Before the Assembly rose for summer recess, the Minister for Regional Development presented his Department’s 10-year regional transportation strategy (RTS) to the Assembly. I participated in that debate, broadly welcoming the RTS and its many positive aspects, which, if implemented, would improve the transportation infrastructure of Northern Ireland. However, there was insufficient time to address aspects of the RTS relating to the West Tyrone constituency, in particular the upgrading and maintenance of A-class roads.
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)
It is not the purpose of the debate to castigate Roads Service, which has had to make do with limited resources and has completed several worthwhile schemes in the Omagh District Council and Strabane District Council areas designed to calm and relieve traffic congestion. The intention is to discuss flaws in the RTS in relation to West Tyrone’s A-class roads, and to contribute to the wider debate on the future of the transportation infrastructure in that part of Northern Ireland.
The issue is important because it raises questions about the Department’s commitment to social justice and equality in border constituencies such as West Tyrone, and to balanced sustainable development across Northern Ireland. It also raises issues about the Department’s commitment to working with the National Roads Authority in the Irish Republic and the need to achieve a truly integrated transportation network on the island. Therefore, despite its many positive aspects, there have been serious omissions from the RTS, particularly in relation to A-class roads, an issue of concern to many in West Tyrone.
Geographically, West Tyrone is the largest of the constituencies, with a population of over 140,000. In terms of transportation infrastructure, the constituency is totally dependent on roads due the non-existence of a rail network. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the condition of roads to the social and economic life of the constituents. West Tyrone is served by the A5, the main arterial route and a designated trans-European network (TEN) route that runs between Ballygawley and Derry and passes through the towns of Omagh, Newtownstewart and Strabane. It also has two further A-class roads; the A32 connecting Omagh to Enniskillen, and the A505 that runs between Omagh and Cookstown.
I welcome the importance attached by the RTS to such TEN routes as the A5, which are essential to European integration, economic prosperity and generating employment. The TEN routes have an important role in ensuring the free movement in the European Union of goods, services and people, which reinforces social and economic cohesion.
I welcome the work currently being carried out on the A5. That includes stage 2 of the Strabane bypass, the Newtownstewart bypass and stage 3 of the Omagh throughpass, which has fallen in the list of priorities since the Chancellor’s 1998 initiative and awaits the completion of the remaining statutory procedures before construction can begin.
I am, however, disappointed that the A5 TEN route, although one of the five designated key transport corridors in the RTS, may not get the capital investment necessary to upgrade it to dual carriageway standard. West Tyrone has not a single mile of dual carriageway or motorway. The RTS proposes to widen the A5 only at selected points. Those are merely gestures, and the road between Omagh and Ballygawley remains treacherous. The recognition of the A5 as a key transport corridor in the RTS will remain an illusion if the necessary capital investment is not made to upgrade it.
Currently the A5 is a 7·3-metre-wide single carriageway, and it is inadequate for the volume of traffic it carries. Furthermore, it makes a mockery of the RTS objective of decreasing public transport journey times. That is unacceptable, given the importance of the route to West Tyrone’s local economy and the need to facilitate cross-border trade via the N2 in the South. In the common chapter of the Northern Ireland structural funds plan and the Republic’s National Development Plan 2000-06, the co-ordination of transport planning and construction is a key area for co-operation. If we are to develop a socially-inclusive economy in Northern Ireland, we must invest in transportation infrastructure which is safe, accessible and integrated on an all-island basis.
Madam Deputy Speaker — I am sorry if I earlier called you Mr Deputy Speaker — in the RTS there is no reference to the A505 and the A32 roads in West Tyrone, and I draw the attention of the House to that. The condition of both roads is unacceptable, since they are the main routes between three major towns. That the RTS contains no proposals for upgrading those routes is a glaring omission. The A32 between Omagh and Enniskillen is frequently used by ambulances, often in emergencies, to take patients to the Erne Hospital’s maternity unit. The A505 between Omagh and Cookstown is used by road haulage traffic travelling to the port of Larne.
I do acknowledge the great improvement to the A32 at Dromore with the new inner ring road which was completed last year.
