Lands purchased for €500,000 in 2016 are put up for sale for €4.2 million in 2020 after planning obtained on behalf of sons of Councillor who discussed their rezoning
By Frank Connolly
A Meath County Councillor is under investigation as his two children stand to reap over €4.2 million from the sale of lands re-zoned by the Council just over three years ago. Fianna Fáil Councillor, Tommy Reilly, is now the subject of an internal Council inquiry into his disclosure of interest in the land re-zoning.
The lands at Liscarton, on the road from Navan to Kells were purchased in August 2016 for a sum of €500,000 from landowner, John Carolan. The lands were re-zoned from agricultural to light industrial use in July 2017 and planning permission for development was granted in June 2018.
At the meeting in July 2017, when the motion to re-zone the land to industrial use was proposed, Councillor Reilly declared a conflict of interest involving his family and did not participate in the vote.
The resolution to re-zone the lands was proposed by Independent Councillor, Francis Deane, and seconded by Fine Gael Councillor, Sarah Reilly, and was unanimously agreed by the 19 (out of 40 elected) Councillors present.
The effect of the motion, which involved the variation of the Navan development plan, was to open up 35 acres of land at Liscarton, close to an existing business complex, for industrial development, thereby increasing its value by multiples of its purchase price.
Councillor Reilly was not asked about the nature of his conflict of interest by any of the elected Councillors or by the senior Council staff at the meeting. However, he has informed Village that he absented himself from the vote as his son, Ciarán, had an interest in the lands.
The purchase of the lands and the subsequent transfer of ownership to Ciaran Reilly is something of a mystery. An investigation by Village shows that the man who successfully bid for the property is not the man who claims to have “financed” its purchase.
At the time of the re-zoning, the land at Liscarton was registered in the name of Royal Active Business Solutions, a company whose sole director was local businessman Barry Alder from Bective, County Meath. The company was first registered by Alder in August 2016, just weeks after the land was purchased for €500,000 from the previous owner.
Alder said he “financed the purchase”. He said he subsequently disposed of the land to Ciarán Reilly.
Notwithstanding Alder’s claims to have bought the land, it has emerged that another Meath businessman made the final and successful bid for the property.
According to documents obtained from Smith Harrington, the Navan auctioneers who handled the sale, the 34.54 acres at Liscarton were purchased by Joseph Freer, of Gainstown, Navan. They show that Mr Freer, who owned a transport company at the time, paid a deposit of €25,000 after an agreement was made to buy the property for €500,000 in June 2016, subject to contract.
This information is confirmed in a letter of 23 June, 2016 from auctioneer, John Harrington, to Sheila Cooney, Tallans Solicitors, Drogheda. Ms Cooney was acting for the vendor, John Carolan, of Navan, County Meath. Harrington has also confirmed that his firm received the first bid of €350,000 for the Liscarton lands on 10 May, 2016. Fourteen other bids were received “until the bidding stopped at €500,000 on 14 June, 2016”, Harrington said.
“In addition, there was also an offer made of €550,000 subject to planning on the entire (property) and an offer of €90,000 on 4.5 acres only”, Harrington said. “On 22nd June John Carolan instructed us to proceed with the straight offer of €500,000. We received a booking deposit of €25,000 on 23rd June, 2016 and sales advice note was sent to Mr John Carolan’s solicitor”.
It is unclear in what capacity, or on whose behalf, Joseph Freer was acting when he did the bidding for the lands as he refused to discuss the matter when contacted by Village. When asked why he had bid for the lands, as recorded by the auctioneers, Smith Harrington, and whether he was acting on behalf of the purchaser, Barry Alder, when he bid for the Liscarton property, Freer said: “It’s nothing got to with me. Ask my solicitors”. The firm of solicitors acting for Mr Freer did not respond.
Meanwhile, Barry Alder confirmed that he purchased the lands from Carolan and sold them on, for an unspecified price, to Ciaran Reilly. He confirmed that he financed the €500,000 purchase of the land from John Carolan.
