NI: Business groups call for civil servants to gain planning powers

NI: Business groups call for civil servants to gain planning powers

Business groups have called for Northern Ireland civil servants to be given powers over issues such as planning in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive.

A letter has been sent to Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley on behalf of 12 groups: CBI NI, Construction Employers Federation (CEF), NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Quarry Products Association NI (QPANI), Manufacturing NI, Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association (NIFDA), Retail NI, NI Retail Consortium, Newry Chamber of Commerce, Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, Hospitality Ulster, and the Freight Transport Association.

It follows the High Court’s surprise ruling to overturn planning permission for an incinerator in Mallusk, Co Antrim.

Mrs Justice Keegan ruled that senior civil servant Peter May had no power to approve the planning application, raising possible issues for a range of applications approved by civil servants.

The 12 business groups have proposed “two potential legislative solutions” which they want Ms Bradley to consider.

The first is a temporary amendment to section 4(1) of The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 to allow permanent secretaries to make decisions in the absence of a minister until devolution is restored as per section 4(3) of the Order, at the same time as re-establishing Northern Ireland Assembly statutory committees to provide additional scrutiny and transparency.

The second focusses on infrastructure planning decisions only and proposes the extension of the existing decision-making powers of the Planning Appeals Commission to incorporate “regionally significant” planning applications.

Adrian Doran, chair of the CBI NI Infrastructure Forum, said: “The business community’s overwhelming priority remains the return of an inclusive devolved government.

“But without a political resolution in sight, it is only right that we request that the Secretary of State explore all alternative options. Policy paralysis is not acceptable, and we must all look for ways to remove the current handbrake on local economic and social progress. Both businesses and individuals deserve to have access to the basic everyday governance that is offered in all other regions.

“Last week’s incinerator decision exposed the fragility of current decision-making arrangements in the absence of Ministers. The longer this uncertainty presides over local infrastructure decisions, the greater the risk to jobs and investment. Northern Ireland cannot be left in a decision-making limbo indefinitely.”

Ann McGregor, chief executive of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, added: “There is no sign of Stormont being restored, there are no Ministers in place to take vital decisions on critical issues and it now appears that no policy decisions of significance can be taken legally by senior civil servants.

“Northern Ireland’s credibility as a place in which to do business is suffering intolerably because of the political impasse. We need the return of a functioning local executive and a Ministerial team focused on helping the Northern Ireland economy to flourish.

“In the meantime, the proposals put forward by business groups today outline potential solutions that should be considered - too much time is being wasted and time is of the essence.”

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