Northern Ireland

Trinity Housing Association to be asked to give money back over land deal

This house and garden was bought in 2007 for £700,000
Image caption This house and garden was bought in 2007 for £700,000

The Trinity Housing Association is to be asked to return £835,000 of public funds that it used to buy a house and grounds from the County Down developer Ken Campbell.

According to land registry documents, Mr Campbell's company made £185,000 on the deal in two days.

Mr Campbell came to prominence in 2010 after it emerged that he had lent £25,000 to Kirk McCambley.

Mr McCambley was the teenage lover of the former DUP MP Iris Robinson.

The half-acre site on the Downpatrick Road in Crossgar was supposed to have been developed by Trinity for social housing, but has been lying derelict for five years.

Neighbours complain that it is an eyesore.

Documents obtained by the BBC from Land Registry show Mr Campbell's company, Inishmore Developments, bought the site on 31 July 2007 for £700,000.

The papers show that two days after he acquired the Crossgar land, it was re-sold to Trinity Housing who paid £885,000 for the half-acre site.

The re-sale netted Mr Campbell's company £185,000.

The land registry documents show his company owned the site for just two days - but Mr Campbell disputes this.

He says he entered into a contract to buy the house for development land six months before he sold it to Trinity on 2 August 2007.

Mr Campbell said: "The site was never flipped. I signed the contract to buy the house earlier in the year, in February, and the contract will show that.

"I don't understand the land registry dates.

"I owned the site for a considerable time. I did not turn it (the site) in two days.

"I would never have bought one day and sold a few days later.

"In my whole life I have never done a contract like that. Normally I would sit on a site for a while."

Image caption Ken Campbell bought the land and house

He said he bought the site as an independent developer and was not acting as an agent for Trinity when he purchased it.

He added that he has no longer anything to do with the land at Crossgar in financial terms, but said he "would assist Trinity in anyway" he could to get planning approval.

In spite of the premium paid for the land at the height of the property boom, it had no planning permission for houses at the time of the sale, and so far the Trinity Housing Association has been unable to obtain any.

According to the Housing Executive, Trinity was given a grant in early 2008 for £835,000 for the purchase of the site.

That sum was paid over to Trinity, but now the Executive wants the money - known as an Advanced Land Purchase (ALP) grant - returned because no social housing has been built.

A spokesman said: "The Housing Executive has initiated the process required to recoup the grant monies paid to Trinity Housing in respect of an ALP grant for 19 Downpatrick Road, Crossgar."

Trinity declined to be interviewed but in a brief statement it said "the association was in receipt of an independent planning opinion and met all the conditions that are necessary for an ALP approval".

"At the present time a planning application to develop the site remains live," the statement said.

"In such circumstances we cannot see why the department would seek to re-claim the advance land purchase grant."

After numerous attempts by Trinity to get planning approval to build social houses, no permission has been granted.

In March 2011, the former DUP Planning Minster Edwin Poots recommended that an application by Trinity to develop the land should be approved.

But this opinion was overturned in November last year by the current SDLP Planning Minister Alex Attwood.

Asked why he had reversed the previous minister's decision, he said: "All I have done is stick to the planning advice I have been given by the regional planner in the area and that advice is, the site is unsuitable for the type of social housing development that has been applied for."

The house lying on the vacant site was recently vandalised. The former Ulster Unionist Environment Minister Dermot Nesbitt lives next door.

He said: "It is a real eyesore.

"I am not opposed to social housing but it should not be built in an area where the planners don't want it.

"Tax payers money has been sitting idle that could have been used by government and spent elsewhere."

The DUP MP who took over from Iris Robinson in the neighbouring Strangford constituency, Jim Shannon, is a strong supporter of Trinity's proposal to develop the site.

Mr Shannon has written four letters to planning officials supporting the scheme in the past 12 months.

Last December, he led a delegation to Stormont to lobby party colleague and First Minister Peter Robinson on the issue of planning consent.

He wanted the first minister to raise it with his executive colleague, the Environment Minister Alex Attwood.

Asked if this had happened, Minister Attwood said: "Peter Robinson has not been to see me about this site."