Super dump row raises questions over conflict of interest

A DISPUTE over plans for a controversial `super dump’ near Coleraine has taken another twist with claims of a potential conflict of interest in the awarding of contracts.

The Detail can reveal that campaigners opposed to a proposed super dump near Ringsend in Co Derry have expressed concerns over a potential conflict of interest after it emerged that consultants employed to oversee the tendering process were later employed by the successful bidder.

In 1999 seven local councils in the north west formed a consortium to draw up a waste management plan for the region.

The group, known as the North West Regional Waste Management Group, had a remit to identify how to dispose of 120,000 tonnes of waste each year.

In 2004 consultant engineers RPS (Ireland) were appointed to oversee a tender process to find a ‘super dump’ which would take 120,000 tonnes of rubbish over the next 16 years.

In January 2007 RPS carried out environmental impact assessments on the potential landfill sites and oversaw the tender process which resulted in B Mullan &Sons being chosen by the council consortium as the preferred bidder.

In April and May 2008 representatives from Mullan & Sons met with objectors at Coleraine Council’s headquarters.

However campaigners were angered when an RPS official, who had previously been tasked to oversee the tender process, attended the meetings as a special consultant for the developers.

There is no suggestion that the consultant or anyone involved in the proposed development acted improperly.

Police confront protestors with CS spray

Police confront protestors with CS spray

However there were angry scenes, with police confronting protesters with CS spray, when one of the proposed developers was jostled as he tried to leave the building.

It would later emerge that RPS had been employed by Mullans to ensure the controversial project secured planning permission.

Objectors demanded a public inquiry into the planned development.

A key part of their objections was that RPS faced a major conflict of interest, having initially been employed to oversee the tender process and then being employed by the successful bidder.

In January 2011 Environment Minister Edwin Poots announced he would not allow a public inquiry.

Defending his decision, he said: “The North West Management Group who look after the waste in that area had agreed a procurement process with the owners of this quarry on the basis that planning permission was approved and all of the necessary arrangements were being put in place,’’ he said.

``All of the issues dealing with transportation and all of that have been satisfied and therefore there was only one decision to make and that was to approve.

``I don’t need a public inquiry because there isn’t a significant conflict between any of the issues brought forward by the applicant, and indeed the relevant government department who considered this, so in this instance it wasn’t required.’’

However campaigners question why the proposed super dump should still go ahead claiming the council consortium is actively considering an alternative site.

``The impact on a small rural community, where really our only means of development is rural tourism, has been completed destroyed with the location of this site right next to the Ulster Way and in an area of outstanding natural beauty,’’ said campaigner Patrick Mullan.

Expressing concerns over a potential conflict of interest, SDLP MLA John Dallat said: “No one who is asked to referee a football match would expect to score the winning goal.

“It just wouldn’t be allowed to happen, because it would be a total conflict of interest.

“Why should it be allowed to happen with taxpayers’ money?

“When it comes to awarding millions of pounds of public contracts there can be no room for ambiguity.

“In my opinion you shouldn’t have private consultants being employed by government agencies to oversee the tendering of lucrative contracts and then the same company then being employed by the winning bidder.

“In my opinion there is a clear danger that people could be left open to accusations of conflict of interest.”

However RPS defended its involvement in the Macosquin development, insisting it was “absolutely confident” there was no conflict of interest in it having been employed by the council consortium and later the site’s developers.

In a statement to the Detail it said: “RPS deals with all potential conflict of interest issues on a project by project basis and we are satisfied that there was absolutely no conflict of interest in this instance.”

The company confirmed that it had been employed by the council consortium to oversee the tendering process between January 2004 and January 2007.

It said it had then been employed by developers to oversee its planning application in October 2007.

``In our consultancy work, RPS undertakes work for a wide range of public and private sector clients in Northern Ireland,’’ it said.

``It is quite understandable that on occasion we would act for one client and subsequently for a second where there may have been historical associations with each other.

``All jobs are transparent and are tendered and awarded on an open basis.’’

A spokesman for NWRWMG denied there was any conflict of interest.

He said: ``It would be unusual for a specialist advisor to be prevented from working for a client because they had at some time in the past assessed that client as part of other work.’’