Traffic Congestion (Ballynahinch)

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:15 pm on 30th January 2001.

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Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP 6:15 pm, 30th January 2001

The A24 is one of the main arterial routes through the South Down constituency and passes through Ballynahinch. The majority of those using the road are commuting to and from towns such as Kilkeel, Newcastle, Dundrum and Castlewellan. It is also an important route for those travelling between Lisburn and Downpatrick. The majority of people using the route are not actually going to Ballynahinch. They have to go through the town, and, frankly, they wish that they did not.

The most recent statistics available, which were collected in September 1998, show that 15,000 to 16,500 vehicles pass through Ballynahinch each day.

The only alternative route for people who want to commute from South Down to the Greater Belfast area is to travel via Clough from the south or Crossgar from the north along the A7 through Downpatrick. The problem is that that brings them through the second great bottleneck for traffic congestion in South Down — Downpatrick. As far as the people of South Down are concerned, there really is no alternative to travelling through the bottleneck on the A7.

It is no exaggeration to say that the economic development of a large part of South Down is being severely hampered by congestion in Ballynahinch. Undoubtedly, the situation is going to get much worse. The Ards and Down area plan projects that an additional 7,500 houses will be built in the Down District Council area over the next 15 years. Many of these houses will be built in towns such as Ballynahinch, Newcastle and Castlewellan, which will generate more traffic through Ballynahinch. Even before the plan was published in draft form, planning permissions were granted for the village of Dundrum that will double the number of houses in that small village over the next 10 years. The Department has indicated that it expects traffic growth in Northern Ireland of between 2% and 3% per annum, so even if there were to be no further development, that would have an impact on South Down.

Finally, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is putting tremendous effort into improving tourism throughout Northern Ireland. Newcastle and the South Down coast are important tourist spots and, as tourism grows, it will inevitably lead to further traffic congestion in Ballynahinch. Some of the worst examples of traffic congestion in Ballynahinch can be seen on summer weekends when many people try to make their way through the town to go to their caravans or to the seaside for leisure activities. In peak hours the town is extremely congested.

I appreciate the fact that the Minister will be sitting through this entire debate, given that he has already sat through the last one. He has obviously come briefed to answer the questions I will be raising, unlike other Ministers who would rather have their tea than come to listen to subjects being discussed that are relevant to their Departments. The Minister has also written to me promising that he will visit Ballynahinch, and I know that all the district councillors there will be very keen to meet him and point out the problems that congestion is causing for the town.

During the morning rush hour in Ballynahinch it is not unusual for traffic to be queued right back to the junction with the road to Downpatrick, the B2. If the Minister were to visit Ballynahinch between 5.30 pm and 5.45 pm, he would find the traffic tailed back to Carlisle’s garage, or it may even tail back to the junction with the Saintfield Road, the A21. Unless hon Members have had experience of sitting in such queues, it is very difficult for them to understand how frustrating it is for people who are trying to get home.

This is having a dramatic impact on trade in Ballynahinch because many shoppers refuse to go there; because of the delays, they go elsewhere. It is simply not worthwhile sitting in a queue of traffic waiting to get through the town to go shopping. That has a knock-on effect on the town of Newcastle. Many people are dissuaded from going there because they know that no matter what way they travel, they are going to face a traffic bottleneck.

For the people who live in Ballynahinch — fortunately, people still live in the centre of the town — the environmental impacts are significant. In addition to the obvious noise and congestion, exhaust fumes cause pollution. The environmental impact of the large number of vehicles travelling through the town makes life unpleasant for the residents.

The Minister is aware that there is a simple and obvious solution to this problem, and it is summed up by one word — "bypass". A bypass should be built to take traffic around Ballynahinch. A bypass from the junctions of the Castlewellan Road and Downpatrick Road with the main Newcastle Road, sweeping around the town to come on via the Crossgar Road to the Belfast Road, would eliminate a huge proportion of the congestion in Ballynahinch.

Unlike other congested areas in Northern Ireland, in Ballynahinch the land for a bypass is available. There is no problem with land acquisition. Not only is the land available, but there would be almost unanimous support for a bypass among the Ballynahinch community. It would not be another Twyford Down situation where people would be chaining themselves to the bulldozers or camping out in trees. The people of Ballynahinch want a bypass and would give the Minister full support when he came to cut the ribbon.

The projected cost of a bypass is in the region of £5 to £6 million. That is not a lot of money compared with other major schemes. That amount is quite small in relation to the overall budget at the disposal of the Minister for Regional Development. It is vital that the bypass be included in the major works preparation pool. There is a list of schemes that, subject to funding — and the Minister is always quick to add that caveat — will go ahead. It is unfortunate that the Ballynahinch bypass does not feature in that programme. Will the Minister explain why the bypass has not been included?

