The senior civil servant who intervened to approve the Hightown incinerator is considering a second controversial intervention, the News Letter understands.
Peter May, the most senior official at Stormont’s Department for Infrastructure, is understood to be pondering a major change which would directly affect thousands of people who rely on minibus transport.
Less than a month ago, the department began a consultation on minibus licensing which would more tightly restrict the number of people who can drive minibuses by changing what a permit to drive the vehicles could cover. That consultation is not due to close until November 17.
However, a source with knowledge of the department’s thinking on the issue has told the News Letter that Mr May, the department’s permanent secretary, is now considering himself making a decision even through there is no minister in place.
A legal threat against the status quo, understood to be based on a claim that the department is in breach of an EU directive, is behind the department’s stance.
However, if the department does take a decision prior to a minister being in post it will be reneging on a public commitment in June when it said that “given recent concerns as to the impact of these changes on a number of sectors, the department can confirm that the draft guidance will only come into effect on approval by an incoming minister”.
It is understood that for eight years officials in the department have been keen to change the way that driver licensing and operator licensing works for minibuses but that this has consistently been resisted by ministers.
When asked if it had taken, or was he about to take, a unilateral decision on this prior to the restoration of an Executive or direct rule, the department said: “Since the consultation exercise issued, we have received a legal challenge against the current arrangements. Given the nature of the challenge the department is currently taking legal advice and cannot comment further at this stage.
“However, in advance of advice, the department can confirm that no decision has been taken at this stage to withdraw the consultation. If a decision is taken to change the current arrangements that will be explained to those affected.
“The Department for Transport has already clarified the legal position in Great Britain.”
Writing in the foreword to the consultation last month, Mr May said: “The vast majority of licensed bus operators and transport providers in the voluntary and community sector will be unaffected by the proposed changes.”