Ignoring those roads is contrary to the principles of balanced regional development across Northern Ireland and the stated objective of the regional development strategy, the RTS’s mother document, to achieve a modern, sustainable, safe transportation system which benefits society, the economy and the environment and which actively contributes to social inclusion and to everyone’s quality of life.
It is essential that these routes be upgraded, for safety reasons as well as for economic ones. The RTS highlights the fact that Northern Ireland has the highest number of road deaths — more than in any other region of the UK. Both the A505 and the A32 are hazardous in many areas. Their narrowness effectively reduces the maximum speed to around 40 mph. Many road traffic accidents in rural areas can be attributed to that narrowness, and many people have lost their lives unnecessarily or have been injured.
That brings me to the matter of the maintenance backlog of West Tyrone’s A-class roads, which received only 9% of the Department for Regional Development’s spending on road maintenance during 2001-02. The RTS recognises that it is essential that the roads network receive substantial investment to upgrade key routes and to deal with the massive maintenance backlog, which is particularly acute in rural areas. For example, in the Omagh and Strabane districts the most recent figures, from a survey carried out in 2001, reveal that the maintenance backlog on A-class roads totals almost £8·5 million.
It is totally unacceptable that the amount required to address the maintenance backlog is more than twice the total funding of £4·126 million that has been allocated to major capital works, minor capital works and road maintenance during the same period in those district council areas. That situation cannot continue, and I ask the Minister to take the necessary action to clear up the road maintenance backlog in the Omagh and Strabane District Council areas.
Successful regional transportation strategies are based on a close relationship between the improvement of transportation infrastructure and economic development. The provision of an accessible transportation infrastructure is a key factor in attracting new inward investment, the siting of new industry and the survival of indigenous firms. Transport costs have a major effect on the profitability of many businesses, especially the food and textile industries, in west Tyrone. Therefore, the uneven development of Northern Ireland’s transportation infrastructure increases the economic disadvantages experienced by peripheral border areas.
For many years, my party has expressed its grave concerns about the lack of a co-ordinated and balanced approach to the development of the region’s road infrastructure. Unfortunately, those of us who live in rural areas have tolerated inadequate roads for many decades. The historic underinvestment in west Tyrone’s road network continues to have a detrimental effect on the area’s ability to generate further economic growth and employment.
In 1964, Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs stated that the continuation of the motorway to Derry, and the upgrading of the routes from Omagh to Enniskillen and Omagh to Derry, would be a priority. Of course, aside from piecemeal improvements, that did not happen. Now that we once again have locally elected Ministers and the opportunity to, as the Programme for Government states, "make a difference", it would be a tragedy were we to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The need in my constituency does not stop at road maintenance. West Tyrone needs a transport system, albeit road-based, that is capable of supporting social and economic development.
Thank you, Deputy Speaker — to avoid Mr Byrne’s problem, I left out the terms "Madam" or "Mr".
Although I support Mr Byrne’s comments, I am mindful of the investment that we have seen in west Tyrone, and I thank the Minister for it. We are also aware of proposed future investment. The main tenet of Mr Byrne’s Adjournment debate is that, although we welcome that investment, we realise that the bulk of the capital will, necessarily, be spent on one route. I thank Mr Byrne for joining me in highlighting that, as the Minister knows, the A5 should be a dual carriageway. The Minister is well aware of my views on that route, and I appeal to him that, when roadworks are undertaken on the A5, he should consider allowing land purchase to facilitate its dualling when funds become available.
Yesterday, the Minister stated that he is often hindered by the 30 years of democratic and financial deficit that we were plagued with in Northern Ireland. Members appreciate that and the efforts that are being made to overcome it. It is, however, a great pity that Members from Fermanagh and South Tyrone and from Mid Ulster did not stay to hear the debate, because Mr Byrne mentioned factors that will assist their constituencies when we deal with the Omagh to Enniskillen route and the Omagh to Cookstown route. I congratulate Mr Byrne on bringing those routes to the House’s attention.
I am a little disappointed that the debate has been limited to a discussion of A-class roads. There are so few of them in West Tyrone, and many of our people use the B-class and C-class routes.
