Questions over bus lanes U-turn by Stormont department
A STORMONT department is facing questions over blaming a U-turn on bus lane access for Belfast taxis on a major court ruling that blocked planning approval for an incinerator.
Announcing a deferral of the planned 12-month scheme, the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) said the judgment "clarified the position regarding the decisions civil servants can and cannot take in the absence of ministers".
But just weeks earlier, the department said the court ruling on the Hightown incinerator "related to that particular decision" and other planning decisions "would be presumed valid".
There have been questions over what decisions civil servants have authority to make without ministerial approval following last year's collapse of power-sharing at Stormont.
In May, the High Court found a senior civil servant did not have legal power to approve the new £240 million waste incinerator without ministerial approval. The Court of Appeal also backed the ruling.
DfI on Wednesday cited the ruling as the reason for ditching plans announced in March to allow most taxis, including Class A private hire vehicles, to use bus lanes for a 12-month trial.
The department had planned to introduce the trial ahead of the new Belfast Rapid Transit system of Glider buses being properly launched next week.
But DfI said the judgment "clarified the position regarding the decisions civil servants can and cannot take in the absence of ministers", adding: "It is that judgment which has led the department to defer the decision on the introduction of this experimental scheme."
Bus lanes can still be used by Class B (wheelchair accessible) and Class D (taxibus) taxis.
At the time of the controversial incinerator planning approval, DfI also announced that civil servants had taken decisions for raft of other planning applications.
When asked whether these decisions still stand in light of the Arc21 incinerator ruling, DfI earlier this month told The Irish News the court judgment "related to that particular decision".
"In the absence of a court ruling quashing other planning decisions taken by the department they would be presumed valid," a spokeswoman said.
But DfI added that no decisions would be made on any further planning applications following the court judgment.
Colm Bradley, director of planning advice organisation Community Places, questioned the disparity between the bus lanes announcement and DfI's stance on planning approvals.
"This announcement by the department appears to call in to question other decisions which were also taken without ministerial approval," he said.
"Notable among these are a number of regionally significant planning decisions which were made by the permanent secretary around the same time as the Arc21 Mallusk incinerator decision.
"The announcement has added to the already confused situation. It would be extremely helpful to both communities and developers if the department clarified the position and provided guidance on the way forward."
In a statement, a DfI spokeswoman said the decision on the bus lanes scheme "has been deferred not changed" and, in light of the incinerator judgment, will be "put to an incoming minister".
She added that the other planning application decisions were made prior to the incinerator judgment.