Posted on Tuesday 29 May 2018 by John Mulgrew
Northern Ireland’s top business leaders are calling for the Secretary of State to hand down increased powers to civil servants to allow major infrastructure projects to get the go-ahead in the absence of an Executive.
A dozen business groups have jointly penned a letter to Karen Bradley, urging her to consider implementing “special legislative measures that restore stable governance by temporarily empowering senior civil servants to take crucial day-to-day decisions”.
It comes as developers are being told that, while departments are progressing with major schemes, such as Belfast Power’s £280m gas-powered station, that final sign-off or approval cannot be given without a minister in place.
Earlier this month, the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) announced it was appealing a High Court decision that its permanent secretary Peter May had no power to give the go-ahead to the Arc 21 incinerator project in Mallusk.
The High Court ruling threw doubt on the authority of senior civil servants to take decisions that would normally be the responsibility of ministers.
The new letter calls on an amendment, to allow permanent secretaries to make decisions in the absence of a minister until devolution is restored, and handing the Planning Appeals Commission more power over so-called ‘regionally significant planning applications’.
Adrian Doran, chair of the CBI NI Infrastructure Forum
“The business community’s overwhelming priority remains the return of an inclusive devolved government. But without a political resolution in sight, it is only right that we request that the Secretary of State explore all alternative options. Policy paralysis is not acceptable, and we must all look for ways to remove the current handbrake on local economic and social progress. Both businesses and individuals deserve to have access to the basic everyday governance that is offered in all other regions.
“Last week’s incinerator decision exposed the fragility of current decision-making arrangements in the absence of ministers. The longer this uncertainty presides over local infrastructure decisions, the greater the risk to jobs and investment. Northern Ireland cannot be left in a decision-making limbo indefinitely.”
Ann McGregor, chief executive of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry
“It is becoming more and more difficult to see how the Northern Ireland economy can develop and businesses prosper without having the necessary functions of government in place.
“There is no sign of Stormont being restored, there are no ministers in place to take vital decisions on critical issues and it now appears that no policy decisions of significance can be taken legally by senior civil servants.
“Northern Ireland’s credibility as a place in which to do business is suffering intolerably because of the political impasse. We need the return of a functioning local executive and a Ministerial team focused on helping the Northern Ireland economy to flourish. In the meantime, the proposals put forward by business groups today outline potential solutions that should be considered - too much time is being wasted and time is of the essence.”
John Armstrong, managing director of the Construction Employers Federation
“As the federation has already said on the public record, there is a significant and increasingly harmful lack of governance within Northern Ireland.
“We have long said that the Secretary of State must now bring clarity, particularly given the construction industry’s critical role in delivering jobs, economic development and growth and last week’s verdict. Decisions need to be prioritised and a clear and accountable way of taking these decisions needs to be established. Our preference is, of course, the establishment of a Northern Ireland Executive. However, failing that, we need to move to a position where the functions of government can be exercised in a way that any other part of these islands would expect as a matter of course.”
Brian Irwin, chair of the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association
“The continued lack of certainty around decision-making in Northern Ireland is not sustainable and will in all likelihood result in the loss of jobs if it is to continue. In the absence of a local Assembly or even efforts to resume talks, our members and the wider business community need certainty to allow some key strategic infrastructure decisions to be made. The time is now for some leadership and creative thinking from the Secretary of State to move this issue forward, even if it means introducing some temporary measures like the ones we have suggested today.”
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium
“While a sitting Assembly is our preferred option, our industry needs mission critical decisions taken now on issues such as business rates and the Apprenticeship Levy. The current stalemate is no longer an option and further stagnation only serves to make it harder to do business in NI.”
Glyn Roberts, Retail NI chief executive
“The current political limbo is nothing less than a total disgrace and we need to see new leadership, an end to the blame game and new talks beginning immediately. Having no Government for so long is making Northern Ireland an international laughing stock and will impact on foreign direct investment. Devolution should always be the first choice for Northern Ireland. Failing that we need a plan B with Ministers in place making the vital decisions to move our economy forward”
Seamus Leheny, NI policy manager, Freight Transport Association
“A functioning and effective local government is something we as an Industry naturally want. However, because of the current stalemate at Stormont, what we hope will be a for a short time period, we would like to see key decision making around Infrastructure projects to be made by appropriate senior civil servants. This will ensure projects that have been years in planning and approvals with allocated funding can proceed without further delay.”
Colin Neill, chief executive, Hospitality Ulster
"Hospitality Ulster value our devolved government structures and the NI Assembly. However, we simply cannot continue with the current situation. Our members feel the real and tangible costs of no government, which leaves us to operate with outdated legislation as our competitors modernise to meet the demands of a fast-changing market. As hard working, law abiding, tax pay businesses, our members deserve the basic right to have a working government in place”.
Mary Meehan, chief executive of Newry Chamber of Commerce
“The void of political leadership is having a serious impact on the NI economy and it appears that key decisions on critical issues cannot be taken by senior civil servants. We need to restore the local executive as a matter of urgency especially given the unprecedented times we are in with Brexit and the gap in representing Northern Ireland at the negotiating table.”
Sinead McLaughlin, chief executive, Londonderry Chamber of Commerce
“In the interest of supporting and developing the economy in Northern Ireland it is important that the current policy paralysis is overcome. The best way to make progress is for politicians to return to their work as our elected legislators. However in the absence of government we must find innovative solutions to ensure we do not further damage our economy by preventing major projects from progressing.”