Mr Byrne referred to the maintenance backlog: it is a disgrace to see the state of some of our B-class and C-class roads. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the backlog, and I urge him to listen to what Mr Byrne has said and to hear the pleas of the officials in the western division of the Roads Service. That division is pleading for the tools to do the job. That is the main tenet of the motion, and I support it.
I support my Colleagues in bringing pressure to bear on the Department for Regional Development to seriously consider the A5, particularly as it has been designated a trans-European route. I am grateful that the other representatives of West Tyrone have already highlighted the desperate condition of the B-class and C-class roads.
We must bear in mind that the constituency covers a large area: it is over 65 miles long and 49 miles wide. Despite that it has only 55 miles of A-class roads. The other 1,500 miles of road, which represent 95% of the total, are B-class and C-class. In a fortnight, councillors from Strabane and Omagh are joining me to meet the Minister for Regional Development to discuss those roads. This has been a burning issue for many years.
I should like to congratulate the Minister, because for the first time in 30 years the infrastructural deficit and backlog that we suffer in west Tyrone have been recognised. The complaints that I receive in the constituency office refer to the miles of pipe laying that is taking place for the new water mains that are being laid all over the countryside. Many delays are being experienced on the A5 because major road schemes are under construction.
We should recognise that improvements at Magheramason, Bready, Burndennet Bridge, Ballykeel, the Newtownstewart bypass, and the Garvaghy crossroads, as well as the expected Omagh throughpass, are the result of a major infrastructural input. I thank the Minister, because until two and a half years ago, we in Omagh and Strabane lobbied vigorously, but unsuccessfully, for funds. Therefore I recognise that our present Minister is the first to have seriously attacked the infrastructural backlog.
I should also like to thank the Minister and his Department for recognising that the backlog existed and for skewing funds westward. Approximately £850 million will be available over 10 years. However, a significant amount of the money has already been earmarked for many of the major projects I just mentioned.
We must seriously consider improving the A5, because it was designed 40 years ago when the maximum number of axles allowed for a lorry was two and the maximum weight was 18 tons. Nowadays, we struggle to overtake six-axled lorries with 40-ton road weight. At that time, roads were built and engineered to a totally different specification than that required today. Therefore the Minister and his Department face a dilemma as to how to utilise the existing infrastructure. Is a trans-European route to be considered because it is not as costly as a dual carriageway? Throughout the world, the broad four-lane road with two inside crawler lanes used for slower traffic — an old concept — has done away with the massive amount of kerbing. Instead, the reliance is on white lining, directional lines and road signage for road safety. In countries where four-lane roads have been constructed they have proved safe and successful and have increased traffic through-flow by approximately 28%. That is something the Minister and his Department might consider. A four-lane road from Dungannon, with a branch to Enniskillen, to the Maiden City would have to be costed, but would prove to be more cost-effective. The design of the present A5 from Ballygawley to the Maiden City means that about 250 projects would have to be undertaken to improve safety. It would be single carriage each way, which would limit the traffic flow, as it can only proceed at the speed of the slowest vehicle.
It will benefit everyone if we recognise that there is a backlog and that it will take a fair amount of finance to resolve the problem of overworn, dilapidated road systems that we have inherited. The Department has struggled over the past 30 years to maintain those roads, but now the B- and C-class roads are punishing our transport systems. I have been lobbied continuously by the Western Education and Library Board. It is having to change the routes its buses take because it will no longer permit its new fleet to travel some of those B-class roads and all of the C-class roads. The condition of those roads is too sore on the bus system. The private transport sector, which is becoming more involved in the transport of children, has also complained about those roads. My recommendation emanates from those two sources. The construction of a four-lane road, all the way from Dungannon, with one branch to Enniskillen, right through to the Maiden City would cut out many of the major schemes still outstanding. Serious consideration should be given to the suggestion. I thank Joe Byrne for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter.
The deficit was created by 30 years of mayhem and destruction.
We had to replace and compensate; now we are playing catch-up. I am delighted to say that the Minister has made an honourable attempt to give some shape to the future of roads in the west.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate. I disagree that the problems are attributable to the past 30 years. It is more a matter of 80 years of institutional neglect of that part of County Tyrone, dating back to before the 1920s.
