Loophole leaves planning open to corruption as councillors take over

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Councillors will not explicitly be breaking the law if they fail to declare political donations from property developers before ruling on their lucrative planning applications, the News Letter has been told.

Just two weeks before Northern Ireland’s 26 councils are replaced by 11 new public authorities which will have direct control over planning, a councillor last night warned that the situation left the Province’s planning system open for potential corruption.

The News Letter first raised concerns about the issue three years ago.

But Stormont’s Department of the Environment (DoE) has now confirmed that the final code of conduct for councillors on the new councils contains no specific requirement to declare financial links between developers and their political parties.

The DoE said that the code — which allows for disqualification of councillors found to have broken it — states that they “must declare any direct or indirect pecuniary interests they may have in any matter coming before any meeting of the council”.

The DoE added: “A councillor cannot speak or vote on any matter on which they have a pecuniary interest. They cannot take part in any discussion on such a matter and must withdraw from the meeting. Councillors must also declare any significant private or personal non-pecuniary interests.”

However, when asked specifically why it had not addressed the issue of political donations — which in Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, remain secret because of alleged security concerns — the department said: “The code does not make specific reference to party donations. It is a councillor’s responsibility to determine whether any of their interests have relevance to any council proceedings.

“The code of conduct applies to councillors as individuals, not to political parties.

“The issue of political donations is a matter for the NIO rather than DoE, as it relates to elections policy which is an excepted matter.”

North Down Green councillor John Barry said he was concerned about the omission.

He said: “We could have a much more robust system if we had a transparent system for funding.”

Cllr Barry, whose party refuses to take any donations from businesses, added: “Next week Tom Frawley, the Ombudsman, is launching the finalised code of conduct. It is regrettable that a week out from that we still have this large loophole and a lack of transparency.

“It completely leaves out the fact that there could be funds given centrally to parties by developers — which could be completely innocent. I just can’t understand why the department didn’t address it... if we think this is going to get rid of the potential for people to corrupt and bypass the system, it won’t.”

Dr Barry also said that he knew that many councillors were loathe to join planning committees because of the work involved and concern about the complexity of the law.

The Queen’s University academic said that meant that he was more concerned about the competence of councillors to take proper decisions, rather than corruption.