Firms offer £350k to unlock Kilkeel harbour development
Firms at Northern Ireland's busiest harbour have offered to pay a £350k bill in an attempt to unlock a multi million pound development.
Business and fishing leaders offered to fund an environmental survey so an expansion plan for Kilkeel can proceed to planning.
They claimed the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) had indicated that it would pay for the survey at the facility which it owns.
They said DAERA then changed its mind.
But DAERA denied that and said it was now looking at how the entire fishing industry here could be supported.
The £36m plan in County Down would see a new outer harbour to accommodate bigger trawlers as well as new slipways and dry dock facilities for marine engineering.
'Cash not available'
DAERA contributed to an initial assessment of the proposal.
But in the Autumn it wrote to say cash for an environmental survey was not available.
It said there was currently no budget for the work and in the absence of a minister it could not sign off on the expenditure.
Industry spokesman Alan McCulla said the harbour plan could double the 1,000 workers currently employed by businesses which use the harbour.
He said DAERA had told the Kilkeel Strategic Partnership Group in 2018 that a request to fund the £350k environmental survey would be agreed.
They had then been told the money would not be forthcoming.
'Jeopardise the future of Kilkeel'
Mr McCulla claimed the reason given appeared to ignore recent advice from the secretary of state that Northern Ireland civil servants could make some decisions in the absence of ministers.
"We cannot allow the DAERA civil servants to jeopardise the future of Kilkeel any longer by refusing us the £350,000," he said.
"Other ports across the Republic of Ireland and in Scotland are seeing multi-million pound investment as fishing and offshore services expand internationally."
The Kilkeel development would help the fishing industry but would also support other companies servicing maritime renewables like off-shore wind farms and doing boat repair and other engineering.
Such work is providing an increasing amount of business around the south Down harbour and is estimated to be worth around £35m a year, broadly equivalent to the income from fishing and fish processing.
A DAERA spokesperson denied the department had promised to fund the environmental survey and said it was now looking at plans for development across the entire industry here.
"This is an important first step, which will help to shape long term plans for the industry enabling it to realise its full potential.
"We plan to conclude this exercise in 2019.
"This will provide a substantive basis for future planning for NI fisheries across all fishery harbours, at a time when the UK transitions into an independent coastal state," the spokesperson said.