Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Strategic failure

 So Nicola Mallon, Minister of Infrastructure, has finally taken a decision to refuse planning permission for the Energy from Waste plant for ARC 21 at Hightown. It’s not an unexpected decision as her view on the proposal has been known for many years long before she became Minister. There was certainly no prospect of her approving permission a few weeks from an election. Parish pump politics trumps process every time.  So here are my thoughts on her decision, the implications for ratepayers, the implications for the environment but more importantly the undermining of good governance and the loss of confidence in strategic investment in Northern Ireland. 

Many years ago I was a Councillor on Antrim Borough Council and to be honest waste management wasn’t a subject I had a particular interest in other than when local bins weren’t being lifted for some reason. Colleagues had a greater interest and it was those individuals who sat on agencies such as ARC 21, a collaborative effort amongst a number of councils to find ways of reducing the cost of waste management. When ARC 21 proposed the development of an Energy from Waste (EFW) plant to address the decreasing level of landfill available and the increasing awareness of environmental impacts from creating new landfill it was something I took under my notice but again without looking at the issue too deeply other than being satisfied that this would take the option of a new landfill facility at Lady Hill in Antrim off the table. 

That changed when the preferred site for such a facility was identified as being at the then current landfill site at Dargan in Belfast. This North Belfast site had for years catered for the landfill needs of a significant proportion of Belfast, indeed much of the existing infrastructure in that area is built on historic land fill. At the time I was managing a community health partnership in Inner North Belfast and local residents asked if I could consider what impact such a facility would have on them. Having recently completed some training in carrying out health impact assessments from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland it was an opportunity to apply some of that knowledge.  

The first thing to say is that Inner North Belfast already suffered from some of the worst air pollution in Northern Ireland. With a multilane motorway system running the length of the area in question, a large feed mill, a sewage waste incinerator already in existence in the docks, other industry and leakage of gases from the existing landfill site there are many factors which contribute to poor respiratory health. Coming from a position of knowing very little about EFW I quickly found that this was a preferred technology in many Scandinavian countries which prided themselves in high environmental standards. I found many examples where EFW plants were integrated into large city infrastructure places like Manhattan or close to the centre of Paris. I was able to logon to the operators website and see in real time the make up of the gases leaving the Manhattan facility chimneys. Courtesy of the very effective filters in place the air leaving the facility was cleaner than the air at ground level in Manhattan. After reviewing the operation of a number of sites it was clear that locating this plant at Dargan would not pose a health risk during operation. Over the years formal HIA processes, independently reviewed, have confirmed that assessment of the technology. 

Health impact assessments however are not just about identifying negative impacts and mitigating them, they also provide an opportunity to identify positive impacts and ensuring that they were included in the project design. Working with the consultants employed at that time by ARC 21 a number of suggestions were made. Just as the transportation of waste to the landfill site had a negative impact on air quality, road safety and council budgets the location of the railway line presented an opportunity to take municipal waste off the road and deliver it to the site by rail from transfer stations in many parts of Northern Ireland. We discussed how energy from the plant could drive new, clean manufacturing in the area. The idea of using heat from the plant to heat poly tunnels and create an inner-city urban horticultural outlet providing fresh produce for those living in inner North Belfast was also discussed. The area is known for having historic high levels of fuel poverty driven both by poverty and poor housing conditions amongst our suggestions was that in the event of the project providing electricity to the grid those living in inner North Belfast could have a reduction in electricity unit cost. Then surprisingly in June 2009 Belfast city council denied permission for the Dargan site, which was in their ownership, to be used as a location for the EFW plant. 

A site selection process continued with those bidding to deliver the project and a disused quarry at Hightown Road in Mallusk was chosen as an alternative with a planning application being submitted in March 2014. That wasn’t an unexpected outcome as planning policy indicated that the reuse of worked out quarries for waste management purposes was preferred over the use of a greenfield site. 

On January 6th 2014 Infrastructure Minister Mark H Durkan had approved an energy from waste plant in the Belfast Harbour estate. After much concern about the long-term viability of Bombardier due to rising energy costs, the approval of an EFW gasification plant was rapidly progressed. The plant was approved based on an application which stated it would be fuelled by commercial and industrial waste but using relatively experimental technology.  

