The DUP and Sinn Fein must shoulder some of the blame for awful decision on incinerator
The lack of a working Executive has left us wide open to the whim of civil servants, says Alban Maginness
Irrespective of the merits of the actual application by arc 21 to develop a Wembley-sized, energy for waste plant at the old Hightown Quarry site at Mallusk, it is simply outrageous that the unaccountable permanent secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Peter May, made the hugely significant decision to accept the findings of the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) and approve this massive £240m scheme. His defence is that the decision was in the "public interest".
But it is surely up to a minister, not a bureaucrat, to determine whether this development is in fact in the "public interest". That is precisely the very reason he should not have taken this important and enduring decision. Civil servants must not overstep the mark politically and it may remain for the courts to determine whether there are any legal implications arising out of this decision.
But it is equally outrageous for some politicians, especially within the DUP and SF, to purport to be angered by this Civil Service decision.
The decision was made in the absence of a minister at Stormont, because of the political vacuum that they have created by their incapacity to do a sensible deal and get the power-sharing executive up and running. The DUP and SF must surely shoulder some of the blame for this decision being made by a civil servant.
This application was refused in 2015 by the then SDLP minister for the environment, Mark H Durkan, primarily on the basis that this development could result in an increased market for waste disposal, discourage recycling and actually be detrimental on the journey towards a zero-waste society.
He has also strongly criticised the bizarre decision of his successor minister, Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard, to be "neutral" on arc 21's appeal to the PAC.
This, in effect, shifted the department's position from one of opposition to one of neutrality, and allowed the planners not to defend Durkan's original planning refusal and prevented the department from opposing the scheme at the PAC hearings. All this despite SF's official opposition to the scheme. Durkan has gone further and described the building of this incinerator as a white elephant, which has the potential of burdening local ratepayers for the next 25 years.
He also was of the view that the danger to health arising out of the operation of the plant was not disproved and that applying the precautionary principle, he therefore could not support the application. He was of the opinion that there is an already sufficient capacity within the current system.
The planning approval of an energy for waste facility in the harbour estate in Belfast, involving the Bombardier plant, was a viable alternative to Hightown and capable of meeting the need in the six councils that make up the arc 21 area.
The PAC, in its decision in October 2016 in favour of the appeal against Minister Durkan's decision to refuse permission, stressed the strategic importance of this development within the region.
Compliance with regional policy and significant environmental benefit was a key factor in their decision to approve the application. The scheme also had the potential of powering 30,000 homes with electricity.
The independent appeals body stated that they had addressed all planning issues surrounding the application. The PAC emphasised that the facility could help in meeting regional waste management targets and in the fight against waste crime.
However, the residents in the Hightown Road area of Newtownabbey rightly feel gutted by this huge decision, which will impact negatively on the amenity of this hitherto attractive residential area.
The daily addition of 572 heavy lorries conveying waste along narrow and inadequate roads is no trivial matter for residents and their children.
Opposition in the area was total, and 4,000 objections were registered against this proposal. Residents felt confident in defeating the proposal, given the unanimous political opposition to the application by all our political parties, including the environmentally sensitive Greens.
Colin Buick, a steadfast campaigner for the residents against this monster incinerator project, has rightly said that this decision by faceless bureaucrats in the Civil Service is "hugely devastating" for himself and the local community.
He has rightly called into question, as to why such an important decision was made without the approval of a local minister.
Arising out of the Civil Service's decision in favour of the Hightown application, is the question as to the power of bureaucrats to make important and binding political decisions without political approval.
They seemingly can approve a fiercely contentious £240m incinerator, but yet cannot approve flood relief work or the 1% pay increase for health workers.
The arbitrary nature of this decision-making does not inspire confidence in our Civil Service. They got it wrong big time and they need to think again.