Ministers broke European law…

THE BBC reports that the Stormont Executive “agreed planning permission for housing, ignoring advice that this would breach European law and cause pollution”. The Executive “favoured the worst possible environmental option when faced with a possible planning clampdown”, and Northern Ireland taxpayers now face paying a massive fine for this breach of European law. Useful background info here and here by FoTE, who brought the case.

  • Got there before me, Gonzo.

    But I’d add a couple of points.

    Yes the power-sharing Executive ignored advice on the options, breached European Law and, if the case continues, we’ll pay for that decision.

    There is also blame, IMHO, to be attributed to the nature of the devolved administration. That allowed individual Ministers, of any particular party, to feel able to hide behind the collective responsibility of the Executive.. and ultimately the Assembly.. safe in the knowledge that, given the power-sharing arrangements, even if it was known that their decsision would cost the rate-payers millions, tribal voting would likely mean that they would not be punished by the electorate.. and the electorate must bear at least part of the responsibility for that.

    And, of course, that initial decision on planning could have been reviewed by the NIO ministers, now in charge, at any point since then.. but they didn’t.

    One additional question – Has the construction industry been lobbying on this? I’d be surprised if they hadn’t.

  • abucs

    I would say that if the electorate are going to vote tribally, no matter what bad decision is made, then that will happen no matter what the structure of the devolved government.
    You can’t legislate against the electorate voting for incompetant politicians.
    Didn’t each executive minister have a committee made up of members of other parties serving under him ? also they had civil servants. Sounds like a cock-up all round. Perhaps they should be on half pay even if they do manage to get back to Stormont.

  • abucs

    “that will happen no matter what the structure of the devolved government.”

    I’d rather not, and I’m sure Gonzo would rather not, take this thread away on a tangent.. but my point was that a structure of government which by its nature further enables individual ministers, and parties, to hide from accountability at the polls, nevermind anywhere else, shouldn’t be adopted in such circumstances.

  • abucs

    Hello Pete,
    forgive me if i’m not reading you right but say if there was a DUP/SDLP co-alition and SDLP made a huge stuff up. Wouldn’t it pay both parties to hide the fact in order to keep the co-alition going ? I would have thought that having all hands on deck would create greater transparency. But i could be wrong.

  • They could try to hide it, abucs.. but it would be in the interests of the other parties to uncover it in those circumstances..

    However, when all hands are seen to be involved, it’s not really in any party’s interest to do that.. much easier to stick to more familiar, tribal, politics.. ad infinitum..

  • abucs

    I see your point. okay, no more tang

  • abucs

    ok, no more tangents.

  • George

    This was raised a long time ago, maybe even on Slugger.

    Northern Ireland has been pumping raw sewage into the sea for years because it won’t cut down on building and doesn’t have the money to build the treatment plants.

    If this was down south people would be looking to see if the local politicians were in the hands of the developers.

    I assume all the parties will now be calling for a major increase in water rates to pay for this infrastructure deficit.

  • Belfast Gonzo


    You’re right, but I don’t think entirely for the right reasons.

    While Ministers have (and need) a fair amount of freedom to act, the nature of collective responsibility in the Executive meant they could hide behind decisions by claiming the cover that cross-party consensus provided.

    I don’t see how a PR-STV election would affect that. The other Executive parties simply wouldn’t attack the particular Minister on a point they had all supported him or her on.

    Thus the political cover is provided across the spectrum.

  • Pete Baker

    Sorry, Gonzo.. I’m not sure where you’re disagreeing with me there..

  • Comrade Stalin


    The government has already increased the rates and is going to introduce water charges and a new rating system; one of the cited reasons is the upgrade of the broken water and sewerage system.

    I don’t know how you can get on a high horse about this, Ringsend only opened a year or two ago (amid stiff protest) and is already at capacity.

  • Belfast Gonzo


    I happily agree with everything up until: “tribal voting would likely mean that they would not be punished by the electorate.. and the electorate must bear at least part of the responsibility for that.”

    Under the system for voting for MLAs, I don’t think tribalism (for want of a better word) makes any real difference. Just querying how you think tribalism affects a ‘tribally immune’ executive!

    All of which (and I know we’re not a million miles apart) points to the need for a credible Opposition within an Assembly. What we had was an Assembly where the Executive was, in essence, beyond criticism.

    Not a good thing for a democracy.

    My point? The Agreement prevented much criticism of Ministers, because of a ‘need’ for ‘cross-community consensus’ on everything. (A ‘cross-community’ compromise system, which, thanks to the convoluted voting system, ignored the opinion of all cross-community parties!)

  • Alan

    Well said Gonzo.

    We need an opposition – not just the Alliance Party. Why can we not have parties sitting in opposition, ready to cut the “government” to ribbons at the first opportunity?

    Some people seem to think that politics IS about kissing babies – as I said to the Opsahl Commission . . .

    Also where is the service element in the civil service if these horrendous decisions are made?

  • Alan

    That was me congratulating Gonzo.