This is a useful opportunity to articulate the urgency of improving and upgrading class-A roads in County Tyrone, particularly in the western division area of the Roads Service. County Tyrone’s legacy of underinvestment and the deliberate policy of discrimination practised there have only accentuated its sub-regional peripherality in the North, Ireland as a whole, and Europe. Since the demise of the railways in the 1960s, roads are the sole mode of transportation. This situation places people in the greater north-west at a distinct disadvantage — the debate is more about people than it is about roads. The situation requires commitment from Departments, and from the Department for Regional Development in particular. I acknowledge that the Department has been getting to grips with the road situation in west Tyrone recently. Schemes such as that in Dromore are very positive. Good projects have been carried out, and several are in the pipeline, such as the A32 realignment scheme.
The Minister for Regional Development should look beyond the Assembly for roads funding for the greater north-west, to the European Union, and the Government in the South. He should seek a peace dividend to address our infrastructural deficit. The A5 is a priority requiring major funding to realign the road to accommodate its high usage. It has been identified as part of a major trans-European route that links, for example, citizens in Omagh to Belfast via the A4 and M1, and citizens in Donegal and Derry to Dublin via the A5 and N2. The road carries a great deal of cross-border traffic. I remind the Minister of a question that I asked some months ago, to which he replied. I asked how many miles of dual carriageway there were in County Tyrone.
Funding is required from the Assembly and other political institutions, although I appreciate the financial constraints on the Department. A more holistic approach is needed for the upgrading of the A32, which is the main road from Enniskillen to Omagh, or Omagh to Enniskillen, if someone were so inclined. I appreciate that positive steps have been taken with regard to the Dromore bypass and several realignment schemes. I urge the Minister to dig the channels and make provision for a dual carriageway in the immediate to mid-term future.
The A505 from Omagh to Cookstown is an important route linking the county town of Tyrone with another principal town in Tyrone, and beyond to the M2. The A505 also requires major realignment, not least at an important point known locally as the Seven Sisters.
The cake needs to be made larger in general. I urge the Minister to listen to the combined voices of the councils and the representatives of the people in those areas affected, including Donegal, Omagh, Strabane, Cookstown, Dungannon and Fermanagh.
I wish to make the political point that the Minister should take his seat at the Executive table, because his absence when funds are being distributed is to the detriment of the citizens of west Tyrone.
At the outset I find myself agreeing with many of the points that Members have made, particularly their calls for improvement to the strategic highways in west Tyrone, just as I would for other parts of Northern Ireland.
There can be no doubt that a modern and effective transport system is the lifeblood of any modern society. For that reason I developed my regional transportation strategy, 2002-2012, covering transportation strategy for the next decade. It proposes significant improvements to our roads, buses, light rail and railway infrastructure, and I was delighted when in July 2002 the House unanimously approved the strategic direction of its underlying principles. I stress "unanimously" because, as we have seen today, it is not always that our decisions in the House are unanimous. The strategy identifies the transportation priorities and the investment needed to provide
"a modern, sustainable and safe transportation system over the next 10 years"
— your words, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you endorsed them along with the rest of the House when we passed the regional development strategy for Northern Ireland 2002-2012, the mother of the regional transportation strategy. Such a programme will require significantly enhanced investment, yet the strategy is pitched at a level that can be realistically achieved.
However, I do not wish to leave the impression that west Tyrone has, in any way, been neglected for funding for major road schemes in recent years, and I will review some of my Department’s recent achievements in that area. In the last two years we have seen the completion of the £2·1 million scheme to provide overtaking opportunities on the A5 at Leckpatrick; the provision of the A32 Dromore inner link at a cost of almost £1 million; the £800,000 bridge replacement and realignment scheme at Burndennett; and, of course, the £500,000 widening scheme to provide overtaking opportunities on the A5 at Tattykeel, south of Omagh, which has recently been completed.
I also have to say that west Tyrone is faring reasonably well in major road schemes currently under construction, as was shown by the appreciative remarks of some Members. We are at stage 2 of the Strabane bypass, which will provide 2·6 kilometres of single carriageway, at a cost of £4·2 million, to bypass one of the most congested stretches of the A5. There is also the £8 million Newtownstewart bypass, which will provide just under three kilometres of new carriageway. In addition, stage 3 of the Omagh throughpass, which will complete the throughpass of Omagh at a cost of some £5 million, is going through the statutory procedures.