“I financed it at the time. It was me that put up the money”, Alder said. He confirmed that he then sold it to Ciaran Reilly but refused to confirm the sale price.
Village asked Alder: “What did Ciaran Reilly pay for it? You bought it for €500k? Now it is up (for sale) for €4.2 m. Either you lost out or…?”.
“You can say that again?”, Alder replied.
Asked was there much of a difference between what he paid for the lands and what he received from Reilly, he replied:
“No not much. I didn’t realise it was that value at the time. I didn’t think it would be re-zoned. I was hoping it would be”.
When it was pointed out that the land was zoned while he still owned it, Alder said:
“I didn’t know it was going to be re-zoned…Ciaran was a director of the company…Why don’t you give him a ring?”.
Ciaran Reilly refused to comment when contacted. According to Meath County Council (MCC), and to the documents supplied by Royal Active Business Solutions in its planning application of May 2018, Alder and Ciaran Reilly were then directors of the company. In this respect, Alder’s claim to have sold the land to Reilly before it was zoned conflicts with the documents filed with MCC.
Getting the Land Re-Zoned
Within weeks of the sale agreement, Councillor Tommy Reilly was involved in discussions about the re-zoning of lands at Liscarton.
On 27 July, 2016, he attended a meeting of Councillors of the Navan Municipal District which was attended by five other Councillors and the MCC head of finance, Fiona Lawless.
During the meeting, the Variation of the Navan Development Plan 2009-2015, including the re-zoning of lands at Liscarton, was discussed. Executive planner David Caffrey made a presentation which, the minutes record, “included the context and reasons for and objectives of the variation, the area’s economic advantages, the overview of the variation and the next steps”. Among the next steps discussed was to ensure that “Navan has adequate and affordable land zoned for commercial and industrial development” and that “28 hectares at Liscarton would be added”.
Councillor Reilly attended further meetings of MCC in May and July 2017 when the Liscarton lands were also discussed. At the meeting of 29 July 2017 he declared a conflict of interest and absented himself before the other members present agreed to the Variation of the Navan development plan which included the re-zoning to industrial use of the 34.54 acres at Liscarton.
In response to a series of questions from Village, the Chief Executive of MCC, Jackie Maguire confirmed in a letter of 30 September, 2020: “I am currently reviewing the matter of the disclosure of interest made at the Special Meeting of the Council held in July 2017”.
Ms Maguire also provided the minutes of earlier Council meetings at which the Variation of the development plan and the Liscarton land re-zoning were discussed and at which a number of reports, commissioned by MCC officials, were presented to Councillors to inform their deliberations.
Company records show that Ciaran Reilly only became part-owner of the lands after the zoning was granted at the meeting of July, 2017 and full owner following the grant of planning permission in June 2018. Now he and his brother stand to make €4.2 million from the sale of a property that cost a fraction of this amount just over three years ago.
Ciaran Reilly, a son of Councillor Tommy Reilly, first received shares in and was listed as a director of Royal Active Business Solutions in January 2018 although he was involved in its activities before this. According to his father, Councillor Tommy Reilly, his decision to abstain from the motion to vary the Development Plan in July 2017 was because he knew his son had an involvement in the lands.
Ciaran Reilly was first formally associated with the company in documents filed with the Company Registration Office in December 2017 some five months after the Variation of the Navan Development Plan and the re-zoning of the 35 acres.
In January 2018, 50 shares in the company, Royal Active Business Solutions, were transferred from Barry Alder to Ciaran Reilly. Further shares were allocated to Ciaran Reilly and his brother Tomás, later in 2018, giving them full ownership of Royal Active Business Solutions Ltd.
According to Barry Alder, he sold the company to Ciaran Reilly although he did not disclose the amount paid. The company accounts indicate that the company’s entire assets comprise the lands at Liscarton which was purchased for €500,000 in 2016. The shares were transferred by Alder to Ciaran Reilly and his brother in different tranches, the first in January 2018, according to the CRO filings.
