North/South Ministerial Council: Inland Waterways

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 10th September 2002.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on inland waterways, held on 26 June 2002 in Belfast.

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

The fifth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in inland waterways sectoral format took place in Belfast on Wednesday 26 June 2002.

Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Carmel Hanna and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive. Mr Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs represented the Irish Government. I am making this report on behalf of myself and Ms Hanna who has approved the report.

The meeting opened with a progress report from the chief executive of Waterways Ireland, Mr John Martin. The Council noted that Waterways Ireland’s budget for 2002 is £23·44 million, and that the Northern Ireland contribution is £3·92 million.

Mr Martin advised that major capital projects on the Grand Canal and the Royal Canal were progressing satisfactorily. The programme of work on the Shannon Navigation had been delayed as a result of planning appeals, but those have been resolved. Progress was also made on upgrading mooring facilities on the Lough Erne and Lower Bann Navigations.

Mr Martin reported that Waterways Ireland has had a series of meetings with user groups, including the Erne Charter Boat Association and the Irish Boat Rental Association. Consultants are currently preparing a marketing and promotions strategy for Waterways Ireland, and several open seminars are planned to give interested parties and the public an opportunity to express their views.

The Council noted that the relevant Departments, North and South, are considering the updated feasibility study on the Ulster Canal to determine the way forward. A public meeting, organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland and the Ulster Waterways Group to raise public awareness of the potential for restoring the Ulster Canal, took place in Monaghan on 12 March 2002 and was attended by more than 200 people. Those attending indicated widespread support for the project.

The Council noted the progress made on the procurement of permanent office accommodation for Waterways Ireland’s headquarters in Enniskillen. Detailed proposals from developers for three separate waterside locations at Ardhowen, Sligo Road and The Brook were subjected to technical and economic appraisal, and it is hoped that the outcome will be announced shortly. Sites have also been identified for new office accommodation for the regional offices in Scarriff and Carrick-on-Shannon. The Dublin office has been established at refurbished premises at Ashtowngate on the Navan Road, and staff transferred there recently.

Mr Martin updated the Council on the current position on the recruitment of staff to Waterways Ireland. To date, 236 staff have been transferred to Waterways Ireland from former departments, which include the Rivers Agency in Northern Ireland. Following open competition, four directors have been appointed for operations, finance and personnel, technical services and marketing and communications, and six other heads of functions have been recruited. Competitions are in progress for other administrative staff, and a number of professional and technical posts have been advertised. The Council was pleased by the amount of interest in the positions advertised — almost 1,500 applications were received for 47 administrative posts. However, it was appreciated that that created a lot of work for staff in Waterways Ireland who have to process the applications.

The Council approved Waterways Ireland’s draft corporate and business plan for 2002-04, which sets out a comprehensive programme of work on a wide range of policy issues, systems development and the proposed works programme. In terms of organisational development, Waterways Ireland plans to set up a policy steering group, a communications unit and a steering group to implement its new targeting social need action plan. An internal audit section will also be established. The corporate plan includes proposals to review health and safety policies and procedures, an assessment of charging policies and a review of navigation by-laws for the waterways within Waterways Ireland’s remit.

The Council approved Waterways Ireland’s equality scheme for formal submission to the Equality Commission, and its New TSN action plan was also approved. The Council noted Waterways Ireland’s annual statement of accounts for 2000, which was examined and certified by the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland and the Irish Comptroller and Auditor General. Those accounts will be published together with Waterways Ireland’s annual report for 2000. The Council agreed to meet again in autumn 2002.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s updating us on the work of the North/South Ministerial Council on this important issue. I am glad to know that progress has been made in several areas. However, it has been more than a year since the Minister advised the House that the updated feasibility study on the Ulster Canal was being considered by the relevant Departments in both jurisdictions. Given the level of public interest in that, can the Minister indicate the extent of the progress made?

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

The feasibility study has been completed. In 2000 it was estimated that it would cost £89 million to restore the Ulster Canal, and that is before taking into account any work to protect the environment and heritage aspects of the canal’s course. The environmental impact statement will be made once we have made the decision to proceed, which we have not done as yet.

