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Northern Ireland: We deserve better

04 September 2018 Author: Claire Williamson

In a blog I wrote this February (Planning in a political void) I asked if the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley could crack the political stalemate to rebuild trust and confidence in Northern Ireland that would re-ignite our ability to prosper and grow?

Seven months later, shamefully and rather shockingly, the answer is no she has not!

The situation is now holding up hundreds of millions of pounds of investment and the creation of hundreds of jobs. 

Northern Ireland (NI) is now 599 days without a functioning government.  Our Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) remained on full pay until the beginning of September (maybe the decision by Karen Bradley to cut their pay by half from November may move things on - we shall see).  The voice of the citizens of NI is not being represented by our politicians at the Brexit table, despite being the only part of the UK with an EU land boarder.  We appear to have the shutters pulled down on inward investment. 

The #wedeservebetter campaign saw 1000s of people across 15 locations in NI peacefully demonstrating to let the MLAs know that the ordinary, hard-working people of NI are fed up, extremely frustrated and are starting to demand change. 

Unfortunately, the Belfast demonstration was cancelled as a devastating fire tore through one of Belfast City Centre’s oldest and most iconic buildings. Bank Buildings, the home of Primark Department Store since 1979, was undergoing a £30 m refurbishment.  Three bombs exploded in Bank Buildings during the 1970s yet it continued to bring people and investment into the surrounding area.  The future of this resilient building, like the future of politics in NI is uncertain.

Meanwhile, as the tumbleweeds continue to rumble through Stormont the ramifications of not having a functioning government are increasingly being felt.  At the centre of this is a controversial planning decision for a proposed £240 m Arc 21 waste incinerator within Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council Area. 

In 2015 the application was refused by the then Environment Minister Mark H Durkan and had been recommended for approval by the Planning Appeals Commission.  In September 2017, in the absence of a Minister, the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) Permanent Secretary, Peter May, granted approval for the application.

This decision was then overturned by the High Court in May 2018 on the grounds that the incinerator had been unlawfully authorised.  The decision was based on procedural matters surrounding the ability of the Department to make a decision in the absence of a Minister. In July the DfI took this decision to the Court of Appeal who upheld the High Court decision.  

While DfI have announced that they will not be appealing the High Court verdict, the Attorney General, John Larkin, has submitted a series of questions to the Supreme Court relating to the landmark Arc 21 ruling to seek clarity surrounding the powers of civil servants to make high level decisions that would ordinarily been reserved for Ministers. 

So where does this leave us?  For me it’s a place of frustrated disbelief.  In terms of foreign investments NI’s credibility as a place to do business is suffering.  In June NI lost the chance to host the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games because there was no functioning government in place to agree the financial package.  The impact is being felt in every part of our communities, our health care facilities, schools and our commerce.

The situation is now holding up hundreds of millions of pounds of investment and the creation of hundreds of jobs.  Just some of the strategic proposals that cannot be progressed in the absence of the Assembly include:

  • £200 m 138 km North-South interconnector running from Meath to Tyrone (planning permission has already been granted in the Republic of Ireland for their section);
  • £77.5 m refurbishment of Casement Park GAA ground in West Belfast;
  • £160 m transport hub in the Glengall Street area of Central Belfast;
  • £200 m power station project in Belfast;
  • £15 m cruiser terminal in Belfast.

During this 20-month period, it has also not been possible to develop new policy or strategies to keep the planning and wider government policy up to date and delivering.

Katrina Godfrey, Permanent Secretary for the Department of Infrastructure, will be speaking at the RTPI NI’s Annual Planning Conference on 11th September and we will be interested to hear the stance she will take in this political void.

Whether you support the proposal by Arc21 or not, the judgement highlights the impact that the absence of ministerial responsibility is having on development prospects within NI.  We deserve better!

Blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Claire Williamson

Claire Williamson

Claire Williamson MRTPI is Northern Ireland Policy Officer at the RTPI.