In March, 2018, Ciaran Reilly and his father, Tommy Reilly, along with their engineers, Collins Boyd Engineering, attended a pre-planning consultation meeting with officials of Meath County Council, including senior planner, Patrick Gallagher. A planning application to develop a new access to the R147 Navan to Kells road, an internal road network, drainage, electricity and other services on the site was submitted and received on May 17th, 2018.
Four days later, on 21 May, a further 50 shares in the company was transferred to Ciaran Reilly from Alder.
The planning permission was granted following a site inspection five days earlier, on 26 June 2018.
In recent months, a ‘For Sale’ sign of auctioneering firm, Sherry Fitzgerald, has been erected at the Liscarton property with a selling price of €4.2 million (or €120,000 per acre). According to the auctioneering firm’s website, an earlier offer of €7.5 million (€200,000 per acre) was withdrawn. In mid-September last, the auctioneers confirmed that an offer of €3.15 million (€90,000 per acre) had been received.
The 35 acres of land at Liscarton are located about four kilometres from Navan on the road to Kells. They are adjoined by a small business park which includes a Ford car dealership and other industrial units. Meath County Council owns land on the Kells side of the business park. When John Carolan put the land for sale in Spring of 2016 in order to pay debts arising from a recent High Court action, there was significant local interest.
Veterinary surgeon, Noel Foley, who has a long-established practice across the road from the Carolans’ property told Village that he decided to make an offer when he learned that nearby agricultural land was up for sale. After contacting Smith Harrington, he offered up to €350,000 against another, unidentified, bidder before he withdrew when the asking price went to €500,000.
He subsequently learned that Councillor Reilly had declared a conflict of interest when the motion to re-zone the lands came before MCC in July 2017; and that Ciaran and Tomás Reilly were now the directors of the company, Royal Active Business Solutions, which owns the land.
“The land went up for sale for €10,000 per acre (€350,000) which was a good price for agricultural land at the time. I went as far as €450,000 but then it jumped to €500,000 and I pulled out. I later heard that Tommy Reilly’s sons had the land with zoning and planning permission”, Foley said.
Company records show that Barry Alder was registered as the sole director of Royal Active Business Solutions Ltd in August 2016. The contract for sale of the land was finalised in late August, 2016. Ciaran Reilly refused to confirm any details concerning his purchase of the lands or whether he had any role in its re-zoning in July 2017.
Councillor Tommy Reilly denied he had anything to do with the re-zoning of the lands. He indicated that he absented himself from the vote on the variation of the Navan Development Plan, which re-zoned the lands, in July 2017 because of a “family interest”.
Councillor Reilly has claimed that he had no involvement in the re-zoning or in the planning process relating to the lands. However, he was present at a number of significant meetings of MCC when the prospect of re-zoning the Liscarton lands and obtaining planning permission were discussed. These included a pre-planning consultation with his son, senior Council planners and the consultant engineers for the project in March 2018.
The formal proposal to vary the Navan Development Plan 2009-2015 including those to re-zone the lands at Liscarton was first made in a report prepared by the Chief Executive of MCC, Jackie Maguire, which was distributed to elected members on 8 May, 2017. It included a response by Maguire to submissions made to MCC on the Draft Development Plan which were received before the closing date of 12 April, 2017. The report also contained recommendations in respect of the submissions received by the Council from a range of state agencies, organisations and individuals.
The report was discussed at a special meeting of MCC on 29 May, 2017 which was attended by elected members as well as Jackie Maguire; the Directors of Service, Kevin Stewart and Des Foley; Executive Planner Patrick Gallagher; and other senior planning staff members.
Senior Planner, Wendy Bagnall, made a presentation to the members on the submissions to the Chief Executive and her recommendations. Among the submissions was one from the National Transport Authority which questioned the rationale of developing enterprise activities at a location so far from Navan town centre with few or no public transport services to the site.
In a letter of 12 April, 2017 to MCC, the NTA set out its “specific concerns” over the proposal to increase the amount of zoned employment land at Liscarton. Michael McAree, Head of Integrated Planning and Data Analysis at the NTA pointed out that the site: “is located approximately 2km from the contiguous Development Plan boundary and at a remove from any other development.
