A Northern Ireland council has already spent almost £1m in an ongoing legal battle with a government department.
Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council last year launched legal action against the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) in relation to issues around the erection of a wind turbine at a historic site in Co Down.
The Sunday Independent has learned the council has so far paid £940,000 in legal costs in connection with the case.
A Stormont committee which oversees the spending of public money recently said it was “incredulous” at the costs being run up in the case between the two public sector bodies
The dispute centres around planning issues in connection with the construction of the turbine beside a 5,000-year-old Neolithic burial site at Knock Iveagh outside Rathfriland. The site was also used for the inauguration of early medieval kings.
Planning permission for the turbine was granted in 2013 by the Department of the Environment (DoE), which was then in charge of planning decisions in Northern Ireland.
Planning powers were transferred to the 11 new councils set up in 2015 as part of the Review of Public Administration in Northern Ireland.
Despite strong opposition from heritage organisations and a local campaign group, the turbine was erected at Knock Iveagh in 2017. Heritage experts had not been consulted about the original turbine application.
The Historic Monuments Council, which is an advisory body to the Northern Ireland Executive, said the planning process around the erection of the turbine was “seriously flawed and inadequate on a number of grounds”.
In 2020, the council decided to formally request that the DfI, which took over the functions of the DoE in 2016, revoke the planning permission and take down the turbine. The council also wants the department to pay any compensation required to the turbine owner if it is removed.
However, it is understood the DfI argue the responsibility for the matter, and any claims for compensation, rests with the council.
The council lodged papers in the High Court last year seeking a judicial review into the matter.
A spokesperson for Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council last week told the Sunday Independent the legal costs in connection with the Knock Iveagh case currently amount to £940,000.
When contacted, the DfI refused to say how much the department has spent on legal costs in the case to date. A DfI spokesperson referred the Sunday Independent to an answer given to Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie following a question at the Northern Ireland Assembly last year.
In November 2021, Mr Beattie asked the Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon to detail the cost of legal advice obtained or retained by her department in relation to the Knock Iveagh wind turbine from September 2017 to date.
In response, Ms Mallon said the Departmental Solicitor’s Office (DSO) Advisory Division does not “hard charge” the department.
However, she said: “DSO Litigation Division, which has been engaged by the department since February 2021, does hard charge. The department has been invoiced in the sum of £1,075.42 to date. Some billing remains outstanding. The Department has also engaged the services of counsel, however no fee note has been submitted yet.”
The DfI spokesperson said that since the Knock Iveagh case is the subject of judicial review proceedings currently before the court, it would “not be appropriate for the department to comment at this time”.
Last month the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which scrutinises public spending at the Northern Ireland Assembly, published a report into the planning system in Northern Ireland.
In the report, the committee said they were “particularly alarmed” by the case at Knock Iveagh.
“This is a stark example of where two parts of the planning system are at odds with each other rather than working in the interests of the system as a whole,” the report stated.
“This could and should have been avoided. The Committee is incredulous to learn that the costs of legal action to date, between two public sector bodies, have significantly exceeded what it may have cost to resolve the issue at the very outset.”
In a submission to the PAC in advance to its report being published, a local campaign, Friends of Knock Iveagh, claimed there had been “numerous opportunities to resolve the issues” around the turbine but “no party has been willing to take responsibility or work co-operatively with others to take the necessary action”.
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