Our first task was the feasibility study, which showed a negative economic benefit, in so far as our Department of Finance and Personnel can test such a project. There are wider implications and wider social and economic benefits, which will all have to be considered. It is a large project, and it is actively being considered. However, I cannot say when I will be making the decision about this.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

No specific mention is made in the report of any progress that Waterways Ireland has made on zoning designated areas for different user groups on Northern Ireland’s larger expanses of water, such as Lough Erne and Lough Neagh. I saw quite a horrific thing happen during the summer. Young children, babies and their parents were bathing in an area that was clearly identified for bathing only. Jet skis were roaring among them at great speed, turning and twirling around and creating such dangerous water movement that a local person had to restrain a jet-skier.

There are genuine user groups. I am not coming down on jet-skiers. There is a place for everyone — for cruising, for anglers, for commercial anglers and for water sports. However, they are all coming together. There is potential for a horrific accident. I hope that it does not happen. I hope that Waterways Ireland is tackling the problem. What progress has it made?

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

With regard to zoning and navigational controls at Lough Erne, for example, there is clearly a need to upgrade the by-laws. Waterways Ireland is actively considering that and has discussed the matter with the chief executive of Fermanagh District Council. There has also been discussion with the various district councils along the navigational line of the Lower Bann. There is voluntary zoning on the Lower Bann, which appears to work reasonably well. However, no by-laws are in place. Waterways Ireland is aware that the matter needs to be dealt with and is seeking to do that.

Waterways Ireland’s approach is to try to accommodate all responsible user groups. Mr Wilson gave the example of a dangerous situation in which bathers were in water among jet-skiers. That must be dealt with. Perhaps voluntary zoning is not always appropriate. That is why the by-laws for Lough Erne are being examined. There are no by-laws for the Lower Bann, but their introduction is being considered. That will require widespread consultation.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Northern Ireland’s contribution to the Waterways Ireland budget is just under £4 million, whereas the Republic of Ireland’s contribution is about £20 million. Can the Minister tell the Assembly how that ratio was arrived at?

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

The authority on the northern side of the border pays 100% of capital costs in Northern Ireland, but nothing towards capital costs in the Irish Republic, and vice versa. By agreement, the Irish Republic pays 85% of non-capital costs, and Northern Ireland pays 15%.

The Department is discussing the provision of headquarters accommodation with its counterparts across the border. After a suitable breakdown of, for example, the offices at Scarriff, Carrick-on-Shannon and Enniskillen, it has been accepted that it is inappropriate for Northern Ireland to pay 100% of headquarters capital costs at Enniskillen; nor is it appropriate for the Irish Republic to pay 100% of capital costs for the offices at Scarriff and Carrick-on-Shannon, which are regional offices that have common usage. The agreement is, therefore, that, with the exception of office accommodation, Northern Ireland pays 15% of non-capital costs and 100% of capital costs on its side of the border.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 10:45 am, 10th September 2002

Over 200 people attended a meeting in Monaghan on 12 March. Can the Minister confirm that some of those were involved in tourism? It would be interesting to know that, because if people involved in tourism do not attend such meetings, they should. There is a tourism potential to be realised.

Secondly, 236 staff have been transferred to Waterways Ireland. Many of us feel that that is an excessive number. Can the Minister confirm the full remit, responsibility and workload that Waterways Ireland is tasked to do? Can he also confirm whether 236 staff will be the final number, or whether more staff will be employed?

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

As far as the meeting in Monaghan and tourism representatives are concerned, water-based tourism is very much part of the thrust of Waterways Ireland. Water-based tourism is also very much part of the raison d’être for replenishing old canals that have fallen out of use, and, as I have said many times in the House, it has demonstrated large economic benefits in the Irish Republic, on the mainland and in Europe, where that activity is popular among tourists. Therefore, tourism plays a key role.

Waterways Ireland has set up a section specifically for marketing and communications, under a director who is looking to sell the product at all times. Indeed, through recent consultation between the two tourist boards and the various providers, a booklet called ‘Ireland’s Welcoming Waterways’, was produced. That is a preliminary project as they begin to sell the product. Tourism is very much a part of the picture as far as Waterways Ireland is concerned.

The anticipated complement of staff is 380; it currently stands at 300. For example, there are currently 50 staff in Enniskillen, with an anticipated complement of 70, which is the number of staff required. As far as the remit is concerned, I refer Mr Shannon to the corporate plan, the action plan and the various background documents to Waterways Ireland. However, it is essentially a navigation authority concerned with taking over navigable waters within the island and managing them for users, tourists and the local population.

Although replenishing canals in the Irish Republic is very advanced, virtually nothing has been done in Northern Ireland. Much of the work lies ahead, and I anticipate that much of it will be done in Northern Ireland, not least on the Lagan Navigation and the Ulster Canal.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I take into account Jim Wilson’s points about users and the safety of lakes, although I do not want any groups excluded from either the upper or lower parts of Lough Erne or confined to areas where it is uneconomical for users to travel.