  • Gonzo

    “The Agreement prevented much criticism of Ministers, because of a ‘need’ for ‘cross-community consensus’ on everything.”

    Which was, indeed, the point I made in the comment you agreed with up to my criticism of the electorate..

  • mnob

    Presumably the sites alrady had planning permission and the developers threatened court action and a lot of complaining about unepmployed tradespeople if the permission was revoked.

    Also presumably at the time planning permission was given and/or the land was zoned for development these issues were known and highlighted by the relevant government authority to those involved in making the decisions.

    Good to see that the real costs of greenfield developments are being highlighted and this nonsense of taxpayers subsidising a select handful of housebuilders is coming to the surface.

    Bit rich to blame the Stormont Executive for not bolting the door after the horse had gone.

  • George

    Comrade Stalin,
    “The government has already increased the rates and is going to introduce water charges and a new rating system; one of the cited reasons is the upgrade of the broken water and sewerage system.”

    My issue is that none of the parties in Northern Ireland did a thing about this. I don’t give them any credit for having something forced on them from above.

    This directive was issued in 1991 with different deadlines along the way – the latest coming at the end of 2005. When did a Northern Ireland politician even raise the issue? In England and Wales, water was privatised 18 years ago and the government shelled out 8 billion in the process.

    In NI everyone just kept quiet and has done so ever since.

    My other issue is that this rate payment is probably too little too late. Will the rate increases be able to bring in the 500 million which is probably necessary?

    Leaving aside the lack of infrastructure investment over decades for a moment, another big problem is that lobbying by industry in October 2002 led to a situation where the NI Environment and Heritage Service was told to no longer object to planning permission but instead just alert the
    Planning Service to the environmental issues.

    So basically, it appears the local politicians rather than grasping the nettle then as they knew it was illegal (or going to be once the deadline ran out, everyone else did) instead for some reason decided to side with the developers.

    If this was down south questions would be asked simply because we know what can go on with politicians and developers.

    I was not saying the south had a better infrastructure, although it has spent nearly 3 billion in the last five years on water services and 1.65 billion was allocated for wastewater schemes alone under the NDP.

    Now that you have raised the south, I know they were dragged kicking and screaming into the world of environmental care by the EU and if left to their own devices would have done nothing but which part of the island do you think has taken steps to meet the deadline under the directive?

    Also, money was available for this under EU Cohesion funds. Dublin got 250 million and I would be interested to know how much Northern Ireland secured.

  • crataegus


    The problem is two fold;

    1 30 years under investment in the sewerage infra structure.
    2 A lack of proper coordination between the Planning Service and the Water Service with timed programmes for investment and release of land.

    In addition to this I doubt if many of our politicians are adequately aware of the issues relating to coordinating development, the complexity and need for forward planning in terms of decades rather than years. Health Care, education provision, recreation facilities, libraries, retail, transport etc are all involved.

    This place has been badly run for decades and the point you raise regarding European Funding is a sore point here as we have previously lost out on possible funding due to the attitudes of various administrations in Westminster. Also currently the fragmentation of what was once the DOE also does not assist clarity and ability to co-ordinate.

    This and similar issues highlight the lack of accountability within the Executive, the inadequacies of the structures and need for an opposition. Probably the only people to have been constantly raising this issue have been environmentalists and the Green Party.

    The point you raise regarding developers and politicians may not be an entirely southern phenomena if the rumours circulating have any credence.

    I have always thought there should be a levy on new housing to help pay for the necessary infra structure. If land is rezoned it can jump in value from say £6000 an acre to at least £500,000 and it would seem appropriate if the benefactor contributed some of this gain back.

  • mnob

    I thought the Stormont executive agreed the rates & water rates increase in return for extra funding for NI ? (Am I mistaken or is this something the parties conveniently forget)?)

    Also its interesting to note the comments about the democratic deficit. Its a shame that the GFA did nothing about this and sought to setup a permanent quango (albeit not a ‘unionist’ one but just as dangerous nonetheless).

    This was on the BBC website yesterday (John Simpson) :

    “Looking back on the events of the past year, it is clear that the three different popular votes which were held in Iraq, two elections and one referendum, played a big part in whipping up the violence.

    People who had tended to regard themselves primarily as Iraqis were suddenly forced to focus on the fact that they belonged to a particular group: Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian or whatever.

    The act of voting was as divisive as it was empowering, and the fact that it happened three times in 11 months added to the intensity of the problem. ”

    Sound familiar ? Of course it may be that people here view their ‘religous’ group above their state but the fact that the GFA legistlated a parliament with a sectarian divide was only going to cause more trouble.

    mnob (and it was me in post 16 as well)

  • George

    Abucs4 (or is it Comrade)

    1 I agree but the question in 2006 is how to bridge the infrastructure deficit.
    I don’t expect local politicians who have said nothing constructive on the matter for nearly two decades to come up with anything.

    2. It does appear that none of the main parties in Northern Ireland bothered looking at the issue of water services in any meaningful way and still haven’t.

    The only issue on their agenda is who is going to pay and to distance themselves from any attempt to make the people of NI foot the entire bill.

