Robert McCracken QC, in conjunction with Friends of the Earth, has warned that Ministers have been acting illegally in allowing housing developments in areas where the sewage systems are below European standards and do “not comply with the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive”.

“It fetters the discretion of the Environment and Heritage Service and in such a way that it cannot fulfil its statutory obligations. It is in breach of Article 10 of the EC Treaty and in conflict with the Northern Ireland Act 1998,” Barrister McCracken said.

The European Commission sent the British government a formal warning after Friends of the Earth complained about what they called breaches of European law over sewage treatment in the province.

Friends of the Earth claim that places like Bangor should cease all development as it has no sewage infrastructure in place at all, while other figures show that only 35% of the entire sewage system in Northern Ireland actually met European standards so could not cope with any new demand.

The policy of allowing housing development despite inadequate sewage facilities dates back to October 2002 when the then Environment Minister, Dermot Nesbitt MLA, instructed the Environment and Heritage Service not to object to planning applications on grounds of sewage pollution. This policy has been continued by Direct rule minister Angela Smith MP, FoE says.

“The message to government is clear – it has been acting illegally for over two years. We are calling on the Minister, Angela Smith, to conduct a full review of a policy that her Department now knows to be illegal. We expect this to result in a moratorium on development in those areas most at risk from sewage pollution,” said John Woods, Northern Ireland Director of Friends of the Earth.

In total the Department of Environment published a list of 56 ‘hotspots’ where development should be put on hold until sewage works can be built.

“It is a poor reflection on Ministers that Friends of the Earth have had to go to the lengths of seeking a legal opinion in order to force government to stop allowing uncontrolled sewage pollution. The environment and public health must now take priority over the ambitions of the construction industry,” Mr Woods added.

By David Hopkins

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