Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland business chief's fears over £2bn infrastructure projects stuck in limbo by lack of Executive

Institute of Directors chairman Gordon Milligan
Institute of Directors chairman Gordon Milligan
The Dean of Belfast Stephen Forde

By Gareth Cross and Adrian Rutherford

Around £2 billion worth of infrastructure projects have stalled due to the collapse of Stormont, a senior business figure has said.

But Gordon Milligan, who chairs the Institute of Directors (IoD), said he believed that civil servants were doing a good job in the absence of ministers.

However, speaking to the BBC's Inside Business programme yesterday, Mr Milligan warned the deadlock was having an increasing impact.

"We're missing ministers taking those decisions and that is holding the economy back, there's no doubt about that. It's holding back growth in the economy, it's holding job creation back.

"I also think the permanent secretaries and the senior civil servants have been doing an incredible job, a very positive job for Northern Ireland in the absence of an Assembly.

"I think increasingly we are missing ministers to take those key decisions."

Mr Milligan said the impasse was holding up a series of key projects.

"There is at least £2bn worth of infrastructure projects in the system either waiting approval, planning permission etc," he said.

"Just think of the impact that can have, the positive impact that could have on the economy, whether it's job creation, construction jobs, legacy jobs.

"You are talking about projects like the North-South interconnector, Casement Park, the Belfast Transport Hub, among others. There is also the new power station in Belfast Harbour estate."

Stormont collapsed in January 2017 when the late Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned amid the fallout from the RHI scandal and equality issues.

Subsequent attempts to get the institutions up and running again have broken down over a series of issues, including an Irish Language Act.

Last month the Belfast Telegraph reported that a backlog of 164 big decisions had built up across eight of the nine Executive departments.

The backlog includes strategies, business plans, planning applications and public appointments.

It affects everything from health and business to policing and the environment.

In some cases legislation has been waiting on ministerial approval for more than 600 days.

The NI Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Act was introduced by Secretary of State Karen Bradley to allow senior civil servants to make decisions in the absence of Stormont ministers.

Yesterday, the Dean of Belfast spoke out about the ongoing impasse, saying he feared it could be exploited by criminal groups.

Stephen Forde said that if decisions can no longer be taken by politicians, then other groups will look to exploit the vacuum of power.

Speaking to the BBC, he said that a lack of political leadership had left communities "less stable, less secure".

"There's always a danger, if people aren't given leadership by their politicians, that they'll sometimes turn to those who come up with easy answers, people who have their own agenda," the Church of Ireland cleric said.

"If nobody can make decisions about how the police are funded or how policing is to be done, then there will always be somebody else to step into that gap.

"So who, then, is going to make the decisions and how are things going to be taken forward?"

Dean Forde also called for greater consultation over the £500m regeneration project near St Anne's.

Tribeca Belfast, which aims to reflect the development's location as the 'Triangle beside the Cathedral', is the largest single regeneration project in the city centre.

The 12-acre site is located beside St Anne's Cathedral bounded by Royal Avenue, Donegall Street, Lower Garfield Street and Rosemary Street.

The Dean added: "What's important for any such development is that there is engagement with the people in the area who are most affected by it."

He is preparing for his annual Black Santa charity sit-out and said that the benefits system was not working.

He said that he often finds homeless people sleeping on the steps of St Anne's.

"Sometimes the stories are really tragic and it really shows you that the system is not working," he added.

"In the 21st century, it should not be the case that in one of the most affluent countries in the world we have people sleeping in doorways. There are problems with the system when people find themselves without employment and it's a long wait for finance to come through."

Belfast Telegraph