Campaigners block NI incinerator plans after High Court ruling
Controversial plans for a new waste incinerator near Belfast have been blocked by a High Court ruling today (14 May) following concerted efforts by campaigners and local residents.
The planned £240-million energy-from-waste (EfW) facility at Hightown Quarry in Mallusk, on the outskirts of Belfast, had been given planning permission back in September 2017 by Peter May, the Permanent Secretary for the Department for Infrastructure (DFI), in the absence of a minister in charge of the Department, as efforts to revive the Northern Irish Government’s power-sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein continue to founder.
Mrs Justice Keegan, presiding over the case at the High Court, announced this morning that May did not have the appropriate lawful authority to issue the planning consent in the absence of a Minister, and as such the development should not proceed.
The proposed facility, which was to serve the regions covered by arc21, a waste management grouping of six Northern Irish councils, has been on the end of numerous objections from residents and campaigners, and suffered another publicity blow at the end of April when a report by Eunomia Research and Consulting found that there was not enough waste to feed the incinerator, which would result in overcapacity.
Eunomia’s report on the 120,000-tonne annual capacity Hightown Quarry facility found that there were 438,000 tonnes of waste per year available for treatment in Northern Ireland in 2016/17, falling to 116,000 tonnes in 2020/21 once facilities currently under construction become operational. For the arc21 region, there were 300,000 tonnes per year available for treatment in 2016/17, which would fall to 58,000 tonnes in 2020/21. It is suggested that an overcapacity would result in the planned facility lowering gate fees in order to attract more waste, weakening the incentives for collectors to pull out recyclable materials from the waste stream.
Campaigners pointed to the £107-million, 180,000-tonne annual capacity Full Circle Generation EfW plant, which is close to opening in the Belfast Harbour estate, as evidence that the Hightown Quarry facility is not needed.
Commenting on the High Court ruling, a spokesperson for arc21 said that the organisation was “disappointed by today’s ruling”, adding: “We will take time to consider the judgement in detail and consult with our stakeholders.”
A spokesperson for the Becon Consortium, the group financing the project, expressed hope that the return of devolved government would mean the project would still go ahead in the future, saying: "We note that the decision not to uphold this decision does not change the material facts at the heart of the planning decision, the project's compliance with regional waste policy or indeed remove the strategic need for such infrastructure here in Northern Ireland in the future.
“Instead, the judge's decision is entirely based on procedural matters in relation to the ability of the department to make a decision in the absence of a minister in post."
Colin Buick, Chair of NoArc21, said: “We are delighted with this decision today. This has been a community-based campaign run on a shoestring budget by ordinary local people. We successfully argued that in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive DFI Minister, or replacement NIO Direct Rule Minister, that the Permanent Secretary at DFI dfid not have lawful authority to issue the planning approval. We are very grateful to the Judge and the Court for their consideration and this decision today.
“We have always said there is no strategic requirement for the incinerator at Hightown Quarry. The analysis by Eunomia proves conclusively that the existing capacity as well as the construction of the Full Circle Generation facility at Airport Road West will meet the waste requirements of the arc21 region.
“We hope that today’s judgement will act as a wake-up call to DFI. Now is an opportune time for the department to take stock and completely review its waste management strategy. There needs to be a rigorous assessment of what facilities are needed going forward – especially if they are to be paid for out of rate-payers’ pockets.”
The BBC has reported that the initial judicial review of the plan was originally brought forward by a resident, whose barrister cited the case of a letter written by the Head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland, David Sterling, in December 2017, in which he explained that civil servants could not approve compensation for victims of historical institutional abuse without ministerial approval. The barrister claimed that the Civil Service did not follow this advice in granting approval to the arc21 facility.
However, the barrister representing DFI said that disallowing officials from making decisions in the absence of ministerial oversight would result in a “shutdown of government”, and that the ability of civil servants to take decisions such as that taken by Peter May was necessary to keep the wheels of government moving.