Lack of a minister blamed as £35m plan for Kilkeel Harbour hits rocks
A £35m plan to expand Kilkeel Harbour has hit the rocks after a Government department cited a lack of funding and a Minister to advance the major project.
Business leaders in the Co Down town have slammed a decision by the owners of the harbour, the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), to withdraw from what they said was an agreement to help fund a significant milestone for the expansion.
The Kilkeel Strategic Partnership group said DAERA had indicated earlier this year that a request for £350,000 to fund an environmental impact assessment (EIA) would be agreed. Those behind the venture said the EIA is essential to progress the business plan for the £35m project.
They claim the withdrawal of the £350,000 resulted in the expansion plan's exclusion from the Belfast Region City Deal list of infrastructure projects.
A spokesperson for the department said: "DAERA participated (and provided financial support) along with other parties, in the initial appraisal of a proposal from Kilkeel Strategic Partnership for an estimated £35m harbour expansion plan.
"It was recognised that further work would be required to fully assess the business case for this proposal, including consideration of potential engineering and environmental implications.
"At this stage no public expenditure provision exists to cover the costs of these further studies and in the absence of a Minister no decision for such an infrastructure project can be made."
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The harbour has undergone 23% growth each year for the last five years, increasing the number of jobs linked to the site to 1,150.
Kilkeel Strategic Partnership says its growth strategy would not only sustain the existing 1,000 jobs around the site, but contribute to a significant expansion in permanent jobs in Kilkeel and surrounding area.
Alan McCulla of fish producers' organisation Sea Source, which is owned by a collective of fishermen, said the recent growth is evidence of the harbour's economic potential.
"More than 1,000 jobs are now maintained in the harbour.
"These range from boat building and engineering to fishing and fish processing.
"But because of rapid growth we find that Kilkeel harbour is now bursting at the seams.
"The Northern Ireland Health & Safety Executive have advised the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority (a DAERA agency) that Kilkeel harbour is at capacity bringing with it added risks.
"Unless the expansion is allowed, business in Kilkeel will turn to competitor ports in Ireland, Scotland and north west England," he said.
"Other ports, particularly in Scotland and Ireland, are investing heavily in their infrastructures.
"Already fishing harbour infrastructure in Northern Ireland cannot handle our catches, opportunities are being lost and this must urgently change or we will be left even further behind."