Civil servants in a ministerless Stormont department have confirmed who took a major decision to approve a controversial incinerator which could handle waste from all over Northern Ireland – but denied that it amounts to a policy decision.
In response to questions from the News Letter, the Department for Infrastructure said the decision to approve the arc21 facility at Mallusk, lying towards the western edge of Newtownabbey and to the north of Belfast, had been taken by the department’s most senior official, permanent secretary Peter May.
The department said that Mr May had taken the strategically-important planning decision “after full consideration” and after a “recommendation to approve” from other officials in his department.
Northern Ireland’s civil servants have been operating with no democratic accountability since March’s Assembly election – a period of more than six months.
The News Letter asked the department how its civil servants had found the power to take such a significant policy decision – given that the last minister had been neutral on the issue – yet had told the public that other decisions, such as those in health and education, could not be taken in the absence of ministers.
In response, the department said: “This was not a new policy decision it was a decision taken on a planning application which is considered to be in accordance with regional planning policy.
“Each decision taken in the current circumstances will be considered on a case by case basis, taking into account any public interest issues which arise.”
When asked what authority the department had to take the decision in the absence of a minister, the department said that “while departments normally exercise their powers subject to the direction and control of ministers, the power to grant planning permission for regionally significant development proposals is vested in the department”.