LARNE councillor Brian Dunn has identified three colleagues who met Environment Minister Alex Attwood a year ago to discuss the Larne marina planning application.
The Conservative Party representative learned through a Freedom of Information request to the Department that Cllr Martin Wilson (SDLP), Ald Roy Beggs (UUP) and Drew Niblock (DUP) met Mr Attwood in his office at Goodwood House on December 21, 2011 at a time when decisions were being made on major planning applications that been on the books for some time. The proposed marina at Sandy Bay - which is at appeal - was the oldest live case, having been in the system for 13 years.
Cllr Dunn, who first learned of the meeting after Mr Attwood made reference to it during an Assembly debate on February 28 this year, had made it his mission to discover who met the minister and in what capacity. None of the three volunteered the information and Cllr Wilson, who arranged the cross-party delegation, told the Larne Times this week: “I thought about putting my hand up, but I really didn’t see any reason why I should. It was not an official delegation of council and people are perfectly entitled to meet with ministers to put their views across.”
In November, Cllr Dunn received an assurance from council chief executive Geraldine McGahey that no letter had been issued by Council seeking a meeting with the minister, no formal delegation had been sent by Council and nor had there been any resolution of Council to either effect. Cllr Dunn failed to persuade the council to write to Mr Attwood to state those facts.
Ald Beggs said after the vote that there was no restriction on any elected member making representation and that perhaps the wording given to the Assembly did not accurately reflect the representation.
Back in February, the SDLP minister told MLAs he was hopeful of movement on the marina application. The official record quotes him saying: “There might be some further developments there because a cross-party delegation from Larne Borough Council came to see me before Christmas. I assure people that the delay (in issuing a planning decision) has very little to do with the planning system. It is all to do with the scale and issue around the project.”
Cllr Dunn has now received the minute of the meeting, which erroneously lists Cllr Bobby McKee as the DUP representative. We understand that Cllr McKee was unable to attend due to illness.
The minute reports that Ald Beggs outlined the background of the marina proposal, advising that the council was due to meet on January 16 and “minded” to provide further information required by Planning.
It continues: “He added that they had asked for the meeting with the minister because of the concerns regarding the application and to confirm they represent the greater majority of the councillors”.
The minutes also indicate that Cllr Wilson asked Mr Attwood to allow the council time to meet on January 16 and provide the information before any decision was made on the application. “Minister agreed to give that commitment - he added there appeared to be some confusion over the application,” the official record states.
It also indicates that strategic planning manager Simon Kirk confirmed that the application was “in limbo” and that the Planning Appeals Commission was refusing to hear the case because the environmental statement was 13 years old. Mr Kirk added that if a revised scheme and updated environmental statement were submitted, the Department would consider those and advise the minister accordingly.
In April, Larne Council voted 7-6 to support the concept of a marina village at Sandy Bay on the proposal of Cllr Wilson, seconded by Cllr Niblock. In October, members voted 10-5 in favour of promoting the £42.5 million 200-berth marina and village “by advertising lands in council ownership and seek expressions of interest from potential developers”, on the proposal of Ald Beggs, seconded by Cllr McKee.
The revised marina application includes a public plaza, a 16-bedroom inn and restaurant, apartments, townhouses and fishermen’s cottages.
Releasing his FOI responses to the Larne Times, Cllr Dunn said: “I have no problem with the Larne Marina Company, who are only doing what developers do to get things done. My main concerns are about the council’s procedures because I feel that the council are going against the Ombudsman’s advice following the Glenarm investigation and against our own legal advice.
“I think that if they do decide to re-advertise for interested developers, the close relationship the council has had with Larne Marina Company through the years would prejudice a fair and open competition.”
Cllr Wilson said Cllr Dunn had set out to establish if the delegation had been sent by Council. “The answer is “no’. It was three councillors from three different parties.”
He added that he had asked for the meeting, explaining: “The minister had said he was trying to get all outstanding applications cleared up one way or the other and I thought it was important to ascertain what that would mean for the marina. The minister had said that unless the application on the table could be carried through, he would be minded to pull it and his officials were telling me that it was not going anywhere.”
Cllr Wilson said that after the ministerial meeting: “We told the Larne Marina Company that if they wanted it to work they would have to get the finger out.”
He added: “We recognised, there are jobs there, and a scheme here that we could risk losing. From my point of view, it was a no-brainer.”
Asked why he had not volunteered to reveal his involvement in the meeting, Cllr Wilson replied as above, adding: “Any councillor can make representation to any minister. There was nothing underhand in it, in that I arranged the meeting and I asked the DUP and the UUP to go with me.”