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The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. One amendment has been received and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes that public transport is currently underfunded compared to other regions; acknowledges that public transport could reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions, and play a key role in reducing poverty and social exclusion; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to redress the imbalance in public transport and roads spending.
The purpose of the motion is to draw attention to a major imbalance in funding between the allocation for roads and the allocation for public transport. That imbalance carries major consequences for the local economy and the global environment. As the opposition in the Assembly, it is part of my party’s role to identify such fundamental flaws in Government policy. We are committed to rebalancing the economy, and are ambitious to modernise society.
The challenge for the Assembly, and, in particular, for the Minister for Regional Development, is first to recognise the scale of the problem, and then to commence the process of trying to rebalance the departmental budget. Failure to address the problem will only contribute to continuing stagnation.
About two thirds of the transport budget in Northern Ireland goes to roads, with less than a third left for investment in public transport. That is the opposite of the situation in many other countries and regions in Europe, and it is not sustainable.
That imbalance is a legacy of the Northern Ireland regional transportation strategy, which was inherited by the current Executive. However, rather than getting better, the imbalance is set to get worse. Over the lifespan of the current Budget, 70% of transport revenue funding will be allocated to roads, and 30% to public transport.
In the current financial year, in which allocations were set by direct rule Ministers, 60% of capital resources are invested in public transport. That is encouraging, but, over the lifespan of the investment strategy for Northern Ireland, 81% of resources will be invested in roads, and only 19% will be invested in public transport. Investment in transport will move from a ratio between roads and public transport of almost 1:1 in year 1, to 3:1 in favour of roads over the first three years, and then to 4:1 overall. Instead of progressively investing more money in public transport over the 10-year period of the investment strategy, the situation will get worse. That is worrying, and it goes against the trend around the world that recognises the need to address climate change and redirect resources accordingly.
The regional transportation strategy sought to encourage moves away from car use, and it is important to recognise that there has been a positive upturn in the use of public transport in recent years. The new trains have made a difference, the new Metro bus service has made major improvements, and park-and-ride facilities are filling up. However, to capitalise on those changes requires a change of direction, which I fear is not being provided.
I pay tribute to the work that Translink is doing in difficult circumstances. The motion is not meant as a criticism of Translink or the work that it is doing. Although the use of public transport has increased in recent years, road use has increased at an even greater rate. Therefore, the recent investment in public transportation is good, but it is not enough, and it is not being followed through.
It is difficult to make like-for-like comparisons with the rest of the UK, not least because funding there is split between central Government — or the devolved Administrations — and local government. However, last year in Scotland, 70% of the revenue budget for transport was allocated to public transport. The opposite was the case in Northern Ireland.
In England, funding was split 50:50 between roads and public transport. The differentials in capital investment between England and Northern Ireland may well be less, but funding in Northern Ireland is substantially more skewed towards roads than most of our counterparts. Public-sector support for public transport in Northern Ireland is the equivalent of around £14 a head. In parts of the south east of England, that figure approaches almost £200 a head. The demographics may well be different in Northern Ireland, but they are not that different.
Most European cities adopt a very focused approach towards public transport, including medium-sized cities on a par with Belfast. Transportation in most European cities is based around public transport, and the car is the exception, rather than the norm. There are good reasons why those cities have developed along those lines.
I understand that the Executive wish to improve the overall transportation infrastructure. Transport is underfunded in Northern Ireland, but the transport infrastructure is a key driver of the economy. The Varney Report shows that 38% of capital investment in the Republic of Ireland goes to transport, but that Northern Ireland currently receives around 16%. Expenditure on transportation capital is £324 a head in Northern Ireland. In Wales, that figure is £557, and it is well over £600 in England and Scotland.
The motion is not intended to decry investment in the road infrastructure, which is worthy and important. We are pointing to the underinvestment in public transport. There are real dangers in seeking to apply twentieth-century solutions to twenty-first-century problems. For far too long, public transport has been the poor relation. All of our competitors are investing heavily in their public-transport infrastructure, and there are obvious economic and environmental imperatives in doing so. Public transport aids and tackles social exclusion, and it helps labour mobility. That is important to a shared future — which Alliance Members must refer to in every speech.
As 28% of the population are economically inactive, public transport becomes an important economic consideration. It also addresses congestion, which, as everyone knows, carries a high economic cost. It is important to bear in mind that one cannot build a way out of congestion: a more creative approach is required.
