Fears over delays to A6 project while judicial review heard
POLITICIANS and hauliers have questioned why a Stormont department has found itself facing similar court action over a second major road project.
The High Court yesterday granted an environmental campaigner permission to challenge a planned new £160m stretch of the A6 Belfast to Derry road being built through landscape made famous by poet Seamus Heaney.
Although other grounds of challenge were dismissed, Chris Murphy was granted leave to seek a judicial review over an alleged breach of the habitats directive on a specially protected area close to part of the route.
A judge said there was still uncertainty surrounding ecological checks carried out on the potential disturbance to wildlife on Lough Neagh and Lough Beg from the proposed dual carriageway from Toome to Castledawson.
The area is well-known for its Whooper swans which arrive every autumn from Iceland.
The decision comes after judgment was reserved on Tuesday in a second legal challenge to a multi-million-pound dual carriageway project on the A5 Derry-Dublin route.
A campaign group opposed to the scheme claimed in the High Court it should be halted over a failure to carry out a strategic environmental assessment (SEA).
In 2013 a judge quashed a decision to press ahead with the new road between Derry and Aughnacloy due to a breach of a habitats directive.
Foyle People Before Profit MLA Eamonn McCann last night accused the Department for Infrastructure of failing to learn from its mistakes.
"Many will be dismayed at the hold-up to the A6 upgrade," he said. "Once again, the Department for Infrastructure has failed to factor in environmental and wildlife concerns in planning a road project."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "We cannot have a repeat of the A5 debacle which saw a legal challenge quash another piece of vital infrastructure promised and typically not delivered by the Executive.
"I hope the Executive have learned their lesson and ensured that the proposal for the A6 is airtight in regards to planning and environmental protection."
The Freight Transport Association (FTA) said work was due to begin in October and it was "bitterly disappointed in yet another delay".
Seamus Leheny said: "Questions must be asked of the Department for Infrastructure, specifically those involved in the scheme, as to why this has happened - and in similar circumstances to a legal challenge upheld against the other main road to Derry, the A5, a few years ago".
Infrastructure minister Chris Hazzard said he was "committed to the construction of the A6, and will now explore our options for commencing construction on the unchallenged section of this project".
"While I had hoped that we would be able to proceed with this strategically important project, we will play our part to ensure that, as Justice Maguire said, there will be a speedy date for a full hearing and I remain confident that we will be ultimately successful," he said.
The judge noted yesterday that further assessments have been carried out since the department first made checks on the presence of nesting birds, badgers and bats, and to ensure minimisation of disturbance to the whooper swans.
But he said he was unclear whether these actions were part of a fulfilment of the habitats directive obligations and ruled that the challenge should proceed to a full hearing early next year.
"There's substantial public interest involved in a case like this," he said.