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Council asked Stormont department to help pay £240,000 legal bill after judicial review

The site at Woodburn Forest near Carrickfergus was the scene of an exploratory oil drill by Infrastrata in 2016. Picture by Richard Gilmore

A COUNCIL which faced a judicial review after permitted development rights were granted for a controversial exploratory oil drill in Co Antrim attempted to pass part of the bill for the legal costs, totalling £240,000, to a Stormont department.

The request was made by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) - which it has refused - regarding the Woodburn Forest site near Carrickfergus.

The exploratory oil drill, carried out by the Infrastrata company, led to sustained protests at the site over several months in 2016.

A judicial review was launched by a resident living near the site against the council's decision to grant permitted development rights, arguing that the company should have been required to complete a full planning application because of the scale of the work.

Powers to grant or refuse development rights were transferred to councils under the reform of local government in 2015, but were previously within the remit of the Department of the Environment (DoE), which preceded the DfI.

The Irish News revealed that the DoE ignored a request for its views when InfraStrata submitted notification in August 2013 of its intention to "carry out an exploratory borehole" at the forest.

The department admitted it did not respond within a 21-day time limit, thereby leading to the permission being granted by default.

In the summer of 2016, Infrastrata announced it was abandoning the plans after failing to strike oil.

In August 2017, a judge brought an end to the judicial review, ruling that proceedings were now academic as the project was no longer going ahead.

The council said it had been left with a legal bill of £241,000 as a result of the case, and hit out at what it described as "grossly unfair and unjustified" pressure put on councillors and staff during the drill.

The DfI confirmed it refused a request to help cover the legal costs.

A spokesman said: "Mid and East Antrim Borough Council did approach the department in September 2017 asking if it would work with the council to cover the legal costs which it had incurred in relation to the Woodburn judicial review.

"Having considered the request, the department decided that it was not appropriate to make a contribution to the council to meet the legal costs which it had incurred."

However, it is understood that the council has discussed the matter with elected representatives in confidence at a meeting in recent months.

A council spokesman said: "Council is currently exploring all of its options in relation to the costs."

The Stop The Drill campaign, which opposed the exploratory oil drill, said any further challenges brought by the council will "inevitably rack up the already scandalous bill for Mid and East Antrim ratepayers".

"The threat of a future drill similar to Woodburn is real as Mid and East Antrim remains under licence until 2021," it said.

"The council did not accept responsibility in 2015 and still do not. Had the council accepted this responsibility from the beginning the huge drain on ratepayer money might have been avoided."

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