Links between Lowry’s ‘worthless’ Wigan land and deals probed by Moriarty

Links have emerged between Michael Lowry’s “worthless” development land in Wigan and three English property deals probed by the Moriarty Tribunal.

Prominent figures from the three controversial transactions were involved in draft plans for the Wigan site. These were Christopher Vaughan, Paul May, Helen Malone, Aidan Phelan, Morton Thornton accountants, and Kevin Phelan. They played various roles in plans for Doncaster Rovers as well as in the towns of Cheadle and Mansfield.

Files show a company they were involved in, Avo-neve Ltd, negotiated a proposed purchase plan for the Wigan greenbelt in 1998. This firm also engaged English law firm Eyton Morris Winfield to advise it during negotiations. Avoneve’s draft agreement, with Rackwood Colliery Company, included options to develop 187 acres of adjoining farmland at junction 25 near Wigan. It is not known if Avoneve activated this agreement.

The company also committed to pay £270,000 to buy a 26-acre tract within the same land bank but it did not complete the deal.

Freehold for the 26-acre site was bought by Mr Lowry and his business partner in 2001 through their company Vineacre. Part of it was sold for development and they retain 22 acres registered in their own names.

In evidence to the tribunal, Mr Lowry said his firm, Vineacre, had bought option rights to eight farm holdings at junction 25 in 2000/2001. The remaining options expired when early plans to develop the area failed to get approval.

When contacted yesterday Mr Lowry said the land and the options were purchased directly from the local land owners and he said this was confirmed by his solicitors Taylor Walton. Land registry records confirm the freehold transaction took place between his company and the land owner, Jack Robinson.

Mr Lowry said any insinuation that the acquisition by him and his business partner was linked to Avoneve or the people involved in it was false. The former minister still owns a 50% stake in the plot but he stopped declaring his interest in it in 2003. This will now be probed by the Standards in Public Office Commission.

According to tribunal evidence the Wigan plan was first presented to Mr Lowry in 2000. Documents not available to the tribunal show a similar scheme had been put together by Avoneve in 1998. Avoneve involved a number of parties called to give evidence when the tribunal investigated property deals at Doncaster Rovers, Cheadle, and Mansfield. Four of these parties took the stand at Dublin Castle — Helen Malone, Aidan Phelan, Christopher Vaughan, and Morgan Thornton accountants. Two people connected to Avoneve were asked to appear but declined — Kevin Phelan and Paul May.

Mr Lowry said he was “surprised and baffled” when he was first contacted about the Avoneve connections last week. He said he believed it was a shelf company that never traded and never prepared accounts. “I contacted our solicitors to check if there is any veracity to the inferences in your story. I wish to confirm the tenure of your questions are groundless and without substance. Whatever documentation or information you are relying on is false and malicious,” said Mr Lowry.

The Irish Examiner independently verified the land and option arrangements discussed in the draft agreements. We also confirmed law firm Eyton Morris Winfield represented Avoneve in the deal.

* RELATED ANALYSIS: The land of Lowry

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