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News & opinion

6 JUL 2018

Infrastructure in Northern Ireland faces further setbacks

Infrastructure development in Northern Ireland faced a further setback today as the Court of Appeal ruled that only ministers can take significant planning decisions.

Coalition governments across Europe find themselves in extremely fragile positions. Political issues around the free movement of people across the continent, the arrival of refugees from the developing world and the shape of intergovernmental cooperation in the future have proven divisive, even for previously contented coalition partners.

But Northern Ireland, at 492 days without its power-sharing Executive, is quickly closing in on the unenviable record set by Belgium of 589 days without an elected government. The result of such instability in Eurozone countries like Italy (without a government for three months earlier this year) is plain to see in shaken stock markets and declining confidence.

Northern Ireland facing a deteriorating situation

It’s difficult to draw comparisons with the vast differences in economic scales, but Northern Ireland now faces a very serious and deteriorating situation. The Court of Appeal in Belfast today 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. Today’s judgment again reinforces that there is no basis in law for civil servants assuming those powers, even in prolonged periods of political drift.

The infrastructure impact

The Department for Infrastructure and Northern Ireland Civil Service will want time to study the judgment. But the immediate problem facing the region is the freeze it now places on planning approval for significant infrastructure projects outside those previously agreed.

In real terms that means 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).

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.

What happens next?

In terms of the judicial process, there may be an appeal to the UK Supreme Court. But the timeframe involved in further litigation would place infrastructure development, and broader critical decision making, in limbo for a significant period.

The auto-pilot 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 investment, infrastructure, health, education etc. 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 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. That seems to be the last thing that anyone wants, including the government, but with road rapidly running out beneath us, we’re approaching the last resort.