Taxpayers to foot £62k BMAP legal bill
A legal battle between two Stormont ministers will cost the taxpayer more than £62,000, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
As Enterprise Minister, the DUP's Arlene Foster took a judicial review of Mark H Durkan's decision to give the green light to the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP).
BMAP is a blueprint that identified zones for retail, residential and commercial development across Belfast and outlying towns.
But when Environment Minister Mr Durkan announced the long-awaited plan, the DUP claimed it was too big an issue for one minister to sign off on.
Mrs Foster claimed her SDLP colleague in the power-sharing administration breached the ministerial code by publishing the plan without bringing it before the Executive for full approval.
Mr Durkan vowed to robustly defend the challenge - and urged others in the Stormont cabinet against wasting public money on a protracted legal battle.
In 2012, former SDLP environment minister Alex Attwood announced the retailing element of the plan. He ruled retailing at Sprucefield near Lisburn should be limited to 'bulky goods' such as furniture and electrical items.
The policy effectively blocked plans by John Lewis for a store there - plans the DUP backed.
With the judicial review ruling expected soon, the mounting costs of the court battle are now emerging.
The Belfast Metropolitan Residents' Group submitted Freedom of Information requests to the two departments concerned to find out how much the case had cost.
In response, the Department of Environment revealed their costs were estimated at £62,000.
"To date DoE has processed invoices totalling approximately £32k in relation to legal expenses in defence of this judicial review," a letter from the department stated. "Further work has been undertaken by our legal representatives that has yet to be billed. It is estimated that the value of this work is approximately a further £30k."
By contrast, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's costs to take the case appear tiny - so far. It has yet to pay outside legal costs, meaning the bill is likely to rise substantially.
"Following a search of our records, I have established that to date the Department has paid invoices totalling £808 on this matter," the economic policy unit stated.
Both departments did not include the cost of civil servants' working hours in their figures.
A spokesman for Belfast Metropolitan Residents' Group said that the High Court case had done nothing to dispel the impression that there was a party political element to the judicial review.
He added that such regional plans should be made by planners, and party politics should not come into the decision-making.
"It is important that decisions are taken independently," he said.
"BMAP has cost more than £10m has taken 10 years, so we really need an outcome now that gives us stability now."
He added: "It doesn't take a mathematical genius to spot the asymmetry between the costs cited by the two departments."