I have often spoken about the large gap in productivity between Northern Ireland and the average in the rest of the UK, where the major economic concentration is in the south-east of England. The Northern Ireland economy is highly skewed towards Belfast: indeed, the greater Belfast area has the seventh-highest gross value added (GVA) in the UK. That is a major success story for the city of Belfast.
The Northern Ireland economy must be rebalanced, but it is important to recognise that imbalances in a regional economy are less significant than those in a national economy. The GVA figures identify Belfast as the economic hub and driver for Northern Ireland, and any investment in transport must recognise the importance of the Belfast subregion and ensure that its transport system works.
Transport produces some 25% of carbon emissions in the UK, and the current figure for Northern Ireland is 27%. According to the Energy Saving Trust, 12 local authority areas in Northern Ireland have some of the worst carbon footprints in the UK. The Assembly has signed up to the Climate Change Bill [HL] that sets a target of achieving a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Some Members would go further and aim for an 80% reduction, as our Scottish and Welsh counterparts are contemplating. However, the current balance in transport funding runs contrary to meeting even the 60% target, never mind the 80% target. The environment is at the forefront of the mind of communities around the world. Therefore, the Assembly must recognise the environmental impact of its transportation policy.
There is a clear logic to building new dwellings in the vicinity of transportation hubs. Two years ago, I spent a good deal of time in Arlington, Virginia, in the good old USA — a society that is supposedly dominated by the car. However, Arlington has a clear planning policy of building new housing beside metro stops, which makes good sense and tackles a major traffic problem.
The Assembly has many options: it can invest in a light railway or a fully fledged tram system for Belfast. However, there is some scepticism about what the current proposals for a rapid-transit system mean. It has been talked about for several years without coming to fruition. The Assembly also needs to debate broadening the provision of a rapid-transit system to more commuter routes, particularly to those in the south of the city where much of the congestion is concentrated.
The existing rail network must be consolidated: the 23 new trains have made a difference, but only 13 more trains are being contemplated, and many more are needed. The Assembly should debate putting rail halts at both Belfast airports: that is crucial to the integration of public transport. To people who fly into Belfast, particularly late at night, and see signs stating that the last bus will leave in 10 minutes, Northern Ireland seems very provincial. That is contrary to the impression that it wants to give of being a core part of the global economy.
The Assembly could debate the extension of free transport for those aged over 60 to people with disabilities and to students, or it could consider the provision of more general support for fares to make public transport more competitive. If the cost of public transport were deemed to be reasonable, more and more people would be attracted to it.
I have no doubt that many Members will make a play for the areas that they represent. In my North Down constituency, there are major traffic problems on the A2. Realistically, however, little can be done to improve that road because there is not enough space for expansion, and tinkering with the traffic-light sequences would make little difference. North Down has the asset of a railway line, of which much more use should be made.
Overall, the Alliance Party’s motion identifies an objective that is consistent with developing a shared future: a rebalancing of the economy and the building of integrated public services for all.
I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “exclusion” and insert:
“; further notes that due to the lack of public transport services across rural areas, for many people cars are the only means of transport; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to seek increased investment for improving both public transport and safety on rural roads.”
I thank Stephen Farry and the Alliance Party for tabling the motion and instigating an important debate. As Members know, I am a member of the Committee for the Environment, and I have regularly spoken in the Chamber about environmental issues, not least the implications of climate change. It goes without saying that I agree with much of the original motion.
More must be done to encourage people to use their cars less and to make greater use of public transport. The benefits will be a reduction in carbon emissions, which are linked to climate change. The informed view, as well as the general view, is that a change in the climate is occurring.
This morning, experts on climate change attended an event in the Long Gallery, and their views were not reassuring. By 2030, the implications of climate change, such as an increase in floods and a rise in sea levels, will have worsened. In fact, many people have encountered flooding this week that would not have occurred 10 years ago. Such disasters are on the increase, and they will worsen. Therefore, it is important that we take note of the issue and do our best to reduce carbon emissions.
The motion is problematic, because it calls on the Minister for Regional Development to take money from the roads budget and put it into public transport. I tabled the amendment because the motion is unfair to people in rural areas, where, first, the public-transport service is very poor — in fact, it is non-existent in some cases — and, secondly, the maintenance of roads in those areas is lagging behind. Expenditure on roads maintenance in rural areas has been in decline for years. We must tackle those issues together, and the amendment provides a way in which to do that.
In my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, there are no railways, and bus services are sketchy. Therefore, we should not ask the people who live there to accept a further reduction in expenditure on roads maintenance. The roads-maintenance budget has been in decline for decades, and that has caused anger and frustration. Neglect of many rural roads, with their patches and potholes, has left many people in rural areas angry. They have had to replace tyres on their cars, purchase new wheel rims or suspension arms and endure hefty mechanics’ bills.
