February 2, 2018

Former Department of Environment failed to monitor planning agreement with Belfast City Airport.

The Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman has issued a finding of maladministration against the former Department of Environment for its failure to monitor the numbers of late flights into and out of George Best Belfast City Airport.

An investigation by Public Services Ombudsman Marie Anderson found that although a Planning Agreement between the former Department (now the Department for Infrastructure) and the Airport stated it could only operate late flights in ‘exceptional circumstances’, the Department had no operational definition of the phrase for the purposes of monitoring compliance with the Agreement. In response to the Ombudsman’s enquiries the Department stated that the 3000 plus late flights which took place over a seven year period were all ‘exceptional.’

In the first of her public interest reports since gaining powers to publish in detail findings on complaints received by her Office, the Ombudsman has outlined a series of failures by the former Department, which she believes constituted maladministration

The Ombudsman investigated a complaint brought on behalf of the group Belfast City Airport Watch Limited, which claimed that no action was being taken by the Department in relation to flight arrivals and departures between 21:31 and 23:59.

Mrs Anderson has called on the Department for Infrastructure to issue an apology within one month to Belfast City Airport Watch Limited and to make a consolatory payment of £1000.

She has also recommended that the Department enter into discussions with the Airport with a view to establishing an operational definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’ for use by its staff in the future, and that the Department should formulate guidelines and an administrative framework for the purposes of monitoring late flights into and out of the Airport.

Under the Agreement the Airport was permitted to facilitate ‘delayed’ flights – flights which arrive or depart between the hours of 21:31 and 23:59 – only in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.

The Ombudsman examined correspondence in which the Department said it considered the term to ‘broadly mean out of the ordinary’ and later said it was ‘drafted in non-specific terms to allow for some flexibility in interpretation.’

The Department confirmed to the Ombudsman that the Airport supplied it with information about such flights on a bi-monthly basis, which it then scrutinised.

It confirmed that during the period between when the Agreement had been made in October 2008 and March 2016 there had been 3073 such late flights, all of which it considered ‘exceptional.’

It explained in relation to flights after 21:30 that ‘no extensions have been queried [with the Airport] and no clarification has been sought.’’

Ms Anderson found that the Department’s failure to provide an operational definition of what it meant by ‘exceptional circumstances’ was neither open nor accountable:

“People working in the Airport, those living in the area, the wider public and indeed the Department’s staff who were meant to be monitoring this Planning Agreement should have had an understanding of what was intended by this obligation,” she said.

The Ombudsman also believed that an ‘ad-hoc’ approach to collecting data on late flight movements from 2008 to 2011, rather than on a regular and systematic basis, constituted maladministration:

“Based on all the available evidence, I conclude that from 2008 until November 2011 the Department did not collect data for the purpose of monitoring flight activity. This appears to have started only as a result of correspondence from the Airport Watch group,” she said.

The Ombudsman was critical of the lack of an administrative framework within the Department for monitoring the Agreement and for its failure to keep written records relating to its decisions.

Department officials advised the Ombudsman that information on late flights was carefully considered at internal staff meetings, which included discussions on the times of those flights and the reasons for them. However, no formal records are kept of those meetings.

“There are no written policies, procedures or internal staff guidelines on how the data gathered should be analysed. Further, there are no records of deliberations and consideration of examination of the information provided from 2011 by the Airport to the Department.

These records would provide reasons to explain and justify the Department’s failure to act in relation to this aspect of the Agreement. It was aware that stakeholders had a significant interest in the Airport and must have anticipated that its action (or inaction) would require explanation,” she said.

“In the absence of an operational definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’ and an established framework and procedures on how to analyse the delayed flights data together with evidence of internal deliberations of that data, I conclude that the Department did not adequately meet its responsibilities in monitoring the 2008 Planning Agreement,” said Ms Anderson.

The Ombudsman also found maladministration in the way that the Department failed to thoroughly and fairly investigate the complaint made to them by Belfast City Airport Watch about these issues.

“During their handling of the complaint made by the group the Department did not provide adequate responses to concerns raised. I am satisfied that the group suffered the injustice of time and trouble in bringing their complaint to my Office to obtain an independent investigation of the issues,” said Mrs Anderson.

The full report can be viewed here.