Northern Ireland

Lough Neagh: Court told former minister 'shirking his duties and responsibilities'

Sand depot at Lough Neagh
Image caption Sand companies can extract 1.8m tonnes of sand from Lough Neagh every year but they do not have planning permission

A former government minister twice rejected the advice of officials to stop unauthorised sand dredging on Lough Neagh.

A Belfast court today was told the then Environment Minister Mark H Durkan had been "shirking his duties and responsibilities" in deciding not to halt the operation.

Sand has been extracted from the lough for years without planning permission.

In 2015 Mr Durkan issued an enforcement notice in 2015.

However it was appealed to the Planning Appeals Commission allowing sand to be taken from the lough bed to continue, pending the outcome.

That appeal is still pending.

Lough Neagh is an internationally recognised bird habitat with EU protection.

Friends of the Earth have taken a judicial review of the minister's decision not to issue a stop notice.

It would have required an immediate end to the sand dredging and could only have been challenged in the courts.

Flagrant breach

Earlier the court was told that unregulated sand extraction was a "flagrant breach" of planning law which one would not have expected in even the "most primitive dictatorship".

A barrister for Friends of the Earth said Mr Durkan's decision not to issue a stop notice when he did not know what impact the dredging was having on the lough was "bizarre".

He said it was contrary to the precautionary principle in EU law which said development should not be allowed at protected sites unless it could be proven it was not having a detrimental impact.

He added Mr Durkan's decision to delay a decision on the stop notice to seek more information on the environmental impact of dredging was turning EU law "on its head".

The barrister said it appeared a "slow game" was being played out.

The intention, he claimed, was to use the appeals process to continue sand extraction unhindered.

He said it could be 2017 before that process concluded.

"As long as the department lets them get away with it, that game will continue," he said.

Planning

The sand companies had been afforded several opportunities to make a planning application.

None have been made.

The court was told the way in which the case had been handled left the Northern Ireland planning system open to "ridicule".

The sand industry extracts around 1.7m tonnes from the bed of Lough Neagh every year, worth around £5m.

It employs around 150 people directly.

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