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Appeal Court ruling dashes hopes for decision-making for key NI projects

Words: Roger Milne
Stormont | Shutterstock_114096184

An Appeal Court ruling has dashed hopes that senior civil servants in Northern Ireland can determine planning applications in the absence of Stormont ministers.

This latest judgment has increased concern over the fate of many regionally significant projects including the north-south interconnector overhead power line scheme and highlighted fears that key infrastructure proposals are now increasingly in limbo.

The ruling has also intensified calls for the UK government to intervene.

Back in May a High Court judge ruled that the permanent secretary in the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) did not have the authority to determine a controversial energy-from-waste project earmarked for a site at Hightown Quarry, Mallusk, on the edge of Belfast.

In this latest judgment, delivered at the weekend, the Court of Appeal held that only the full Northern Ireland Executive could authorise the proposals.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan was quoted in the Belfast Telegraph as insisting: "Any decision which as matter of convention or otherwise would normally go before the minister for approval lies beyond the competence of a senior civil servant in the absence of a minister."

The appeal case was fast-tracked because of its relevance to Northern Ireland for wider decision-making in the absence of a functioning power-sharing executive.

The DfI issued a holding statement that said: “The department is carefully considering the judgment by the Court of Appeal.”

RTPI Northern Ireland director Roisin Willmott said: “This situation has highlighted the urgent need to restore a functioning executive in Northern Ireland. The current situation means that investors and communities both find themselves in a vacuum.

 “If Stormont is not to be restored in the very short term, then a process for making these decisions must be agreed. Northern Ireland needs to make investment decisions and retain public confidence in the planning system.”

Her concern was echoed by Michael Gordon, director of Turley’s office in Belfast. He said: “The Court of Appeal decision was issued quickly, which is something, but ultimately leaves any decision normally made by a minister in limbo pending political resolution or legislation.

“It remains to be seen whether the department will take it to the Supreme Court. The most important projects for NI plc continue to suffer.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose MPs are propping up Theresa May’s beleaguered UK administration, said the judgment brought into sharp focus the impact in Northern Ireland of no local ministerial decision-making.

“It is not acceptable and cannot be allowed to continue. Key public services such as schools, hospitals and roads are being unfairly impacted. In the absence of an executive, decisions must be made in London,” she insisted.

This week MPs in the Commons pressed Northern Ireland secretary Karen Brady over what action she would take. Brady said: “We are considering the position."

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