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Legislation clarifying decisions that must be referred to NI executive committee set for royal assent

Words: Roger Milne

The Northern Ireland Assembly has agreed controversial legislation designed to provide greater clarification over what decisions can be taken by the infrastructure minister and that would have to be considered by the executive committee. The latter is made up of all ministers with responsibility for NI government departments.

The executive committee (functions) bill, currently awaiting royal assent, was drawn up as a result of the legal rulings over attempts to approve the waste treatment and energy-from-waste project proposed by the so-called ARC 21 councils for land at Hightown Quarry, Mallusk.

The High Court said that civil servants from the Department for Infrastructure could not take the decision in the absence of ministers. The Court of Appeal said only the executive committee could make the decision as it was controversial and significant and involved both the DfI and the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

As a result of these judgments, decisions on a slew of major schemes have ground to a halt. MLAs heard that the infrastructure minister had an in-tray bulging with 38 projects waiting for decisions – most regionally significant schemes. Two had been waiting for decisions for nearly 700 weeks.

The bill clarified that decisions must be referred to the executive committee where a matter was significant and controversial and outside the scope of the programme for government agreed by the assembly.

Crucially the bill confirmed that the decision-making functions of the Department for Infrastructure and its minister under the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 (and regulations made under that act) do not require executive committee referral.

The legislation said that a minister does not have to refer a decision to the executive committee in relation to any matter unless the matter affects the statutory responsibilities of one or more ministers “more than incidentally”.

A significant number of DUP MLAs abstained from the vote after complaining that the legislation was railroaded through the assembly and risked giving too much power to individual ministers.

The existing ministerial code will have to be amended before the new regime can kick in.

Meanwhile, in a related but separate development, the Becon Consortium, which is bidding to build the Mallusk waste project on behalf of six NI local authorities (including Belfast City Council), has accepted a grid connection offer for the site from NI Electricity Networks.

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