The Minister said that the Council noted progress on procurement of permanent office accommodation for Waterways Irelands headquarters in Enniskillen. What progress has been made? I would have expected a decision much sooner than now. Has real progress been made to allow a decision to be announced shortly, or is some sort of foot-dragging taking place on either side of the border?

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

The process of providing offices in Enniskillen has been ongoing for a couple of years. A development brief for the premises, in which there was a great deal of interest, was issued. A robust process was required to ensure that the decision was the best possible one for the taxpayer and for Waterways Ireland.

We honed it down to three possible sites: Ardhowen, Sligo Road and The Brook. We are now at the next stage — a site has been chosen, and an economic appraisal has been completed. I am satisfied that the process has been robust. The selection has been completed, and we are clarifying the legal position. I will make an announcement when budgetary considerations can be addressed. I have to be certain that we are ready to spend the money when I make the announcement, and I anticipate being in a position to do that in the near future. It would be premature to make an announcement today. The process is completed, but we must be certain that we have the correct answer. We are now ensuring that that is the case.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I compliment the Minister on his comprehensive report and on the steady and sensible progress that has been made on this. I am interested in the potential of inland waterways to attract tourists. The report says that consultants are preparing a marketing and promotion strategy for Waterways Ireland. When will those reports be ready for publication and discussion by the Assembly?

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

It is difficult to give a precise date by which the reports will be ready. A marketing and communication system has been set up within Waterways Ireland under the control of a director, who is specifically tasked with selling the product as a tourist attraction, and he is working closely with both tourist boards. The first brochure, ‘Ireland’s Welcoming Waterways’, has already been published. That is the beginning of the process, but I am not sure when it will be completed. I can find out and write to the Member with details of the precise date for publication. There has been great interest in this, not least from the providers of the cruising craft and so on and from the local authorities around Lough Erne, the Lower Bann, and the canals in the Irish Republic. We consider the matter to be important and urgent and have given it priority.

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

The Minister said that the feasibility study on the Ulster Canal is being considered by the relevant Departments to determine the way forward. Is serious consideration now being given to a reconstruction project for the Ulster Canal and, if so, is there a vague timetable for its delivery?

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

I attempted to relay the position on the Ulster Canal in an answer to a question asked by Mr John Kelly. The matter is being considered, and a feasibility study has been completed. We know the cost of the project, based on prices in 2000. We will have to find inventive ways to fund such a large capital project. The Ulster Canal and Lagan Navigation capital projects should proceed, resources allowing. It is not simply a matter of making a case in the Assembly and then receiving the money in a cheque from the centre. That would not be possible. We must look at other sources, such as public-private partnerships and possibly the reinvestment and reform initiative.

Those matters are being considered, and we take one step at a time. Old feasibility studies on the Ulster Canal have been examined, and environmental scoping has been brought up to date. The last scoping was carried out in 1998. I have been trying for the last couple of years to get close to a position of being able to make a proposal on the Ulster Canal, and we are coming to that point. Members will appreciate that it is a very large project and that we must step carefully.

Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP

I thank the Minister for his report and I welcome it, especially given the employment of 50 people in Enniskillen, which is an unemployment black spot in my constituency. I welcome the upgrading of mooring facilities on Lough Erne, which are needed by tourists and boat owners.

In his comprehensive works programme, will the Minister include an audit of the water quality of the Erne system? I am concerned that there has been a visible growth in weeds along the supposedly navigable and deeper waters. Is the increased growth of eel weed in clear water due to the infestation of zebra mussels? The Republic of Ireland’s report on the water quality in its rivers shows that the headwaters of the Erne are the second most-polluted system in the Republic. Does the Minister have that report to hand?

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

Although water quality is very important, Waterways Ireland has no responsibility for monitoring or policing water quality. That lies with another Department.

Zebra mussels were spread by boats and became widely established in the 1990s. No biological control for them has yet been identified. With regard to such matters as the Ulster Canal, that factor must be taken into account to ensure that the mussels are not carried further into our system.

In respect of Mrs Carson’s other concerns, I am not clear about the water quality of the headwaters in the Irish Republic. I can make enquiries if she wishes, but, strictly speaking, Waterways Ireland is an authority responsible for keeping waterways navigable, and water quality issues are outside its remit.