Northern Ireland

DUP's Luke Poots denies planning impropriety

Poots blurred version
Image caption Luke Poots (left), Glynis Poots (centre) and DUP MLA Edwin Poots (right)

Luke Poots, the son of DUP MLA Edwin Poots, has denied doing anything improper over attempts to develop land at his home.

Questions are being asked over why a planning application to build three houses to replace his home was made in his mother's maiden name.

Luke Poots is the former chairman of Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council's planning committee.

It also appears he proposed a deal to a neighbouring landowner.

The approach, set out in a note obtained by BBC News NI, appears to suggest the landowner sell him an access strip to the land proposed for development.

The note also suggested the possibility the landowner could get planning approval for a development of his own, which could be worth £150,000 to £200,000.

Image caption The note appears to propose a deal to a neighbouring landowner

Mr Poots denies writing the note or making any approach. He also declined a request for an interview.

His mother Glynis Poots has so far made no comment.

On Thursday afternoon, he issued a statement which was released on his behalf through the DUP.

It confirmed that the planning application had been made in his mother's maiden name - Rachel Gracey.

He said this was "to ensure that the application was dealt with fairly".

"The Poots name is associated with unionist politics," the statement read.

"This was an attempt to have the application considered on its merits rather than through a political prism. The application process has continued for six months properly and appropriately."

It added: "I have reported Mr Magee to the police for harassment."

What was on the planning application?

The planning application centres on a farmhouse where Luke Poots lives on the Comber Road in Hillsborough, County Down.

Mr Poots moved there earlier this year.

According to the list of interests held by the council, he gave the farmhouse as his new address and also declared he had a beneficial interest in land on the Comber Road.

Shortly after he moved there, a planning application was submitted to develop the site by replacing the existing farmhouse with three new dwellings.

If successful, the development would dramatically increase the value of the land.

The planning application is still under consideration.

The planning application was not made by Luke Poots - it was made by his mother Glynis Poots, but not under the name she usually goes by.

Rather, it was made under her maiden name of Rachel M Gracey.

The address given on the form is also not the address where Mrs Poots lives.

A person living at the address given for Rachel Gracey had no knowledge of anyone by that name.

In a section further down the form, in which she is asked if she is related to any council staff or elected member, the words "luke poots. son" are recorded.

Giving a different address from your own on a planning application is considered unusual, according to a former planner.

Dean Blackwood, a member of the Green Party, worked at the Department of the Environment's planning department for more than 30 years.

Image caption Dean Blackwood used to be in charge of the Department of the Environment's planning compliance section

"It is very simple, in regards to submitting a planning application, that you provide a proper full name and address," he said.

"The reason why you would give that is in the interests of openness and transparency, not just so that the planning authorities, but also the public, know who is making the application."

But questions have been asked by Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) MLA Jim Allister as to why Mrs Poots used her maiden name on the form.

"In this case a name has been used which appears to be the lady's maiden name," he said.

"Not a name that it would appear has been widely used before and, if that's correct, it's then compounded by the fact that the address used does not appear to be her address.

"So, it raises the issue - is someone in this application trying to divert attention from the matter?

"Now if the applicant is indeed Mrs Edwin Poots, why does it not say that? Why all these machinations to apparently throw anyone looking at this off the scent?" he said.

We put a series of questions to Mrs Poots but so far there has been no response.

What was in the note?

It also appears that Mr Poots, while he was chairman of the council's planning committee, made a written proposal to a neighbouring landowner in an attempt to gain extra access to the site.

The additional access would help increase the value of any proposed development.

The landowner who received the proposal does not want to make any comment or discuss the matter.

However, the BBC has obtained a copy of the handwritten note.

As an apparent proposal, it indicates a willingness to pay the landowner £8,000 for a "strip of land to make (a) lane the same size as (the) current lane".

It also suggests the possibility the landowner himself can get planning approval under a particular scheme called "active farmer status".

The note reads: "Active farmer status... to allow a building site for (the landowner) worth 150,000 to 200,000 pounds."

The note does not say how this might be achieved as the landowner does not qualify for active farmer status.

Image caption Ulster Unionist councillor Alderman Jim Dillon is the chairman of the NILGA Planning and Regeneration Working Group

An Ulster Unionist councillor who chairs the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) Planning and Regeneration Working Group, said the approach was inappropriate.

"I would not be happy with this. Far from it. It is something that should not happen," said Jim Dillon.

"A chair of the planning committee should not be entering into negotiations with anyone about planning.

"He can talk to someone and listen to their point of view, but he should not be expressing an opinion in any way. That's my opinion."

Handwriting analysis

When asked about the note, Mr Poots denied writing it or making the approach.

In a text message, he said: "Nope. None of that's true."

But a handwriting expert who examined the note said she was "near certain" Mr Poots did write the note.

Elaine Quigley said she ranks her findings from inconclusive to highly possible.

She said the chances that the note was written by Mr Poots fell into the top category of highly possible.

After comparing the note to a sample of Mr Poots' handwriting, Ms Quigley said: "As far as I'm concerned it was the same hand."

'Questions to be answered'

Given the questions raised in relation to the planning application, Jim Allister has called for the application to be examined by the government department responsible for regulating planning.

"There are so many issues red flagging this that the department should be seriously contemplating their powers under section 29 of the Planning Act to call in this application and rigorously interrogate who is the applicant," he said.

"Why is the name being used that is being used? Why's the address not the address? Is it her son under the guise of his mother making this application? Those are questions that the Poots family need to answer with clarity."

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Edwin Poots is a DUP MLA and former Stormont minister

Luke Poots is currently under investigation by the local government watchdog over an alleged conflict of interest in his role as chair of the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council planning committee.

He is being scrutinised for voting in favour of planning decisions lobbied for by his father, DUP MLA Edwin Poots.

Luke Poots has denied there was any conflict of interest.

Glynis Poots was sent a list of questions but has so far made no comment.

Edwin Poots was also asked if he wanted to comment but so far there has been no response from the former Stormont minister.

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