Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley yesterday announced new laws to unlock major projects alongside a push to resolve the political deadlock which led to the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly last January.
In May, Northern Ireland’s Department for Infrastructure (DfI) announced it would stop deciding on major planning applications after a ruling that civil servants who approved plans for an energy from waste scheme did not have the power to do so.
And in July, the DfI lost an appeal against the May court decision which had ruled in favour of campaigner Colin Buick, who had challenged the department’s decision to approve the plant, which had been proposed by waste management group arc21, at the Hightown Quarry site near Mallusk.
The appeal judges said: "It would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the (Good Friday) Agreement and the 1998 (Northern Ireland) Act for such decisions to be made by departments in the absence of a minister."
"Following the recent decision of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in the Buick case, I recognise that there is a need to provide reassurance and clarity to both the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the people of Northern Ireland on the mechanisms for the continued delivery of public services," Bradley said in her statement.
"So, the legislation I intend to introduce after the conference recess will also include provisions to give greater clarity and certainty to enable NI departments to continue to take decisions in Northern Ireland in the public interest and to ensure the continued delivery of public services."
She said that she would consult parties in Northern Ireland over how this might be done, whilst adding that she was "conscious that this is no substitute for the return of elected ministers taking decisions in the executive accountable to the assembly".
Michael Gordon, head of planning consultancy Turley in Northern Ireland, said: "We look forward to seeing the detail of the proposed legislation, but I am optimistic that this will remove the current impasse which currently prevents a decision being made on a number of these regionally significant and ‘called-in’ planning applications.
"Importantly, this commitment also provides surety and clarity around government decision-making, and should restore Northern Ireland’s two-tier planning system and the department’s ability to oversee – and when necessary call-in decisions made by local councils."