Papers reveal fears over ports’ millions proposal

Concerns have been raised about an attempt by the Stormont executive to take money from Belfast Harbour'Photo: Belfast Harbour/PA Wire
Concerns have been raised about an attempt by the Stormont executive to take money from Belfast Harbour'Photo: Belfast Harbour/PA Wire

STORMONT minister Danny Kennedy was warned that moves to take funds from Belfast port could be challenged in the courts.

The executive plans to raise £40 million over the next four years by taking money from the Belfast Harbour Commission.

But a document prepared by civil servants says there are legal questions surrounding the move, which it says “would seem to be inconsistent” with other government policies.

The concerns were contained in briefing papers handed to DRD minister, Danny Kennedy, on his first day in office on May 16 which were requested by the News Letter under the Freedom of Information Act.

The department intended to black out large chunks of the documents but actually highlighted the areas which it wanted to hide.

On Saturday the News Letter revealed that the documents warned of imminent cuts to bus services, the potential loss of 70 jobs in Translink and a looming funding crisis in public transport.

One of the documents says: “For the Belfast Harbour Commissioners to release resources would require new legislation and there are concerns about the form that this might take and the risks of challenge that might arise.

“The issue needs to be considered in the light of wider proposals for the future powers and responsibilities of the NI trust ports (Londonderry and Warrenpoint, as well as Belfast) ... The issue also needs to be considered in the light of the impact which release of value of the amount envisaged would have on the development of the Port of Belfast.”

However, a DRD spokeswoman denied that officials were concerned: “DRD officials did not express concerns about the legality of executive’s policy. Instead they said that new legislation would be required. They also noted that there was the possibility of challenge.”

In another document, the department unsuccessfully attempted to cover up a second concern about the attempt to raise money from Belfast Port.

It said: “Proposals to secure the release of value from the Belfast Harbour Commissioners are likely to impact on this policy area.

“The ability to extract resource from a trust port would seem to be inconsistent with these ports being removed from public corporation status.”

However, a DRD spokeswoman said: “The trust ports currently are public corporations for public expenditure purposes. The ability to secure value from a trust port would be consistent with that status.”

Belfast Harbour said that it was working with the DRD and the executive “to ensure that it continues to maximise its contribution to the development of the local economy”.

The documents also show that Mr Kennedy was given detailed advice on what he should say about the crisis-hit Northern Ireland Water.

The UUP man was advised: “If asked what you see as your main challenges you might want to identify one as ‘providing a stable framework for the delivery of sustainable, efficient and affordable water and sewerage services’. Given the complexity of many of the decisions involved and risks associated with them, we suggest the minister adopts a ‘holding stance’ in the early days.”