There are no footpaths or cycle facilities linking the site to Navan, while the distance from the town centre would make it difficult to serve by public transport, other than by inter-urban bus services. In this regard, the Authority considers the new employment zoning at Liscarton inappropriate as it is contrary to the planning principles set out in Section 7.1.2 of the Transport Strategy”.
He recommended that additional rezoning at Liscarton “should be removed from the proposed Variation” as it is in not in line with the Transport Strategy. While this view is reported in the ‘Manager’s Report’ by Jackie Maguire, she counters its recommendation by asserting that the Transport strategy also supports “the creation of employment in the town in order to reduce the volume of outward commuting…”.
A report commissioned by MCC from town planners, John Spain Associates, and completed in December 2016, recommended in favour of enterprise development at Liscarton given its location near Navan and its access to the N2 motorway.
“These lands are located to the east of the town centre and comprise of an existing employment area and cow plot. The lands proximate to the area present opportunities to facilitate the natural expansion of existing businesses at this location”, the report stated.
The Councillors decided to accept the recommendation of the Chief Executive not to change her proposals, notwithstanding the concerns of the NTA. They decided to accept the Chief Executive’s recommendation to proceed with the Variation of the plan, including the land re-zoning at Liscarton and to place the alterations made to the report on public display for four weeks.
The minutes record that: “The Councillors resolved to accept the Chief Executive’s report and to place all of the material alterations to Variation No. 2 of the Navan Development Plan 2009-2015 on public display for a 4 week period on the proposition of Councillor P. Fitzsimons and seconded by Councillor J. Holloway”.
Councillor Tommy Reilly was present at the meeting and was among the 28 Councillors who accepted the Chief Executive’s recommendation, without a vote. He did not disclose any interest in the land, beneficial or otherwise at this meeting. Neither has he declared any beneficial or other interest in the lands, or that he is a “connected person” under the terms of the Local Government Act 2001, in the annual declarations he has submitted to the MCC register of interests since 2017.
On 19 July, 2017, a special meeting of Councillors was convened to consider two Variations of the Navan Development Plan as contained in the Chief Executive’s report agreed some six weeks earlier. A total of 19 Councillors attended, including Tommy Reilly. Director of Service, Des Foley, Senior Executive Planner, Patrick Gallagher, and other planning staff members were also present on this occasion. As at the previous meeting an MCC official reminded Councillors of their obligations “under Section 177 of the Local Government Act, 2001 and associated regulations in regard to beneficial interest”.
When the meeting came to vote on the Variations proposed in the Chief Executive’s report in relation to the Navan Development Plan the minutes of the meeting record that “Councillor Tommy Reilly excused himself from the meeting at this point due to a conflict of interest”. He did not specify, nor was Councillor Reilly asked, the nature of this conflict of interest. He did not reveal as required by the 2001 Local Government Act that a “connected person”, in this case his son, had an interest in the lands which were the subject of the re-zoning motion. The Variation was proposed by Councillor Francis Deane (Ind) and seconded by Councillor Sarah Reilly (FG). All of the 19 Councillors present agreed.
Among the Councillors present was Wayne Harding (FF) whose uncle, Sean, lives in a house adjoining the Liscarton lands, although the property was not included in the sale. Sean Harding has told Village that he was not aware of the sale of the Liscarton lands until after they were sold. He later discovered that sons of Councillor Tommy Reilly had acquired the lands. He said that he did not see the planning application notice at the site before the permission was granted in June 2018.
“The planning notice was on an ESB pole half-way between two gates. I didn’t notice it at the time. It should have been on a gate going into the field”, Sean Harding told Village.
Councillor Wayne Harding told Village that he was contacted by his cousin after the lands were re-zoned and planning permission granted for development on the site but was not aware until recently that the sons of Councillor Tommy Reilly were the owners of the land. He said he did not recall that he was present for the re-zoning vote in July 2017 or that Councillor Reilly had declared a conflict of interest at the meeting. He only learned afterwards that his uncle, aunt and cousin were affected by the rezoning.