While in any major planning application it is likely there will be a level of local opposition, (not in my backyard), what started to appear in relation to the ARC 21 application was a funded, professional campaign directed at the application. But parallel to that was a concerted effort to undermine the entire ARC 21 procurement exercise. Representatives of the EFW plant at Belfast Harbour estate started to promote the idea that they could take the municipal waste despite the fact, that bringing their plant online successfully has proven to be problematic just as similar gasification plants have also experienced across the UK,  and due to the nature of the process it is unable to cope with the municipal waste mix. Most concerning about this was that local representatives began to parrot the same message. These were individuals who had a decision-making role in a multi-million pound procurement exercise and were proactively undermining that exercise in calling for the process to be ended and multi-million pound contracts awarded to their preferred alternative. They continue to do so to this day and at the very minimum the local government ombudsman should investigate the actions of those locally who sought to undermine this process. 

In September 2015 then Minister Mark H Durkan issued a notice of opinion to refuse the ARC 21 application on the grounds of health risks and lack of justifiable need, despite the evidence presented to him showing unequivocally that there were no health risks and the absolute critical need for the facility. ARC 21 asked for a hearing before the PAC and more information was provided by both parties. By this time there had been an election and there was new Minister and rather than opposing the appeal, he instructed the Department to adopt a neutral position preferring to rely on the professional decision-making of the PAC.  Subsequently, before the determination was issued Stormont collapsed and when the PAC decision to recommend approval was received by the Department there was no minister in place to make a decision. On 29 August 2017 the Permanent Secretary, based on legal advice and information he received from the PAC, decided the planning permission should be granted and this happened on 13 September 2017. In October 2017, an application for a judicial review was initiated by Mr Colin Buick, the chairperson of the leading campaign organisation against the ARC21 proposal. As a consequence, the court decided that in the absence of a Minister the Permanent Secretary of the Department was not empowered to make the decision. 

Coming then to the re-establishment of the Stormont executive and north Belfast MLA Nicola Mallon, who has consistently campaigned against the proposal, is appointed Minister of Infrastructure and the person responsible for making the decision on the planning application. 

Over the past few years, the level of external pressure from competing private interests has continued to grow with the single objective of bringing this process to an end and freeing up waste management contracts for diversion into their businesses. For some politicians, lack of assessment and analysis of the information they have been given by those private companies leaves them at personal jeopardy. For others a lack of understanding about the processes involved have led them down informational cul-de-sacs. Some have questioned the business case; the formal business case could not be finalised until a decision on planning application was taken yet some politicians were unable to separate the two issues. Consequently, their lack of understanding of the need to find a waste management solution, now hampers future proposals. For some, the reason to block the development was about the end use of the power output of this facility, in a world where generation of energy locally is a critical need, exporting energy production seems counter intuitive. Why would we export waste at cost to other countries, for those countries to benefit from the renewable energy produced from the controlled utilisation of that waste; whilst still agreeing to the continued import of fossil fuels to Northern Ireland? Where is the climate and environmental sense in that? 

There are moral and environmental imperatives that society should deal with its waste management issues close to where they arise. Too often we see images of waste washing up on foreign shores far from the place it originated. Yet those who argue against this proposal are more than happy for the alternative to be the shipping of our waste to similar facilities in Scandinavia, the United States of America and potentially landfill further afield.  

For Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council the negative influence of external commercial actors was focused through a small number of elected representatives onto the council as a whole. The reputational damage is significant and it’s clear that for a number of individuals more direct intervention by the ombudsman, when it was first recognised that they were acting on behalf of external commercial actors, would have assisted the council in open and transparent decision-making. 

Nicola Mallon’s decision does not solve our waste management crisis, new landfill development is not an option bringing with it significant environmental and health consequences. An ever-decreasing range of options brings increased cost especially for local ratepayers. Her statement on the refusal states that she does not see “a need for this specific facility”,  effectively creating a policy vacuum in the management of waste in Northern Ireland with the absence of a detailed assessment of what she personally would accept. But there are other far reaching consequences. 

We have witnessed multi-billion pound companies trying to invest in Northern Ireland to provide us with the infrastructure we need to grow as a society and we have watched as many have turned and walked away in sheer frustration at the investment hurdles that we present to them. Any company seeking to invest wants to know that there is an open and transparent process that is fair, whether in procurement or in planning. What Mark H Durkan and Nicola Mallon have shown is that no matter how robust and open the planning system is they are not bound by it. They are instead bound by other factors, in this case electoral, while Nicola’s personal interests are satisfied, there won’t be a company interested in capital investment in Northern Ireland if, after many years of preparation and meeting all of the requirements of planning regulations, the ultimate decision comes down to someone who is bound by none of them. If it is the case, that ministers are not required to follow the same rules and regulations citizens and companies are required to follow when coming to a decision then what, beyond electoral interests, might future inducements be to take a decision one way or the other. 

Rates update

Following on from my rates blog focussing on the crisis in Mid and East Antrim Borough Council I decided to check how council was dealing wi...