The Irish Mail on Sunday

Council tried to block FOI release of costs for TD’s failed social housing deal

Authority redacts f inancial details of abortive plan for four apartments

- By Michael O’Farrell and Ken Foxe Michaelofa­

A LOCAL authority sought to keep secret the financial details of a failed €1m property deal involving a junior minister, the Irish Mail on Sunday can reveal.

The deal would have seen Westmeath County Council buy four apartments earmarked for social housing from a firm jointly owned by Trade Promotion Minister, Robert Troy.

Mr Troy’s partner in the deal was Colin Dolan, a nephew of legendary showband star Joe Dolan. Mr Dolan is a millionair­e publican and nightclub owner in Mullingar and Dublin who was recently mooted as a likely purchaser of Copper Face Jacks nightclub.

Between them, Mr Dolan and Mr Troy stood to earn a profit of €100,148 for completing the turnkey apartments for the county council.

But all of the deal’s finances were redacted on the grounds of commercial sensitivit­y when the MoS sought records under the Freedom of Informatio­n (FOI) Act from the council.

Further council records – including an initial costing document provided by Mr Troy – were inexplicab­ly missing from the FOI files provided by Westmeath County Council.

In contrast to this opacity, the Department of Housing, which had to approve the deal before it could proceed, released all of the financial details involved without question.

The MoS has now referred the matter to the Informatio­n Commission­er for independen­t review.

When asked to explain the omission of documents from its released schedule of files, a spokesman for the council conceded that some correspond­ence known to exist had been ‘erroneousl­y omitted from the list of documents’.

However, the council doubled down on its decision to keep the financial aspects of the deal secret for reasons of commercial sensitivit­y and insisted it would not, in any case, have released these files.

In another instance, the council admitted that one non-financial document that should have been released in full had been ‘omitted in error’. This file has now been provided.

According to the limited FOI records released by the council, the developers first expressed an interest in providing social housing units at the end of March 2019.

The approach was in response to an advertisin­g campaign run by the local authority.

The developer’s proposal involved the conversion of first-floor offices in Mullingar into four separate oneand two-bed apartments.

A week after approachin­g the council, the developers incorporat­ed a new company called Fornasetti Ltd as a vehicle for the deal.

They then each provided Fornasetti with directors’ loans of €83,613 to fund the €167,226 cost of the site, which had previous planning permission in place.

By September 2019 the council had agreed a price of €901,333 for the completed apartments which were to be provided before the end of 2019.

The council’s urgency related to a growing social housing backlog and a Government push to address the housing crisis.

The developers also wanted to move quickly. For example, in midSeptemb­er 2019, Mr Dolan’s correspond­ence to council officials pointed out that he and Mr Troy had bought the site some time ago and were incurring costs on it.

‘The site is bought and paid for for some time and will continue to cost until final handover,’ he wrote.

Land registry records do not show the site being owned by the developers until December but this weekend Mr Troy clarified that the site had gone sale-agreed in March, when a deposit was paid. Final contracts for the purchase were then signed in mid-August.

According to Mr Dolan, it was he who set up the deal and then brought Mr Troy on board.

When asked why he decided to bring Mr Troy on board, he replied: ‘Well now, I don’t really have to answer that, do I?’

He also confirmed the project had not yet gone ahead and said he did not know if it would proceed.

‘I still own it and I haven’t decided what to do with it yet,’ he said.

Meanwhile, in response to queries from the MoS, the council said it was waiting for ‘notificati­on of completion of the units by the developer and the closing of the contract for sale’.

A spokesman said: ‘Expression­s of interest are taken at face value initially. Proposals are advanced based on the informatio­n provided by the developer. The developer is not paid until the units are delivered and all of the legal requiremen­ts are completed and the contract for sale closes.’

According to FOI records, the deal first began to falter in March 2020 when the developers sought a higher price than that already approved. ‘Is there any flexibilit­y in the price?’ Mr Dolan asked a council official by email at the time. The higher price was sought because tender quotes from builders proved more expensive than expected. As a result, the council agreed to seek approval from the Department of Housing for a new price of €1,060,026.

But this price, which was 20.9% above the limit set by Government for equivalent social housing units in Westmeath, was not viewed positively by the department.

‘I would note here that demonstrat­es there is no shortage of these kinds of units available in Mullingar, at incredible value for money, vs the costs presented for these 4 units,’ a department official told the council in May 2020.

The official also queried why the units had not yet been built. ‘Our understand­ing was that these units were expected to be delivered towards the end of 2019. Would I be correct in saying that this project has yet to start on site? If so, what is the anticipate­d date of completion? What was the reason for the delay in tendering?’

A day later the council informed Mr Dolan that it could not proceed with the deal due to the ‘substantia­l

‘Some correspond­ence erroneousl­y omitted’

‘I don’t really have to answer that, do I?’

‘Is there any flexibilit­y in the price?’

increase in costs over the previously approved proposal’.

Mr Dolan then offered to proceed at the original price, telling the council he and Mr Troy would have to forgo their profit. But the developmen­t has not proceeded.

Two weeks later, on June 10, 2020, Mr Troy resigned from Fornasetti Ltd and transferre­d his shares to Mr Dolan’s wife, Carmen Lovely. Weeks later, on July 1, 2020, Mr Troy was appointed Minister of State for Trade Promotion.

Mr Troy told the MoS the deal had been disclosed in his Statement of Members’ Interests and added that he had divested himself of his interest ‘in advance of any potential appointmen­t to Government’.

‘While no contract was signed with the council in 2019, and at the time of divesting my interest in the company the council had yet to sign a contract or pay a deposit, in the interest of full transparen­cy I declared the council’s intention to purchase on the basis of discussion­s my business partner had with the council,’ Mr Troy said.

Asked about the council’s approach to releasing the FOI records, Mr Troy said he had not been contacted about the request by the council. ‘It is a matter entirely for the council as to how they respond to an FOI request,’ he said.

 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ?? HOUSING:
The planned apartment scheme in Mullingar
HOUSING: The planned apartment scheme in Mullingar
 ?? ?? PARTNER: Colin Dolan and wife Carmen Lovely
PARTNER: Colin Dolan and wife Carmen Lovely
 ?? ?? DIVESTED: Junior minister Robert Troy
DIVESTED: Junior minister Robert Troy

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