I also ask the Minister — wearing another of his hats — to ensure that when the development plan for Ards and Down goes to the draft stage, the land for the Ballynahinch bypass is clearly zoned and marked on the appropriate map so that there is no doubt as to where it could go. There is a lot of land available but it is important that the route is defined on the map in the area plan. It is also important that that is put into the area plan as a policy so that it becomes imperative upon the Department to ensure that it goes ahead.

I am concerned that when the area plan team recently consulted with the residents of Ballynahinch and Downpatrick they used phrases like "The plan will offer the people of Down district an opportunity to explore solutions to traffic congestion problems in Ballynahinch." The residents of Down district do not want an opportunity to explore congestion; they want the congestion relieved. They want a bypass to take away the enormous problems that the town is facing.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 6:30 pm, 30th January 2001

Does my hon Friend accept that that does not only affect the residents of the Down District Council area? I represent the neighbouring constituency of Lagan Valley, and many people from my constituency travel through Ballynahinch to reach the services that are available in the Down district, particularly in Downpatrick where there is a Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency office, an agriculture office and a planning office. The congestion problems are not solely the bailiwick of people who live in the Down district but also of the people who travel from the Lagan Valley constituency.

Given his comments on the development that is due to take place in the Down area, would the Member consider private finance for that scheme? There may be an opportunity to have builders and developers donate money to get the road scheme off the ground.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I thank the hon Member for his intervention. He is correct. The snarl-up of traffic that exists in Ballynahinch not only affects the Down district, but also those who are travelling to and from Downpatrick or Lisburn. Anyone coming from Lisburn who wants to go to the southern part of County Down is more or less bound to use Ballynahinch.

I am keen to retain services in Downpatrick, and I have asked the Minister a written question about his proposal to remove the street lighting section’s design and consultancy service from Downpatrick. I am keen to ensure that services are not centralised away from Downpatrick to the Greater Belfast area. However, that is a difficult argument to sustain when people say that they would love to establish in South Down but the snarl-up of traffic is a major problem. That is off-putting to employees and potential investors. I think that we have to crack this particular problem.

The third request I make of the Minister is that we gather accurate statistics on the number of vehicles using Ballynahinch town centre. I have quoted statistics collected in September 1998 and there is a great deal of variation between what is claimed by councillors who represent Ballynahinch and by the Department. I have quoted the more conservative figures, but others maintain that the figures are much higher. I understand that the Department has recently gathered more statistics and I made efforts to try to obtain those today, but for some mysterious reason — and I am not suggesting for one moment that anything underhand is going on — those statistics were not available for the debate. I am sure that the Minister will make them available to other Members and myself through a written question that I have tabled to him on this important subject.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has shown an interest in this matter and we are making preparations for his visit to Ballynahinch to see the problem at first hand. He will be met by a very strong cross-community delegation of people with all shades of opinions, who are awaiting his visit with bated breath.

One of the difficulties with Ballynahinch is that unless you live in the area and have to travel to South Down and back on a regular basis, you will not be aware of the problem. However, once you have experienced it, and once you have had the privilege of waiting for 40 minutes to get through the town on a wet winter’s night, you will know just how great a difficulty this is. I am saying to the Minister that £5 million or £6 million will not put a huge hole in his capital programme, but it will do an awful lot to make life much better for the people of South Down.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

The plight of the people of Ballynahinch is very real every day. It is so obvious that even a passing motorist would see it — and, as Mr Wells has outlined, a passing motorist would have plenty of time to see it because he would be sitting there for many minutes.

The people of Ballynahinch face that ordeal daily — the ordeal of serious traffic congestion, which creates great disruption to their lives. There is constant and increasing pressure from heavy vehicles — some huge transporters — on what is, essentially, a fine old market town with many good historic buildings, and I would like to return to that particular aspect a little bit later.

Consequently, I am very disappointed that again there is no provision for a ring road for Ballynahinch, or indeed any scheme earmarked for South Down, in the Department for Regional Development’s recently published preparation pool for planning. We have lobbied long and hard for road improvements, and the Minister has replied to several of my queries on this issue.

I am not sure whether the historical background to the situation in South Down, and in Down district in particular, is fully appreciated. Members might be interested to know that the old Down County Council had a very parsimonious attitude to road development. Consequently, they would only enter into schemes they had the money for, whereas other county councils would borrow money and keep the schemes going. The result was that Down, as a county, had difficulty catching up with modern road improvements.