The question that my constituents most frequently ask about roads concerns why they pay road tax. It is difficult to answer that question when the roads that those constituents use are not included in winter gritting programmes, and when they must cope with poor surfacing, potholes and other forms of neglect. We must deal not only with that issue but with the issue of safety on rural roads.
Over the years, there have been fatalities on all types of road, including rural and second-class roads. It is imperative that resources continue to be made available to improve safety on all roads, because some of them are in an extremely dangerous condition. Therefore, we cannot even begin to talk about taking resources for roads maintenance from the Department’s existing budget and putting them into public transport.
I have made several requests to the Department for Regional Development for the erection of warning signs or road markings on dangerous sections of second-class roads, but I have learnt that its current policy does not permit that. That should be addressed without delay.
I appreciate that DRD has limitations on its budget and tries to spread its spending as equitably as possible. There are some rural transport schemes — they are small in number but still helpful. There are also schemes to help people with disabilities who live in rural areas. However, businesspeople and road users in the west have been saying for years that the cost of transport is the biggest disadvantage that they have to overcome. They all say that more investment is required in the roads network, for the reasons that I have outlined and because it is important in attracting investment and creating job opportunities in those areas. Therefore, more must be done to attract investment. In the west in particular, we do not have a decent roads infrastructure. The Assembly has held debates about the difficulties in getting firms to invest in the west.
The amendment is not meant to be divisive; it simply asks the Assembly to acknowledge that there is a deficit in the funding of roads in rural areas which must be addressed. The amendment calls for more investment in public transport and rural roads in areas where the car is the only form of transport. Most importantly, it aims to improve safety for all road users. I ask Members to support the amendment.
Roads and public transport are of the utmost importance as we set about making Northern Ireland a successful entity capable of competing in the modern global marketplace. For many years, there has been a lack of investment in both of those areas in Northern Ireland. Due to the Troubles, resources were often directed towards other areas of need and our transport system was ultimately neglected. That has cost Northern Ireland in many ways, but has particularly disadvantaged the business community.
Our transport system falls short of the standards set throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, and lags behind that of our closest competitor — the Republic of Ireland. Poor transport infrastructure weakens the attraction of Northern Ireland as a place to live, work and invest. The Assembly must ensure an effective and efficient use of resources. I, and my party colleagues, would welcome investment in both roads and public transport.
As it has been for many years, the DUP is committed to ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland are provided with a fast, efficient, high-quality public-transport system so that passengers have a pleasant and safe experience which creates repeat usage and reduces social exclusion and poverty throughout Northern Ireland. Additionally, investment in public transport will reduce the number of vehicles using the roads, which will reduce carbon emissions and result in a healthier and improved environment for all.
As we have an ageing population, it is important to cater for the elderly and ensure that they are not socially excluded by a lack of public transport. The Assembly has committed itself to providing free travel for the over-60s, so we must endeavour to have a transport system that they can use when they require it.
Improvements in our public-transport system would result in a more pedestrian-friendly Northern Ireland, a reduction in illegal parking and a reduction in journey times through a decrease in road traffic. The key to a successful public-transport system is having the confidence of the public.
Late buses and trains, and poor journey times on main transport corridors, will not inspire an uptake in the use of public transport. Any investment should be targeted at tackling that problem. However, it is equally important that our roads are improved to provide an infrastructure that is capable of supporting a high-class public-transport system. Our roads infrastructure is crucial to encouraging investment in our constituencies and across the Province.
A modern and effective transport infrastructure will assist greatly in building a stable, strong economy, and it is an important factor for investors. It is, therefore, vital that we recognise the deficiencies in our public-transport system and roads network. Although we must consider the Budget constraints, we should endeavour to set corrective measures in place.
I welcome the strategy’s aim to provide a modern rapid-transit system, as has long been advocated by the Finance Minister; the upgrading of key transport corridors, which will connect major towns and cities to regional gateways; the continued aim to replace old trains; and the improvement in communication networks, maintaining technological pace with the best in Europe by way of increased Internet connectivity speed, capacity and availability.
There is no doubt that investment is needed in those areas, and such investment will be welcomed in ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland are not subject to social exclusion and poverty. Furthermore, investment in those areas will reduce traffic congestion, resulting in a reduction in carbon emissions and contributing to a healthier environment.