Regarding trunk roads in west Tyrone I am pleased to be able to make three important announcements today. First, I can tell the House that I expect the Newtownstewart bypass to be completed in November 2002, some four months ahead of schedule. This will be a welcome early boost to motorists on the Omagh to Londonderry road, eliminating the considerable delays to traffic currently experienced at that point.
Secondly, I am pleased to advise that all objections to the direction order for stage 3 of the Omagh throughpass have been withdrawn as a result of the Roads Service’s negotiations with the objectors. This clears the way for us to proceed with land acquisition and brings us a crucial step nearer to starting this important scheme.
Thirdly, I can announce that in the next financial year the Roads Service proposes to construct a further overtaking opportunity on the A5 by widening the section from Ballygawley roundabout, heading north, to three lanes for a distance of approximately 1·3 kilometres. That will again provide better opportunities for overtaking. That proposal will be assisted by the recently announced investment in road maintenance from the reinvestment and reform initiative.
Despite the number of schemes recently finished or in progress in west Tyrone, I assure the House that major work schemes are chosen on an impartial and objective basis with the aim of benefiting Northern Ireland as a whole.
Although a major road scheme on a strategic route may be located in one county or one district council area, the scheme’s purpose is to improve access to locations along the entire route. Mr Hussey made that point to some extent when he stated that he wished that Members from Mid Ulster and Fermanagh and South Tyrone had attended the debate. He recognised that what happens in west Tyrone can affect adjoining constituencies. Equally, what happens in adjoining constituencies can be to the benefit of west Tyrone. There is a recognition that the purpose of the scheme is also to improve access to other locations. For example, the £2·2 million scheme to improve the A4 at Eglish and Cabragh on the main Belfast to Omagh road will also benefit West Tyrone. For this reason it is sometimes misleading to compare spending on major road schemes on a constituency or district basis.
I advise the Member for West Tyrone, Mr Byrne, who is happily smiling at present, not to refer to "only" 9% of the maintenance budget’s being spent in West Tyrone when any of his Colleagues from other constituencies are around. If he multiplies 9% by the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland, he will see that West Tyrone is probably receiving over 50% more than the average would permit. The figure is based on the principle that is adopted fairly by my Department: money goes where the need is. I hope that the Member will recognise that the 9% he mentioned in somewhat derisory terms is recognition that even though West Tyrone contains approximately 5·4% of the total population —
That is one of several factors. If we want to add a few more to the debate, one of the key issues that my Department must consider is the amount of use on any road. That was one of the factors that militated against the west of the Bann generally. It was one of the key reasons for not simply extrapolating over the next 10 years the amount of money that we would put into our regional transport strategy and for determining, even from the draft, that I would have to lift that up. Only by lifting that bar considerably higher was it going to have the spread right across the Province that West Tyrone and the other constituencies west of the Bann deserved.
In addition to the major road schemes over the past few years, the Roads Service has invested a similar amount on minor road improvement schemes across Northern Ireland. The resources available for minor capital schemes are allocated to the four Roads Service divisions and, in turn, apportioned across district council areas on a needs-based priority approach using indicators such as population, weighted road lengths and the number of accidents. As far as possible, that ensures an equitable distribution of funds across the country, and I am satisfied that West Tyrone has received an equitable share of those resources.
Mr Hussey spoke of the feeling among western division staff that if they were given the tools, they could do the job.
I have no doubt that the confidence would be well placed in my colleagues in the western division. Equally, there would be those in the Department for Regional Development who would ask the Assembly for the tools to do the job. We are willing to do all the work required across the Province, but we need the resources to do that. If the Assembly gives unanimous approval to the regional transportation strategy and backs it up with the necessary financial support, the western division will show that it, and the other divisions, will do the job if they are given the tools.
