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News & opinion

2 AUG 2018

Decisive intervention needed to end drift threatening Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland recently passed the 500-day mark without its power-sharing Executive, meaning it is closing in on the unenviable record set by Belgium of 589 days without an elected government. The tangible impacts of this are coming to the fore.

The Court of Appeal in Belfast earlier this month reaffirmed a previous decision in the High Court quashing approval for an energy from waste plant in Newtownabbey. The judgment focuses not on the merits of the application, but instead on the authority of senior civil servants to take significant decisions in the absence of ministerial approval. With no ministers in place at Stormont, civil servants have been taking the day-to-day decisions necessary to keep public services operating. But major decisions – issues which are controversial, cut across more than one executive department, or demand significant resource investment – require Executive approval. This judgment again reinforces that there is no basis in law for civil servants assuming those powers, even in prolonged periods of political drift.

Infrastructure

The immediate problem facing Northern Ireland is the freeze it now places on planning approval for significant infrastructure projects outside those previously agreed. We know from last week’s RICS and Tughans Construction Market Survey that infrastructure workloads have already been in decline, with surveyors citing decision-making challenges as part of the story.

Infrastructure investment not only provides short-term economic stimulus, it’s critical to securing inward investment in the long term by increasing regional connectivity and competitiveness.

The court ruling, in real terms, means that there will be no further progress on critical road network upgrades (vital for economic development in the north/west), the North-South interconnector (a project designed to secure the region’s energy supply), the Belfast Transport Hub (a multi-modal transport development with additional commercial and retail space) and the Casement Park redevelopment (a sports stadium in the heart of economically deprived West Belfast). In simple terms, this is very unwelcome from an economic perspective.

Infrastructure investment not only provides short-term economic stimulus, it’s critical to securing inward investment in the long term by increasing regional connectivity and competitiveness. Northern Ireland’s ability to deliver on public and private sector construction programmes is now in serious doubt without further political intervention.

Decisive intervention

The autopilot for decision making has been switched off. That demands an immediate political response from local parties and from the UK Government. RICS has previously called for a decisive intervention to end the directionless drift threatening Northern Ireland.

The preferred outcome is, and will remain, negotiations between the political parties that will see the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. The principle that decisions on things like investment, infrastructure, health, education are best taken by locally elected decision makers remains persuasive. But in the absence of any visible talks process between the parties, local industry cannot continue to cross its fingers and hope for change.

If parties remain unable, or unwilling, to come together to close the political gaps, then the UK Government will be left with no alternative but to take a more active role in decision making in Northern Ireland. With road rapidly running out beneath us, we’re approaching the last resort.

Without action, future reports on infrastructure activity will show further decline and the economic and social impacts will be felt by many.