to buy the bungalow on Kilcoole Gardens last June.

Sarah Swain, like Winkie Irvine, is also a director of WGS Residential Ltd.

After the purchase was complete, thousands of pounds were spent on renovating the property.

Neighbours told Sunday Life that Swain moved in a short time later despite already owning a house less than a mile away on Joanmount Park, which is currently valued at £100,000.

Read below: WSCHA paid firm once registered to its chief exec's address to install  RHI wood pellet boilers.

According to its website, WSCHA is committed to “maintaining family housing needs, sheltered accommodation for the elderly and disabled, and special needs accommodation”. Sources say that its bungalow on Kilcoole Gardens, which Sarah Swain has been living in, would be perfect for a family that included at least one person with a disability.

Now WSCHA will have to answer questions around this issue on top of responding to serious allegations made against it an ongoing industrial tribunal.

A panel has already heard evidence that the charity went through a “sham tender” process in awarding lucrative building contracts to its WGS subsidiary firms.

Adding to the controversy is the fact that UVF boss Winkie Irvine is both the treasurer of the £31m WSCHA and sits on the board of its WGS companies.

This is despite the leading loyalist having no accountancy qualifications or experience looking after the finances of a multi-million pound business.

Irvine took to social media last weekend to deny being WSCHA treasurer despite being named as such on accounts filed with the Charity Commission in March 2016.

Last year WSCHA also awarded its WGS subsidiary company a contract worth thousands of pounds to carry out improvement work on 47 of its properties around Cambrai Street and Disraeli Street.

According to evidence heard at the tribunal “this was a mistake as WGS is not fit for purpose and WSCHA failed to undertake at the proper time full risk assessments for following this procurement route”.

It was also alleged that the housing charity let out “potentially dangerous properties” while breaching health and safety regulations.

The matter is now being considered by the Department for Communities.

A spokeswoman said: “The department has received a complaint in connection with this housing association. This complaint is being taken forward under the department’s ‘Raising Concerns’ procedures.”

Energy firm registered at WSCHA chief's home installed boilers

THE Woodvale and Shankill Community Housing Association paid an energy firm previously registered to its chief executive’s home address to install RHI boilers at three apartment complexes in Belfast.

But Michael McDowell – the boss of the under-fire Woodvale Shankill Community Housing Association (WSCHA) – has denied a conflict of interest, saying he was off sick when the lucrative contracts worth more than £100,000 were awarded.

Powerful 200kw wood pellet-burning boilers were set up at the WSCHA-owned McCallum Court, Mount Eden Court and Cambrai Court in 2015.

They were installed under the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme that pay the owners a £1.60 government subsidy for every £1 of energy burned.

Political rows over the botched scheme, which is set to cost the taxpayer £480m over 20 years, led to the collapse of Stormont.

Sunday Life has learned that the boilers that heat the 98 apartments at the WSCHA complexes were put in place by Green Energy Technology (GET) Ltd, which has offices in rural Co Down.

But before the company moved there in May 2012, it was registered to the rural home of accountant Michael McDowell in Co Down.

The WSCHA chief executive last night denied having any role in the tender process that saw the housing charity award boiler contracts to the energy firm once registered to his home.

A WSCHA spokesman said: “Michael McDowell is seconded to WSCHA from Toner McDowell (Chartered Accountants) to provide professional management services and fulfil the duties of chief executive when required.

“As is common practice, it is not unusual for firms of accountants, and indeed solicitors, to register start-up clients to their office addresses for filing purposes.

“This was the case with Green Energy Technology Ltd between 2009 and 2012.”

The WSCHA spokesman explained that between October 2015 and March 2016 Mr McDowell was on sick leave.

However, the charity accepts that when planning applications were lodged for its boilers at McCallum Court and Mount Eden Court in April 2015 Mr McDowell was at work as chief executive.

The third RHI boiler at Cambrai Court bas been operating illegally for more than a year with a planning application only submitted for it last month and currently awaiting approval.

The WSCHA said: “Mr McDowell was not involved in the WSCHA’s decision to initiate a tender process for the installation of boilers during this time, nor in the decision making for the appointment of a contractor.

“Therefore, a conflict of interest issue did not arise.

“Mr McDowell has never commissioned Green Energy Technology Ltd to install private or commercial boilers.

“WSCHA engaged in the RHI scheme legitimately and lawfully with the aim of reducing heating costs for a vulnerable section of our community, the elderly. We take issue with any suggestion to the contrary.”

As chief executive of the WSCHA Michael McDowell is understood to earn more than £60,000 per year for “professional management services”.

The installation of three new RHI heating systems at its Cambrai Court, McCallum Court and Mount Eden Court cost, according to sources, “hundreds of thousands of pounds|”.

The 98 apartments were heated by an outdated Economy 7 system, the radiators and pipes of which had to be ripped out and replaced by those compatible with wood-pellet boilers.

Green Energy Techonology Ltd – which was formerly registered to WSCHA chief executive Michael McDowell’s home address – carried out the work.

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