The improvements to the A32 at Lettergesh were completed in May this year at a cost of over a quarter of a million pounds. In addition, the result of the reform and reinvestment initiative bids announced before the holidays in July will give an additional £20 million over the next two years for structural maintenance improvements on the regional strategic transportation network. The Roads Service has already programmed schemes for west Tyrone using those additional resources. They include improvements to the A32 at Clanabogan near Omagh — I hope that I pronounced that correctly for the hon Gentleman — starting in October 2002 and costing £220,000; improvements to the A32 at Lisdoo between Dromore and Irvinestown starting in November 2002 and costing £495,000; and improvements to the A5 at Melmount Road, Strabane starting next year and costing £220,000.
Mr Byrne argued that the regional transportation strategy should have proposed a dual carriageway for the A5, or parts of it, rather than bypasses and overtaking opportunity schemes. Any investment must make economic sense, and the significant capital cost of a dual carriageway must be offset by time savings and other benefits for the traffic-using public. Experience shows that on inter-urban roads the minimum traffic volume that normally justifies the provision of a dual carriageway is about 11,000 vehicles a day. The typical traffic on the inter-urban sections of the A5 is just over 9,000 vehicles a day, and at times that stretches to 11,000 vehicles a day. That barely reaches the minimum threshold where the provision of a dual carriageway could be economically justified.
The Member may want to hear my next sentence. The schemes shown in the regional transportation strategy were for illustrative purposes and to give some idea of what might be delivered by the additional £375 million envisaged for strategic highway improvements across Northern Ireland in the 10-year period. The illustrative map shows several improvements relevant to County Tyrone on top of the schemes already in the programme. Therefore the Member cannot say that there would not be a change to the illustrative case if he had an argument that convinced the Roads Service.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I understand the objective figures he is working with. However, as my Colleagues and I travel to and from Belfast from the western area we are aware of the subjective nature of the traffic encountered. We are dealing with rural and slow-moving traffic, and an economy that is totally dependent on roads. Mr Gibson pointed out that a considerable number of large commercial vehicles use that road and slow down the travel time.
I have given the Member an opportunity to make his point. My officials, who will ultimately make recommendations to me on these matters, have heard the case. Mr Hussey does not have an argument with me, or my Department, about the need for road improvements. If I had not put the illustrative map into the regional transportation strategy, many Members would be asking whether that meant that schemes would go ahead in their areas. We have tried to give some indication of what can be done were £375 million to become available in the way that we have outlined.
I also pointed out that the illustrative map showed several improvements for County Tyrone as a whole, on top of the schemes that are already in the programme, such as selective widening. That scheme will provide further overtaking opportunities on several stretches of the A5, as well as the dualling of the Dungannon to Ballygawley road.
The schemes to be delivered under the regional transportation strategy have yet to be finalised, and will be progressed through three transport plans. Of those, two are relevant to west Tyrone. The regional strategic transport network plan will determine a programme of initiatives that includes strategic highway schemes, and the sub-regional transport plan will do the same for the non-trunk network. The third plan covers the Belfast metropolitan area.
I can assure Members that, in preparing the regional strategic transport network plan, my officials will consult the Committee for Regional Development and elected representatives, and will screen all single carriageway roads on the trunk network to identify those that would benefit most from dualling.
It is only fair to make it clear that the funding for road schemes, or any other element of the regional transportation strategy, is not unlimited. I have already proposed significant increased investment over the 10-year period of an additional £1·37 billion. If it is determined on the basis of analysis and other considerations that any particular route should be improved over and above the illustrative proposals in the regional transportation strategy, it stands to reason that other schemes in the illustrative proposal would have to be withdrawn, or additional funds would have to be found. That is the difficult balance that my officials and I will have to strike.
The single most critical factor in delivering the regional transportation strategy, whether it is for strategic highway improvements, or for better bus services or railways, will be the availability of the significantly increased levels of investment. Therefore I welcome Members’ support for the strategy, and for individual schemes. I hope that that strong support across the House will result in my Department’s being allocated the necessary funding increase in future Budget rounds, whether from normal public expenditure, the reinvestment and reform initiative, or the underwriting of payments related to public-private partnerships. I trust that the investments that I have mentioned for the road network in west Tyrone illustrate my Department’s ongoing commitment to that area in particular, and that the regional transportation strategy, if fully funded, is the way forward for Northern Ireland in general.
Adjourned at 5.08 pm.