It is important that we invest in our roads in order to provide an infrastructure that is able to meet the twenty-first century demands and assist in providing a high-class transportation system for all road users. However, we must be mindful that with a 7% annual increase in traffic and car users, it is important to provide a quality public-transport system in which customers will have confidence. They must have complete satisfaction in the quality and standard of the public-transport system.
I call on the Minister for Regional Development to administer his budget with caution regarding those issues. They go hand in hand, and investment will result in a more effective, modern, efficient and sustainable transport system that will facilitate the economic growth and social inclusion across the region and align Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt ar an rún.
Raymond McCartney and Willie Clarke are unable to attend this afternoon’s debate, and they have sent their apologies. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I am the roads safety spokesperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, and I agree that it makes sense to encourage the use of public transport, because that will help reduce the number of serious road fatalities and injuries. Furthermore, the use of public transport will help reduce carbon emissions, and that is particularly pertinent if we are serious about tackling climate change.
We do not use the transport system to its maximum effect; we must encourage people to use the buses and trains. The more profit that is gained from such use, the greater the investment into the transport system will be — investment that is not possible at present. Each Department has a limited budget; each has a slice of the cake, and each must prioritise. Committee members had the opportunity to speak out about their Departments’ priorities and goals.
The draft Budget stated that one of its aims is to:
“Maintain and develop the public road and rail network and improve public transport provision to deliver a modern, efficient and sustainable transport system that facilitates economic growth and social inclusion across the region.”
Therefore, the debate has been brought to the Chamber at a time when the Executive have agreed that the issue is a goal for the Assembly over the next three years. I have every confidence in the Minister for Regional Development to do all that he can to deliver on the agreed strategy.
A major development and important goal will be a modern rapid-transit system that will serve the greater Belfast area and that, when integrated with improved conventional transport, will greatly alleviate traffic congestion in the city. Moreover, we must examine the rail system throughout the country. Many parts are either without a rail system, or there is a need to improve the existing network.
I hope that the Executive, together with their colleagues and counterparts in the South, will not only look for investment but to improve the present network, especially in the central areas, to develop the north-east and north-west. We must open up public transport to as many people as possible throughout the country. However, they will only be able to avail themselves of public transport if they can access it close to their homes. It is not feasible to expect a commuter to travel from Enniskillen to Portadown in order to catch a train to Derry or Belfast.
I reiterate that there is no magic wand. The Minister can reduce spending in other areas if that is what we want him to do; and we have heard Mr Gallagher referring to the maintenance budget. Do the Members who tabled the motion want the maintenance budget reduced so that the money can be put into public transport? If that is the case, Members will be back in the Chamber in a month’s time debating rural roads once again.
As I have said, the key is to encourage the public to use the transport system that is already in place, and to use the profits to improve that system. I encourage the Minister and his colleagues in the Executive, along with their counterparts in the South, to initiate some kind of funding to help improve the infrastructure, particularly the rail system, throughout the country.
In conclusion, the Minister for Regional Development is working within the budget that has been agreed by all parties to ensure that the key objectives of the programme are met. Sinn Féin has no problems with either the motion or the amendment. Go raibh míle maith agat.
I apologise to the Members who tabled the motion and the amendment on behalf of my colleague Fred Cobain, the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, and myself because I cannot stay for all of the debate due to Committee business concerning the Independent Water Review Panel’s strand two report.
The Ulster Unionist Party strongly welcomes the central message in the motion. Evidence and opinion are growing on a daily basis that a successful and comprehensive public-transport system delivers benefits for the environment, communities and the economy. The Executive need to commit more effort and funding into delivering a public-transport system that is fit for the twenty-first century so that it can convey those benefits to the people of Northern Ireland. However, the Ulster Unionist Party supports the amendment tabled by Mr Gallagher because we feel that it better represents transport needs in Northern Ireland.
Although progress in Northern Ireland’s public-transport system has been made over the past 10 years, with substantial growth in passenger numbers and improvements in the quality of our bus and rail network, we need to do more.
Northern Ireland is heavily reliant on the car. Statistics show that the number of cars has grown by 400% since 1960. We have the fastest growing car-ownership market in the United Kingdom, and research conducted by a traffic information service recently has highlighted that Belfast is one of the top 10 congested European cities.
Cars are major contributors to CO2 emissions and local pollution. To deliver on UK-wide targets for reducing our CO2 emissions as set out in the Programme for Government, we need to reduce Northern Ireland’s reliance on the car. In addition, traffic congestion puts a major strain on our economy, and the CBI has calculated that delays are costing the UK £15 billion a year. Therefore, we can deliver for the environment and for business at the same time.
