Belfast Telegraph

Electricity Interconnector to test new powers for civil servants at Stormont

Robin McCormick of SONI
Robin McCormick of SONI
Ryan McAleer

By Ryan McAleer

The Department for Infrastructure says it will consider whether new powers granted to civil servants can be used to progress plans for a £200m cross-border electricity line.

Planning approval for the North-South Interconnector was quashed at the High Court yesterday after departmental officials conceded the case brought by a group of landowners.

The Northern Ireland side of the scheme, involving a 34km overhead power line on 102 towers, stretching from Moy in Co Tyrone to the Armagh border, is being managed by the Systems Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI). EirGrid is managing the southern end, which connects the line across counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath.

SONI's proposal was originally approved by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) in January 2018 in the absence of a minister. It followed a public inquiry and a report published by the Planning Appeals Commission.

The project has always been controversial with landowners in Tyrone and Armagh, with more than 6,000 letters of objection lodged to the original plan.

The legal action brought by SEAT (Safe Electricity in Armagh and Tyrone) was partly based on last year's High Court ruling, which found that a senior civil servant did not have the power to grant planning permission for a controversial incinerator in Mallusk, Co Antrim. DfI said that after considering the High Court ruling and new legislation passed by Parliament, it decided that mounting a defence to SEAT's challenge would not be in the public interest.

"This means that the application will return to the department for its consideration, and this will allow departmental officials to actively progress this high profile application to a stage where it is once again ready for a decision to be made," said a spokesperson.

"At the point where a decision is ready to be made, and if there is a continued absence of ministers, the department will consider whether to issue a decision in accordance with the powers available to it at that time."

Jim Lennon from SEAT said the plan for a new cross-border power line must go back to the drawing board, and harness new technology. The group has always promoted the idea of placing the lines underground on health grounds.

"I think it has to go back to a fundamental consideration of the strategic issues of what Northern Ireland needs to have in terms of an energy policy and where this fits into it," said the Armagh resident.

SONI general manager Robin McCormick said the body was hopeful that the new powers for civil servants would enable its planning applications to be re-determined by DfI without delay.

Business organisations have backed SONI and called for DfI to use the new powers to advance the interconnector.

Construction Employers Federation managing director John Armstrong said yesterday's decision was "highly regrettable" and added: "Urgent delivery is absolutely critical to our economic fortunes into the future."

Chief executive of NI Chamber, Ann McGregor, said: "We strongly encourage the Department for Infrastructure to re-determine the application as a matter of priority."

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