All those points about the development of roads in our district were put together by Down District Council in a thorough presentation that has been with the Department for some time. The council’s report should be examined again, and we should consider the effects of the road infrastructure deficit. The Minister recently agreed to receive a cross-party delegation from Down Council on the issue. I hope that sympathetic consideration will be given to our plight.

Today we are talking particularly about the bypass at Ballynahinch. I thank Mr Wells for bringing the matter before us. It is obvious that he has learned much about the difficulties that we face in the Ballynahinch area. The bypass is an absolute necessity. The present situation poses a serious threat to the social and economic future of our area. It is not just a bottleneck: it is a noose around the economic neck of the district south of Ballynahinch.

The problem is all the more significant because of the effort and resources that have been put into promoting tourism in the area south of Ballynahinch, particularly the greater Newcastle area. We have a ridiculous situation in which one arm of Government is trying to encourage economic development through tourism, while another arm constricts that development with an inefficient road system. The most important thing in tourism marketing is giving customers easy access to attractions. If families are forced to sit in the car on a hot summer’s day, while the traffic moves slowly through Ballynahinch, they will hardly be encouraged to return.

Statistics show that Newcastle and its hinterland depend not just on Edwin Poots’s people coming on official business — I agree with him that there are many such people — but on day trippers who come from Lisburn, as well as Belfast, into the area. The situation must be experienced if it is to be appreciated; I think that Jim Wells made the same point. The problem is there any day during peak times, but during the summer the amount of Sunday traffic in Ballynahinch is unbelievable. There are tailbacks of many miles in the morning and the evening. We talk about joined-up government, but we need to get our act together and make sure that investment in tourism is matched by investment in the roads.

I mentioned my concern about the effect on the busy historic market town of Ballynahinch. A recent survey revealed that 15,800 vehicles travelled through the town in one 24-hour period. The Minister provided me with that information some time ago. If one compares the daily traffic figures for Toome, these are not that far away. I do not wish to mention that in particular, knowing your interest there, Mr Deputy Speaker — but why not? And yet, by general acclaim, there is a necessity for a ring road there. Why are we not getting the attention that we need in the Ballynahinch area?

I recognise the attempts by the Department for Regional Development to help the situation. Some of those have been imaginative. Everybody would agree that the most recent — the one-way system — has helped traffic circulation and the general traffic flow. It has not cured the problem, and it has created problems of pedestrian access and road crossing — but it has improved the overall situation. However, it does nothing to address the noise and air pollution mentioned by Jim Wells. That inevitably results in a deterioration in the quality of life.

The stability of the old buildings is another issue, and I do not exaggerate when I draw attention to that. From experience, Members will know that road hauliers are using larger and larger trucks to transport their goods. When these large vehicles come thundering through the narrow streets of Ballynahinch, the effect on old buildings is bound to be serious. I make this point in connection with the excellent work done by the Ballynahinch Regeneration Company in its attempt to restore the quality and fabric of the town centre. We should all pay tribute to those people who give up so much of their time to try to improve things. Battling against the odds, they have been very successful. If it is for no other reason than to assist and encourage the efforts of such a group, we should be able to persuade the Minister and his Department to do something to help with this roads problem.

It is unfair to ask this one town to bear the brunt of this whole heavy demand. I believe — as does Down District Council, unanimously — that the only real solution is to direct traffic away from Ballynahinch by way of a ring road.

I urge the Minister, in the light of our plea today, to re-examine his decision not to include this scheme in the forthcoming work preparations pool.

With regard to the excellent point made by Jim Wells, the land is available for this, and it is estimated to be at a reasonable cost. It is also clearly outlined on a map in the possession of both the planners and the Department for Regional Development. It has been earmarked as a possible route. There is therefore nothing to prevent this project from going ahead except two very important things— the will and the finance.

Photo of Mr Mick Murphy Mr Mick Murphy Sinn Féin 6:45 pm, 30th January 2001

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support Jim Wells in bringing this matter to the attention of the House. It is a timely debate. I congratulate the Minister for attending this evening to listen to three people speaking on the subject. I appreciate his coming, and I hope that other Ministers will take a leaf out of his book.

The traffic flow scheme currently in place in Ballynahinch is incapable of coping with the level of traffic going through the town, and it causes the greatest inconvenience. The town is further brought to a halt, and is chaotic, each Thursday when the market-day traffic arrives.

My concern is that this not only hampers business, but is a serious risk to people’s safety. With a population of approximately 6,500, Ballynahinch is entitled to an adequate traffic flow scheme to ease the current congestion and put an end to serious disruption. The problem is detracting from the positive appeal of the town, as people do not want to come to Ballynahinch to sit in traffic jams.

