Sinn Fein and SDLP clash over controversial waste incinerator
THE SDLP and Sinn Féin have clashed over the decision to grant planning permission for a controversial waste incinerator in Co Antrim.
The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) announced on Wednesday that the massive arc21 scheme could go ahead at Hightown Quarry near Glengormley.
The decision was made in the absence of a minister and was strongly criticised by a residents' group and representatives from all the main Stormont parties.
More than 4,000 objection letters had been submitted to the department.
An application for planning permission was turned down in 2015 by the SDLP's then environment minister Mark H Durkan, leading arc21 to lodge an appeal with the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC).
From May 2016 until the suspension of the Executive in January, Sinn Féin's Chris Hazzard was infrastructure minister, which incorporated planning functions from the former Department of Environment.
The PAC report, which said planning permission should be approved, noted: "A representative for the DfI indicated that circumstances had 'moved on' since the notice of opinion and that the department was no longer seeking to defend the stated reasons for refusal.
"I was advised that the current minister, Chris Hazzard, was taking a 'neutral' stance and that the advice of the PAC would be taken into account in reaching a decision."
Mr Durkan said yesterday there was "real confusion on how a decision of this magnitude can go ahead without ministerial and executive approval".
He added: “Questions also need answered from Sinn Féin's Chris Hazzard, who changed the department's position from opposition to the incinerator to one of neutrality. Why did he not instruct officials to follow my position of opposition? The public deserve answers."
Mr Hazzard, who is now the MP for South Down, tweeted: "Important that final decision maker protect integrity of process by remaining neutral until the point of decision, don't ya think?"
Sinn Féin North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly also accused Mr Durkan of "attempting to exploit this controversy in order to score cheap political points", and referred to an assembly debate in 2014 from which the minister was absent.
Mr Kelly said: "Mark H Durkan himself remained neutral during the initial application process for the incinerator and refused to take part in the debate in the assembly on this issue at the time for this very reason.
"It is only when the appeals process is complete that a minister can make a final decision. Had Chris adopted any other position, he could have undermined the integrity of the entire process and been open to legal challenge."
However, the SDLP claimed last night that while Mr Durkan refused planning permission, Sinn Féin after campaigning against the incinerator "took a ‘neutral' position on it, giving cover to civil servants who have made this decision".
"No amount of spin can change that fact.”
Meanwhile, the NoArc21 campaign group, which is opposing the proposals, said it has organised a public meeting in Mallusk for September 28 and will have "a funding page activated soon to raise funds for the fight".
The group, which held a meeting on Wednesday following the planning announcement, has said it is exploring the possibility of launching a judicial review to challenge the decision.
The incinerator is set to handle black bin rubbish from six council areas and arc21 has claimed the plans will significantly reduce waste going to landfill, increase recycling rates and boost the economy.
Ricky Burnett from arc21 told the BBC yesterday: "Whilst it's new to NI, it's not new to Europe. It's tried, it's tested."