Hightown waste incinerator go-ahead decision defended
A senior civil servant has defended his decision to give the go-ahead for a controversial £240m waste incinerator facility in County Antrim.
The project, at Hightown Quarry near Glengormley, was given planning approval in the absence of a minister by the Department for Infrastructure.
Its permanent secretary, Peter May, said he felt the public interest justified proceeding with the facility.
The request had been turned down in 2015 by the then environment minister.
Last year, the waste management group behind the scheme, Arc21, appealed against that decision to the Planning Appeals Commission.
The PAC recommended approval of the facility, which would deal with black bin waste a so-called super council comprising six councils in the east of Northern Ireland.
The department agreed, saying it was "in the public interest to make the decision without further delay".
Mr May said he would much rather a minister had been in place to take the decision, but that the PAC had been very clear in its recommendation that the application should be granted.
Asked by the BBC why he had not delayed making a decision until the political deadlock at Stormont is resolved, Mr May said the Department for Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) had advised him there was a strong need for the incinerator and that any undue delay would be "damaging".
A Daera spokesman said that the ARC 21 plant was of "significant strategic importance" because it will help achieve recycling targets and alleviate pressure on landfill sites, which will have limited capacity in the next decade.
Mr May denied the move was intended to send out a wider message to the political parties that this would be the consequence of them not returning to Stormont.
He said he had taken two decisions on planning applications earlier in the year which had proved uncontroversial.
The Department for Infrastructure took over planning responsibilities in the re-organisation of Stormont departments, and its minister has the final say on major applications.
But there has not been a functioning Northern Ireland Executive since January.
Mr May said his department had not received any formal notification by the developers regarding a legal challenge if he did not press ahead with the plant.
Instead, he said the decision had been taken on the basis of public interest. The permanent secretary said he had taken legal advice and that the department would defend any action taken against it.
Asked about the concerns of local campaigners about potential health and safety risks posed by the incinerator, Mr May said he understood there were strongly held views but pointed to the work of the PAC and its "clear conclusions" on the matter.
In a statement earlier this week, Arc21, said: "The proposed facilities will help bring the region into line with European best practice, significantly reduce our over-reliance on landfill, enhance recycling rates and help tackle illegality in the waste sector."
Colin Buick, chairman of the NoArc21 campaign which opposes the incinerator, said news of the planning approval came "out of the blue", but that his group was already planning a legal challenge.
All five of Northern Ireland's main parties have criticised the decision.
The project has been controversial from the start with residents of Glengormley opposing it because of concerns about traffic and the effect on property prices.
More than 3,500 objections were lodged when the planning application was first made.