Kilkeel businesses offer to pay for study that's holding up £35m harbour revamp
Business leaders in Kilkeel have said they are prepared to step in after a Government department claimed it did not have the £350,000 needed to unlock a stalled expansion plan for the Co Down fishing town's harbour.
In November the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), which owns the harbour, said there was no cash available to pay for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) it says is needed to advance the £35m project.
But the fishing community says the development is urgent, claiming that jobs and investment could be moved to more modern ports on either side of the Irish Sea.
It says the project will help sustain and potentially double the 1,100 jobs already based around the harbour.
DAERA was among the organisations which financially supported an initial appraisal of the proposal from Kilkeel Strategic Partnership. But in November it said further work was needed to fully assess the business case, 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," said a spokesman.
Legislation clarifying civil servants' abilities to make decisions in the absence of Stormont ministers was passed at Westminster in October.
Alan McCulla of Kilkeel-based fisheries collective Sea Source said the DAERA position flew in the face of decisions about other projects signed off by local civil servants.
He said that the Kilkeel Strategic Partnership, set up five years ago to support business and employment, is willing to pay £350,000 for the EIA to get the project back on track.
"We cannot allow the DAERA civil servants to jeopardise the future of Kilkeel any longer by refusing us the £350,000," said Mr McCulla.
"Other ports across the Republic of Ireland and in Scotland are seeing multi-million pound investment as fishing and offshore services expand internationally. Our appeal to DAERA is to let us do the work on this project if they can't, for whatever reasons. Either way, it is now a matter of grave urgency.
"We are one of the few successful industries in Northern Ireland re-emerging after years of decline and employing more people than ever."
Kilkeel Harbour expansion was mooted for inclusion in the Belfast Region City Deal.
But it was later dropped by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council due to the lack of progress.
The port has seen year-on-year growth for the past five years, expanding to 1,150 workers in everything from boat building and engineering to fishing and fish processing.
Mr McCulla said the harbour is now "bursting at the seams".
"The Northern Ireland Health and Safety Executive have advised the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority (a DAERA agency) that Kilkeel harbour is at capacity, bringing with it added risks," he said. "Kilkeel is a leading UK port and one of the busiest on the island of Ireland but we will soon see this work drift away unless we are allowed to expand and extend the harbour to allow much needed development around the docks and more space for bigger boats."
A DAERA spokesperson said: “The Department did not previously agree to provide funding for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as part of an appraisal for proposals to expand Kilkeel Harbour.
"Instead, DAERA, together with its strategic partners, are commencing a strategic programme of work to explore the challenges and opportunities facing the NI Fishing industry.
"This is an important first step, which will help to shape long term plans for the industry enabling it to realise its full potential.
"We plan to conclude this exercise in 2019. This will provide a substantive basis for future planning for NI fisheries across all fishery harbours, at a time when the UK transitions into an independent coastal state.”