Schools will continue to shut down or merge without ministerial approval

School closures have been approved without a minister since last year

SCHOOLS will continue to be shut down or merged without the need for ministerial approval.

Civil servants have been signing off school `development proposals' since the Stormont executive collapsed last year.

Proposals to shut numerous schools were among those left in the balance.

With no minister in place, the department said its permanent secretary could rubber stamp proposals.

However, a recent High Court ruling cast doubt on major decisions being taken by civil servants.

In May, a judge said that a senior official did not have legal power to approve a new £240 million waste incinerator following the collapse of devolution.

Planning permission was granted last September for the controversial Hightown facility on the outskirts of north Belfast after the Department for Infrastructure said it was in the public interest.

However, Mrs Justice Keegan said she did not consider that "parliament can have intended that such decision-making would continue in Northern Ireland in the absence of ministers without the protection of democratic accountability".

The ruling placed question marks over projects still in the pipeline.

Among the most high-profile planning applications awaiting a decision is the redevelopment of Casement Park GAA stadium in west Belfast, which has already faced years of delays.

Since May last year, the Department of Education has taken decisions on 38 development proposals. These included approving:

:: The closures of Tullycarnet PS in Belfast, Anamar PS in south Armagh, St Brigid's PS in Augher and Magheralough PS in Trillick

:: The reorganisation of west Belfast post-primary schools, which could see three names disappear

:: The amalgamation of Carrickfergus College and Downshire School

:: The closure of St Columban's in Kilkeel and expansion of St Louis' Grammar in the town

There are numerous other decisions yet to be taken.

They include plans to bring together four Catholic schools serving the area of Dunamanagh/Leckpatrick, in north Tyrone.

Altishane PS, Loughash PS, St Patrick's PS and St Joseph's PS will amalgamate to form a new 133 pupil Catholic primary school from September 2019.

The proposal will "in effect require the closure of the four schools".

Asked if the judgment would mean any change in approach, the Department of Education said it "is not reviewing the process for taking development proposal decisions".

"The department has considered the judgment which is currently under appeal and is due to be heard shortly," a spokeswoman said.

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