Uncertainty over officials' powers 'could have made motorbike race impossible'

It may have been impossible to hold the North West 200 motorbike race because of uncertainty over officials' powers, following a landmark High Court decision in Northern Ireland, the country's senior civil servant said.

Mrs Justice Keegan blocked a controversial waste incinerator in Co Antrim in a finding which could affect many other important planning decisions.

Stormont's Department for Infrastructure has appealed against the judgment, seeking clarity after a ruling that senior civil servant Peter May had no power to approve the planning application.

Head of the Civil Service David Sterling said: "We have got the North West 200 this weekend and road closures for that were signed this year by the permanent secretary of the Department of Infrastructure.

"Those road closure orders would normally be signed by a minister.

"So the uncertainty we have is whether it is appropriate for officials to do anything that a minister would normally do.

"If that was the case then we have to question, would it have been possible to run the North West 200 this weekend?"

Planning permission for the waste incinerator was approved by the Department for Infrastructure last September but objectors argued it was not a decision civil servants could make.

Northern Ireland has had no ministers for more than a year and Mr Sterling said there was no sign of an Executive being reformed soon.

He added: "We care deeply about the services that we provide to the community.

"We should not have to step into the space normally occupied by ministers.

"We should be operating under the direction and control of ministers.

"Whilst ministers are (absent) we want to do the best that we can to provide services."

Planning approval has been granted for the A5 upgrade but there is a further legal challenge to that.

The redevelopment of Casement Park is another "regionally significant" planning application which may be affected.

Mr Sterling said: "The uncertainty we have at the moment as to what extent can we take decisions on those issues that would normally be the proper preserve of ministers and that is why we are appealing today."

The Infrastructure Department said it was challenging the court decision because it was seeking clarity on the law in this case and surrounding decision making in other regionally significant planning applications.

The appeal could take months to be resolved, Mr Sterling said.

The Infrastructure Department said: "The Department is clear that it would be preferable for these decisions to be taken by ministers, however it has a duty to process planning applications and other planning cases and failure to do so has wide-ranging implications for the Northern Ireland economy and the environment.

"It is therefore important to have clarity on the legal position in the continued absence of ministers."

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