“They have a small family cottage which backs on to the land at Liscarton. I didn’t realise I had a voted on it until you told me”, Councillor Harding, a former chairperson of Meath County Council, told Village.
The Councillors who proposed and seconded the July 2017 motion, Francis Deane (Ind) and Sarah Reilly (FG), did not respond to questions from Village.
Councillor Tommy Reilly said that he did not have anything to do with the re-zoning of the lands or the decision to grant planning permission. He explained to Village how he believed his son became involved in the property deal with Barry Alder and why he made a declaration of interest in July 2017 when the land was re-zoned. He said that he first heard of his son’s involvement with the Liscarton lands when Barry Alder came into the supermarket then run by Ciaran Reilly at Abbeylands in Navan some time before the zoning motion came before the Council.
“My son told me he was involved. He said ‘Barry Alder came into their canteen…that is how it happened’. I said (at the Council meeting of July 2017) I want to absent myself, that I have a relative involved or a family interest. I do believe he (Ciaran Reilly) was involved in it. He told me so.
Whatever way he did the deal I don’t get involved in that kind of stuff”.
Asked had he discussed the re-zoning vote with its proposer, Councillor Francis Deane, before it was taken he said: “I never discussed it with anyone”.
Asked why the re-zoning of the land was in the interest of the people of Navan, he said:
“It was for economic development”.
He said that a controversy which erupted in the early 2000s over a property deal he made with former FF press officer and lobbyist, Frank Dunlop “finished me wanting to know anything about land”.
In 2005, the controversy re-surfaced when Tommy Reilly received the nomination to stand for Fianna Fáil in the by-election in Meath caused by the departure of former Fine Gael leader, John Bruton TD, to take up the position of EU ambassador to the US. Reilly was forced to withdraw from the contest after his links to Dunlop were disclosed. Dunlop was investigated by the planning tribunal, and subsequently jailed after details of his involvement in corrupt payments to a significant number of elected members of Dublin County Council and national politicians in the 1990s, were exposed.
Councillor Reilly has consistently denied having any role in the zoning of, or planning permission for, the lands at Liscarton. Yet engineering consultants, Boyd Collins, named him as an “applicant” in documents filed with the planning application by Royal Active Business Solutions which was submitted on 17 May, 2018.
The application form identifies “Tommy Reilly applicant” as among those who attended the pre-planning meeting with his son, Ciaran; their consultant, Eamon Collins; and senior planners, Pat Gallagher, Billy Joe Padden and Wendy Bagnall; on 29 March, 2018. The directors of Royal Active Business Solutions, in which ownership of the lands were vested, were named on the form as Barry Alder and Ciaran Reilly.
When Village brought this to the attention of MCC, it replied:
“Planning Application (NA/180507) was made by Royal Active Business Solutions Ltd on May 17th, 2018, with Mr Barry Alder and Mr Ciaran Reilly as named applicants. Tommy Reilly is not named as an applicant on the planning application”.
It continued: “It is not unusual for Councillors to attend both formal and informal pre-planning meetings and consultations, as part of their representational role. It is confirmed that Councillor Tommy Reilly did attend a pre-planning consultation held on March 29, 2018”.
The Council did not state why Councillor Reilly is described as an applicant in the planning application of May 17, 2018 in the section of the application dealing with the pre-panning meeting of March 29, 2018.
In response to other questions, MCC provided the following replies to Village on 14 October. The Council said that the site notice for the Liscarton application was inspected by its planning department on 22 May, 2018 and “was displayed in accordance with Regulations”.
This conflicts with the recollection of local people who claim the site notice was not displayed at the entrances to the site for the specified period, as required.
The Council insisted that there was no requirement for an Environmental Impact Study under the relevant regulations, although this is also disputed by residents who claim that the scale of the development requires an EIS to be carried out. In respect of the investigation into the disclosure of interest by Councillor Reilly, the Council said that the “review into the disclosure of interest is on-going and is guided by the provisions of the Ethical Framework for the Local Government Service (Part 15 of the Local Government Act 2001)”.
above: lobbying regulations;
below: Meath County Council’s reaction to this article