Northern Ireland project log jam loosens with power station approval

Despite political deadlock at Storemont, projects are being approved by Northern Ireland civil servants.

Construction industry leaders in Northern Ireland have welcomed a third major infrastructure announcement in as many weeks as a sign that the log jam on taking major project decisions might be being broken.

Senior civil servants have approved plans for a £300m gas-fired power station to be built in Belfast, after the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) issued a ‘notice of opinion’ on 25 March 2019. The Belfast power station will provide energy to around 500,000 homes and businesses and significantly it is the third major planning decision to be made without recourse to ministerial approval in recent months.

With Northern Ireland without devolved government since January 2017, following the row between the DUP and Sinn Féin, there are no ministers in place to make decisions. Westminster legislation gives Northern Ireland civil servants more legal clarity to make decisions while the political deadlock continues.

A spokesperson for the DfI said that its officials were working to progress planning applications so they are ready for a decision to be made and that “the department will consider on a case by case basis what decisions it is appropriate for senior officials to make in the absence of ministers”.

This third major announcement in as many weeks was welcomed by construction leaders in Northern Ireland who professed themselves “delighted” to see movement on major planning matters that would have come under reserved planning matters, which would have formerly required ministerial sign-off.

Stuart MacKenzie, chair of ACE Northern Ireland and JCP Consulting director, said: “I am delighted to see that our senior civil servants are being given the encouragement and support to make significant and meaningful planning decisions in the absence of a devolved government at Stormont. These will have a very positive impact on the economic future of the construction sector in Northern Ireland and ACE looks forward to seeing movement on major planning matters.”

Belfast Power director Ciaran Devine welcomed the DfI’s announcement. “The project also represents a significant shift towards low-carbon electricity generation in Northern Ireland,” he said. Kirsty McManus, national director of the Institute of Directors Northern Ireland, said that decisions being made by the DfI reflected “the strong leadership of its permanent secretary”.

Civil servants in Northern Ireland have practically been running departments since the executive collapsed more than two years ago. However, because they are not elected, they are unable to make major policy decisions on any key issues. The latest decisions on infrastructure are being seen as an encouraging step by the construction industry that more will follow thereby boosting the sector and the wider economy.

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