SF ex-minister rejects criticism over neutral stance on incinerator
FORMER Sinn Fein minister Chris Hazzard has defended his neutral position on a controversial plan to build a massive incinerator on the outskirts of Belfast — even though his party opposed it.
It comes after the Department for Infrastructure approved planning permission for the project, which will collect waste and burn it to produce electricity in the old Hightown quarry in Mallusk.
Thousands objected to the project, leading to then SDLP Environment Minister Mark H Durkan rejecting it in 2015, saying it wasn’t needed and would affect recycling efforts.
However Arc21, which is behind the plan, took it to appeal and won.
One of the factors in the decision was that the Department for Infrastructure, then headed by Mr Hazzard, took a neutral stance on the matter.
In October 2016 the Planning Appeals Commission heard how circumstances had “moved on” since Mr Durkan’s decision and it was “no longer seeking to defend the stated reasons for refusal”.
“While pertinent in considering the background to the case, comments made by the previous minister, Mark H Durkan, no longer represent the department’s stance on acceptability or otherwise, of the proposal,” the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) ruling stated.
Mr Hazzard’s party has long opposed plans for the incinerator and yesterday Gerry Kelly MLA branded the overturning of the original decision a “disgrace”.
Responding to criticism, Mr Hazzard said it was “important” that the minister, as the final decision-maker, was neutral until the point when the decision had to be made. He rejected suggestions his neutrality “shifted” the department’s position on the incinerator and gave civil servants cover to approve the plan.
“As final decision-maker, I was protecting integrity of PAC process,” he tweeted.
Mr Durkan said people would be “surprised” at Sinn Fein’s stance on rejecting the incinerator when its own minister took a neutral stance, and questioned how a decision of such “magnitude” could be made while no minister was in place.
North Belfast SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon has written to the head of the Civil Service “asking for urgent answers over the process, justification and timing of this irregular decision on the Hightown incinerator”.
“It beggars belief that while political parties are united in their unanimous political opposition to this decision, the Department for Infrastructure can allow it to go ahead,” she said.
Questions: Chris Hazzard