I am sorry to hear that Ballynahinch is not in the Department’s plan for improvement, and I hope that the Minister will give the matter further consideration. A range of options are open, the simplest of which is to create more parking spaces. That would help the flow of traffic. However, that is only a short-term policy. A more thorough proposal would be to provide a bypass, as mentioned by Mr Wells and Mr ONeill. That would increase the number of vehicles and provide better access to the business community.

I propose that in looking at this plan the Minister should consider the reinstatement of the rail link from Belfast to Newcastle. That would be an alternative to a bypass and would be a great help to the town of Ballynahinch. It would also relieve the traffic congestion on the Saintfield Road to and from Belfast in the early mornings and evenings.

What about the tourist traffic into Newcastle in the summer months? I am sure that each and every one of us has experienced at some time or another sitting for perhaps an hour or two hours in the traffic into Newcastle. That includes people coming to and from their business. It has to be experienced for one to fully realise the problem.

My proposal for reinstating the rail link would not only ease that traffic problem but also be of benefit to the businesses of Ballynahinch and Newcastle, help the flow of tourism and also help the environment.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

I am happy to respond to and deal with the issues raised.

Ballynahinch is a town on the highway network formed by the intersection of the A24, which runs north/south between Belfast and South Down, and other routes which traverse County Down in an east/west direction, for example, Lisburn to Downpatrick. Ballynahinch is a market town that serves a large rural hinterland and, like many others in Northern Ireland, has grown in size and population in recent years.

The traffic moving into and through the town has also increased significantly. It is generally acknowledged that at certain times of the day and week, drivers have experienced delays in approaching and travelling through Ballynahinch. This situation has existed for some time, with traffic progression frustrated by both the very large seasonal fluctuations, generated mostly by summer traffic destined for Newcastle, and the interaction of through and local traffic. It is further exacerbated by the presence of a number of secondary schools and on-street car parking.

In recognition of the traffic management problems in Ballynahinch, in 1996 Roads Service developed a strategy of short-, medium- and long-term objectives to improve traffic conditions in Ballynahinch. A review of waiting restrictions in the town centre was undertaken and modifications introduced to overcome localised problems caused primarily by on-street parking. A feasibility study of a one-way system around the town centre to improve traffic progression was assessed and the local community received the proposal favourably.

Following completion of the necessary statutory procedures and construction work, the one-way traffic system was introduced in the town centre in March 2000. I understand that this scheme has been reasonably successful in improving traffic progression and reducing queue lengths. I acknowledge Mr ONeill’s comments in that respect. I hope that everyone who is local to the area agrees that congestion has at least been reduced by the introduction of the one-way system.

Statutory procedures are currently ongoing for the introduction of noise pollution measures to eligible residential properties along the line of the one-way system. Concerns have been expressed about the speed of traffic using the one-way system and the implications for road safety. Of course, that would be when there are not massive tailbacks on the road. However, the accident records available for Ballynahinch indicate that in the three months prior to the introduction of the one-way system, three traffic accidents resulting in personal injury occurred, while in the six months since the introduction of the system, there has been one such accident. It is acknowledged that at off-peak times, the one-way system does increase opportunities for speeding.

It is the opinion of Roads Service that the one-way system offers traffic management benefits in the medium term, but that ultimately these will be reduced by the continuing growth in traffic volumes. The long-term aim for traffic management in Ballynahinch is for the construction of a bypass to remove through traffic from the town centre. As Members will be aware, Roads Service has, for a number of years, considered the provision of a bypass for Ballynahinch. At this stage, a detailed design of the proposal has not been undertaken, but an indicative route to the eastern side of the town has been identified. As has been said, the proposal for the bypass was contained in the Roads Service six-to-15-year major works programme while that was the policy of Roads Service.

Since the introduction of the major works preparation pool in July last year, there is an intention to consider schemes for inclusion in what is considered as the forward planning schedule for major road schemes.

At this point I wish to refer to the remarks made by each of those who have spoken regarding the Ballynahinch bypass and its position, or lack of it, in respect of its being considered by Roads Service. As I said, the forward planning schedule is being considered, and the Ballynahinch bypass will be seriously considered for inclusion in that schedule.

Although traffic volume is not the only criterion for consideration, or justification for such a bypass, the volume of traffic currently travelling through Ballynahinch is estimated to be approximately 15,000 vehicles a day, and the Roads Service has assessed that approximately 10,000 of those would use the bypass. That is the passing-through traffic, which is travelling north/south.

