Ongoing legal action has resulted in an £8.5 million increase in the cost of a major road scheme near landscape made famous by poet Seamus Heaney, a court has heard.
Senior judges were told delays caused by environmentalist Chris Murphy’s litigation has led to the bill for the new A6 Belfast to Londonderry dual carriageway rising from the expected £160m.
But Mr Murphy, who is seeking to stop a section of the route being built close to wetland where migratory birds forage, claimed the Department for Infrastructure was exaggerating the hold-up.
The additional strain on the public purse was revealed as his appeal against a previous failed challenge was put back to August.
Adjourning proceedings to give Mr Murphy more time to prepare, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan stressed the case will definitely be heard then.
The ornithologist took High Court action in an attempt to halt construction of the part of the road near Mossbawn, Co Londonderry – the childhood home of the former Nobel laureate poet.
The route was identified following a public inquiry nearly a decade ago.
With commuters regularly facing rush-hour gridlock, former infrastructure minister Chris Hazzard gave the green light to the scheme last year in a bid to significantly improve a major transport corridor.
Proceedings centred on ecological checks made to potential disturbance to whooper swans on Lough Neagh and Lough Beg from the disputed Toome to Castledawson stretch.
Mr Murphy, who represented himself, claimed the plans will cause irreparable harm to an area worthy of world heritage status.
In March a judge held that the department’s decision making process was lawful and rational.
Mr Murphy had been due to challenge her ruling in the Court of Appeal yesterday, but instead requested an adjournment.
He told judges that he was only informed of the date of the hearing just before departing to lead a three-week wildlife tour.
“The time I have been granted to prepare my case has been unfair and is prejudicing a fair hearing,” the environmentalist claimed.
Paul McLaughlin, for the department, accepted an “unfortunate oversight” where Mr Murphy was not copied into correspondence seeking an expedited appeal hearing.
But the barrister stressed the public interest and concerns over the estimated costs of the road project.
“This challenge has already delayed commencement of the scheme by in the region of 10 months,” he said.
Following the original challenge construction work has begun on areas away from the disputed section, with Mr McLaughlin explaining how the terms of the contract have been revised.
“To date, purely on account of the delay, the additional cost to the public purse is already in the region of £8.5m,” he disclosed.
However, Mr Murphy insisted no work could have taken place during winter months because of sensitivities about the migratory birds.
“The respondent has exaggerated this point,” he added.
Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justice Gillen, acknowledged it may be unfair on him to press ahead with the hearing at this point.
Listing the appeal for August, the judge emphasised that any holiday arrangements will have to be changed to ensure the hearing takes place.
He added: “We will also strive to ensure we give a decision on that day so the parties know where they stand.”