Causeway Council £1 land easement deal: Jim Allister asks watchdog to step in

The public services ombudsman has been asked to step in after a Northern Ireland council opted to take no action when its chief executive’s role in a £1 deal was exposed following an investigation last year.

Friday, 2nd July 2021, 6:30 am
The Causeway Coast and Glens Council chamber at Cloonavin, Coleraine
The Causeway Coast and Glens Council chamber at Cloonavin, Coleraine

TUV MLA Jim Allister who lodged a series of complaints against the Causeway Coast and Glens council chief executive David Jackson following a judicial review of a planning decision last year, has asked the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman to take action.

In October, councillors voted in secret to take no action against the council chief after an investigation concluded he had “ultimate responsibility” for the granting of an easement over lands necessary for access to a proposed luxury hotel near Portstewart for just £1.

The investigation had come about following a complaint made by Mr Allister.

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Mr Allister, who owns a property near the site of the proposed hotel, lodged a series of complaints after winning a legal challenge in the High Court against the council’s decision to grant planning permission for the development proposals.

Following the judicial review, a judge said “certain irregularities on the part of the council” had been “exposed” during the case.

The judge, Lord Justice McCloskey, made it clear the judicial review did not possess the “powers or jurisdiction” of an auditor or ombudsman to take action.

Mr Allister had then approached the public services ombudsman but had been asked to approach the council first.

In November 2019, he wrote to the council with a series of allegations against the council chief executive and other senior council officials in order to “first exhaust the council’s complaint procedure”.

A private consultancy firm was hired by the council to investigate and, in a report that was leaked to the media in early September, upheld 15 of the 18 complaints against the council chief.

The investigation relied on the outcome of the judicial review, interviews with those involved, and tape recordings of conversations made by independent councillor Padraig McShane to produce its findings.

In his complaint, Mr Allister said the council chief had “ultimate responsibility” for the granting of the easement for £1 without any valuation having first been secured.

In October last year, the council opted to take no action on the basis that the report had been leaked to the press and those involved had been denied the right to a “fair trial”.

The decision was a majority vote by councillors while ‘in committee’, meaning press and members of the public were excluded.

Now, the News Letter can reveal the public services ombudsman has been asked again to step in. Mr Allister said he had contacted the ombudsman again after the council had “attempted to sweep it all under the carpet”.

He added: “I’m still waiting to hear if they will investigate. To my mind there should be no quetsion of them not investigating.”