I would like to refer to the figures that Mr Wells mentioned. There appears to have been confusion in some of the local press in the South Down area regarding the figures. Obviously, I cannot be responsible for those who take figures that are given to them and then put a construction upon them. The figure that was supplied to Mr ONeill is the figure that Roads Service currently has available to it, namely 15,000 vehicles a day. Some of the South Down newspapers mentioned a figure as high as 30,000 vehicles. It would appear, however, that there were a number of roads for which a series of numbers of vehicles a day was given, and that — and I could not possibly accuse someone of using journalistic licence — someone has added the total users of various roads together and assumed that 15,000 on one road and 15,000 on another may have meant that 30,000 vehicles were going to be using the bypass.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP 7:00 pm, 30th January 2001

I accept the hon Member’s point. Does he accept that the figures I quoted of between 14,900 and 16,400 are similar to what he is suggesting? Mr ONeill’s recent figure is also in the same ballpark. That being the case, traffic going through Ballynahinch town centre is on a par with other areas in the preparation pool. People in South Down want to know why Ballynahinch is outside the preparation pool when other similar — or less deserving — cases are being included.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

I thank the Member for his comment. I referred to the numbers not because Mr Wells or any other Member had mentioned the higher figure, but a glance at local newspaper coverage of the Ballynahinch bypass issue indicated that the figures have been misunderstood. Mr Wells’s and Mr ONeill’s figures, and those mentioned in the House, are accurate, broadly speaking. The number of vehicles is approximately 15,000 per day. Mr Wells and the other Members are correct in saying that Ballynahinch ought to be considered.

I repeat what I said earlier: the forward planning schedule for major road schemes is currently being considered and the Ballynahinch bypass will be considered seriously. The schedule has not been prepared yet and the bypass has not been excluded from it. Until we see the final schedule, no road is automatically included. When the final schedule is available it will be clear which schemes are in and which are not.

When a scheme such as the Ballynahinch bypass is considered, it — like all other schemes — is measured against five criteria as outlined in the ‘Moving Forward’ transport policy statement. These are integration, safety, economy, environment and accessibility. On that basis, a cost-benefit analysis will be carried out. The South Down representatives will say that Ballynahinch scores highly on each of these criteria. My problem as Minister for Regional Development is that almost every other scheme for which there are campaigns will also score highly. That is a problem I will have to consider.

There will also need to be consideration of the scheme in the context of new Down and Ards area plans which are currently being developed.

The standard of design that the Roads Service would consider appropriate would be for a single carriageway construction approximately 3·5 km in length. At the moment, building costs for that would be approximately £5·5 million. The issue of cost was raised and it was referred to as a comparatively small amount. I can understand why Members would consider £5·5 million to be a comparatively small amount. If I did not have a whole series of road schemes to build, all of which would individually cost a comparatively small amount, my task would be easier.

In introducing the one-way system last year, the Roads Service was keen to provide pedestrian facilities in the town. This was done in two particular areas when the scheme was introduced. However, due to further pedestrian demand an additional pelican crossing was provided at the leisure centre on Windmill Street on Friday 26 January 2001. A further pedestrian refuge will be provided at the Windmill Street/Harmony Road junction, close to a large new store. I hope and trust that this will be of benefit to the pedestrians in Ballynahinch and will also enhance road safety.

Of course, I am always keen to build and improve the infrastructure in Northern Ireland. Most obviously, this can be done through improvements in the road network. However, as my predecessors and I have made clear on many occasions, that has to be achieved through a finite budget. In his closing comments Mr ONeill said that the two things that were required were the will and the finance. I can assure him that the will is here and will continue to be present.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

I am about to conclude.

As everybody in this Chamber knows, I have been awarded a roads budget — effectively for year one, and indicatively for years two and three — within which I have to try and deliver road schemes. You could argue that that has no direct impact on Ballynahinch, as it is not currently in the five-year building programme. However, the schemes currently in that programme have a higher priority than Ballynahinch. That would not change if delays were imposed on the earlier schemes. The knock-on effect would mean that there would be delays right down the line. As I have said on many occasions, to build roads I need the appropriate level of funding. I hope that Members remember that when they next have an opportunity to consider budget levels.

I understand the frustration faced by those in the Ballynahinch area and those who wish to travel through it, and I will repeat the remarks made during the debate. The will is most definitely there in respect of Ballynahinch — the finance is something that I have to negotiate and argue for. I hope and expect to receive the support of Members in endeavouring to obtain the necessary finance.

Adjourned at 7.12 pm.