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4 JUN 2018

Trouble for infrastructure as devolution challenges stack up

The challenge facing devolved government in Northern Ireland took a further turn in the last few weeks as Belfast’s High Court ruled that in the absence of Executive Ministers, senior civil servants have no authority to approve regionally significant infrastructure projects.

A courtroom packed with campaigners, developers, local government officials and press waited to hear from Mrs Justice Keegan who had been presiding over a judicial review into permission for an energy from waste plant in Newtownabbey, a town on the fringes of Belfast’s northern limit.

The case centred on Department for Infrastructure Permanent Secretary Peter May’s decision to approve planning permission for the project which had previously been judged as having regional significance. Mr May, an experienced and respected senior civil servant in Northern Ireland, took the decision to grant the application in the absence of Executive Ministers following the collapse of Northern Ireland’s government 16 months ago.

Objectors claimed that Ministerial approval was needed for a controversial and cross-cutting application of this nature. The Department for Infrastructure, however, made the case that there is a significant public interest consideration in having this project, and others like it, advanced in a timely fashion. The department also suggested that under Northern Ireland law, it retains decision making powers, with or without a Minister.

The ruling that such decisions cannot be made without the ‘direction and control’ of a Minister, local or direct rule, poses significant questions for the delivery of regionally important infrastructure projects in the absence of a functioning Executive.

In this political vacuum, the delivery of critical infrastructure projects has been placed into stasis.

Autopilot switched off

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since the collapse of the Executive and Assembly in January 2017, precipitated by the resignation of former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in response to a public finance scandal surrounding a renewable energy incentive scheme.

Several attempts have been made to restore power sharing in the region but parties have, so far, failed to reach agreement on a small number of issues that prevent the formation of a stable coalition at Stormont.

In this political vacuum, the delivery of critical infrastructure projects has been placed into stasis. That was until senior civil servants announced approval for a series of significant developments, including the Newtownabbey EfW plant, the north-south electricity interconnector (critical to Northern Ireland’s energy security), and progress on major road building in the North West of the region. Senior civil servants decided to take the decisions necessary to keep Northern Ireland ‘ticking over’.

The High Court’s judgment may put an end to that. The ruling switches off the autopilot option that many politicians may have been hoping for while the Stormont stalemate continues. In doing so, it demands a political response both locally and from the UK Government to end the directionless drift that public services and the construction industry face.

Where to from here?

While a necessary clarification of the current position, the High Court’s judgment introduces an additional measure of uncertainty in an environment already dominated by indecision. If the principle decided in this case applies more broadly, a raft of significant infrastructure projects will become the subject of doubt.

In the absence of any authority to approve regionally significant applications, Northern Ireland will experience a widening infrastructure gap and a dwindling project pipeline for our construction industry.

Northern Ireland’s ageing infrastructure is in need of an urgent upgrade. RICS has been leading calls for the introduction of an independent Infrastructure Investment Commission for Northern Ireland to steer the development of new projects and ensure that resources are targeted at areas where they can make the most impact.

An independent assessment of the region’s infrastructure needs, along with expert strategic advice in the public interest should support the delivery of best value for money projects while providing a boost to Northern Ireland’s relatively smaller private sector.

An infrastructure commission, based on the GB model, would help create an environment of delivering best value for money projects, securing Northern Ireland’s competitiveness and attracting further inward investment.

We have also called for local administrations to adopt medium and long-term infrastructure delivery plans, ensuring that high-value projects are provided with comprehensive timetables and completion schemes.

In the continued absence of strategic decision making, however, these proposals cannot be advanced. 

There are now three distinct options for how the situation can be taken forward:

  1. A local accommodation between parties that sees the restoration of devolution and locally accountable Ministers appointed to departments.
  2. UK government intervention to withdraw powers from the Northern Ireland institutions and appoint direct rule Ministers.
  3. A continued void in decision making.

But after 16 months with no government, experience suggests that option three will persist at least for some period. It is no longer sustainable, however, and political bravery will be needed in the short-term to put Northern Ireland back on track.