    In defence, I would also ask why the direct rulers simply ignored the water situation for so long. They must have known fines were on the way from 2006.

    Seems they just wanted water rates as another big stick to hit the place with.

  • crataegus


    One of the reasons for the UK ministers ignoring drainage was simply to minimise expenditure, nothing to do with future big sticks. Do you recall all the fuss about European Funds and if there would be additionally to normal expenditure or part of overall finances?

    It is also worth recalling that in England the government spend considerable sums to improve the infra structure immediately ahead of privatisation. Given that and the gross neglect of successive UK Ministers I believe there is a case to ask for central funding.

    As for local politicians they agreed to Water Charges whilst in office. A right bunch of hypocrites.


    Interesting point about elections, I have often thought we would be better selecting the Assembly members by lottery. A sort of extension of the Jury Service principle. Couldn’t be worse than the lot we have at present or could it?

    Crataegus (not Comrade or Abucs4)

  • Belfast Gonzo

    I think there’s a ‘brown envelopes’ case on at the minute, where, if I remember right, a developer has been accused of trying to bribe a politician (who I think alerted the authorities). Must check the details.

    You’d hope the rest of our public representatives would have the same attitude, but do you remember any other cases? I can’t.

  • George

    “It is also worth recalling that in England the government spend considerable sums to improve the infra structure immediately ahead of privatisation. Given that and the gross neglect of successive UK Ministers I believe there is a case to ask for central funding.”

    I mentioned that England and Wales got 8 billion above. I don’t know exactly what happened in the late 80s but I would assume that the local politicians decided to fight privatisation tooth and nail so missed out on the cash spent in the rest of the UK on upgrading the water system to sell it.

    If this is the case, why should Northern Ireland get funding nearly two decades after its politicians turned it down as part of the privatisation plan?

    I’m not a fan of privatising water but I’m even less of a fan of just sitting there and expecting someone else to pay.

    In 2004-2005, the Water Service in NI received 328 million.
    The Regional Rate was 419 million, with 186 million from the domestic and 233 million from the non-domestic sector.

    Sorry but that simply isn’t enough to pay for water and everything else the regional rate is supposed to pay.

    Also Northern Ireland pays half the local charges that the rest of the UK pays.

  • crataegus


    There has been 30 – 40 years under investment and as has been pointed out on other threads a large portion of Water Service costs are simple maintenance. (Sorry don’t have the figures). The current state of the sewerage system is directly due to the decisions of Westminster Ministers.

    In the eighties I think it was probably viewed difficult to sell off the Water Service in NI and that rather than our illustrious politicians saved us, but because there was not the investment here then does not mean there should not be intervention now. In addition incomes are lower here than most other regions.

    I personally believe rates should be abolished (close the rates office) and be replaced with taxes on usage and income. Tax people on ability to pay (local income tax) and charge for use and in the case of water give assistance for the elderly and poor. In addition tax increases in the value of rezoned land.

    Rates generally are unfair. A neighbour is an elderly widow in her 80s living in the house she lived in for 50 -60 years, its fairly large and therefore has a high rateable value. She pays the same as 3 doors down which has 5 working adults in the family. Increases will fall heavily on people like her who use very little water and not many of the other council services. Such a system can’t be right.

  • crataegus


    Sorry not abucs4



  • George

    you say there has been 30 – 40 years under investment and the current state of the sewerage system is directly due to the decisions of Westminster Ministers.

    NI Finance Minister Ian Pearson says the 50 billion invested in water infrastructure England and Wales since 1990 came from the punters paying for it through higher bills, a 35% increase over inflation up to 2005. He says it is a “myth” that Westminster paid for it.

    He says: “The fact is, that Water Service in Northern Ireland needs up to £3 billion over this decade and the next, to protect public health, meet European standards on water quality and respond to increasing demand. We cannot opt out of these costs and we cannot ask the UK taxpayer to pay for Northern Ireland’s under investment, when they did not pay for the legacy of under-investment in the water service in England and Wales – it was paid for by direct water charges there.”

    Why shouldn’t I believe him?

    The issue of water is interesting because Ireland is so out of line with the rest of Europe.

    Yesterday Dick Roche announced there would be now water charges introduced south of the border so it remains free here. His reasoning was that there were enough local charges.

    Fianna Fail abolished rates in 1979 so all I pay is refuse charges – 269 euros flat rate and 5 euros every time I leave my bin out.
    Recyclables are free and go in a separate bag.

    I don’t want rates reintroduced and can live with refuse charges by usage. The only problem is illegal dumping so I would make it compulsory to pay refuse charges, as in Germany, unless you can prove where you are disposing of your rubbish.

    Pensioners get a disclaimer so don’t pay for the bin south of the border. They pay for the rubbish they put out because otherwise everyone will use their bins.

    “In addition tax increases in the value of rezoned land.”

    I would say tax all property that isn’t your home. It would stop hording by developers.

    Tax on usage of water won’t work because for domestic use the water itself is the smallest cost.