Indeed, the Institute of Directors and the CBI have both called for greater investment in public transport and traffic management in their responses to the Programme for Government and the draft Budget. The success of the Metro service in Belfast highlights what can be achieved by public transport. Figures show that the Metro system carries 32% of people making journeys in Belfast, but only takes up to 2% of road space.
However, having highlighted that Northern Ireland needs to reduce car use, many people without cars are stranded in their homes. Many people living in rural areas have no other means of getting around.
A substantial number of people do not have access to cars — just over a quarter of households in Northern Ireland. Those people often come from poor families, are elderly or disabled. Those worst hit usually live in rural areas where regular bus services are out of reach. I welcome the Department’s rural community transport initiative. However, more must be done to mainstream rural services and deliver for those who, without adequate public transport, become socially, and often economically, excluded.
The process must be linked to any appraisal of the planning process and to a planning system that incorporates public-transport issues. I welcome new moves on concessionary fares, but there is little point in concessionary fares if, in some areas, there is a poor service, poor access and a low uptake.
In the short term, the Ulster Unionist Party believes that priority targets should be set to improve rural Translink networks. Priority should also be given to increasing quality bus corridors in urban areas to facilitate improved services and encourage increased uptake.
The railway system in Northern Ireland is a shadow of its former self.
Will the Member agree that the most significant piece of infrastructure that the Department can address — after the acquisition of new rolling stock — is the single-line section of the Dargan bridge in Belfast? Will he also agree that the doubling of the track at that bottleneck will enable Northern Ireland Railways to improve significantly the frequencies, capacity and journey times on both the Larne line and the line to Londonderry, as well as enhancing the attractiveness of both routes to potential commuters? It would also enable a Londonderry, Belfast and Dublin intercity service to be introduced properly.
Will the Member further agree that enhanced rolling stock on the Enterprise service is long overdue on that section of the Trans-European Network route, which has its Northern Ireland terminus in the Larne harbour station at the port of Larne?
Development of the Belfast to Dublin railway line must be a priority as it could bring economic and tourist benefits to Northern Ireland. Having outlined our position, we believe that the motion, without the amendment, is pitting public transport against spending on roads. It is creating a false economy that suggests —
In my constituency, rural transport is a key link for many people who live in the countryside. Indeed, increased services to neighbouring towns have been a real benefit to the elderly and to those unable to afford their own form of transport. However, there is clearly a lot of room for improvement. I have listened to the views of those living in small villages and hamlets who feel forgotten with regard to public transport. In many cases, they are missing out, and it could be said that they are socially excluded due to the lack of adequate, regular, public transport.
Rural transport schemes are doing sterling work in trying to address those issues by providing transport for those less mobile and giving them a vital link. However, those schemes could be further assisted and their scope increased.
The free fares for the elderly scheme was a welcome development initiated by the DUP some time ago. Many people are using that scheme to their full advantage, and they have said that the scheme is a massive help as they do not have to worry about finding a parking space. Those unable to drive due to ill health or those unable to afford a vehicle say that free fares have enabled them to travel around more than ever before, which is encouraging.
Although I have focused on the issue of rural transport and the need for a greater degree of service for rural dwellers in small villages and hamlets, there is no doubting the role that public transport should be playing in the reduction of congestion and carbon emissions. However, getting people out of their cars and onto public transport is not a simple task.
The major catalyst to achieving that in the longer term is the creation of a reliable and wide-ranging public-transport system. Having said that, for many people in rural areas, cars are the only available forms of transport. Indeed, in recent years, rural roads have been neglected, with the result that improvements are required.
For people who travel to work on public transport, being late is not an option. However, that is the reality for many, and it is a major obstacle in encouraging people to travel by public transport. That situation can be improved only by investing more resources in the transport network.
If the number of cars on the roads is to be reduced in the long term, more commuters must perceive public transport to be a cheaper, faster and more reliable mode of travelling. That is a huge task.
I support the amendment.
I support the spirit of the motion, and, given that I live in a rural area, I believe that the amendment is important.
The recently emerged eastern European democracies have made heavy investment in their transport systems a priority. That policy was quite deliberate, because it put public transport at the top of the list of ways in which to regenerate economies, address social inclusion, and tackle problems in areas that experienced social discrimination in the past.
By investing in public transport, we invest in the future of our economy and in the welfare of our people, particularly, but not exclusively, the young and the old. Given proper investment, the benefits of public transport can have an impact on everyone.
In rural areas, the Ulsterbus service covers 34·5% of the people whom it is supposed to serve, and it is predicted that that figure will increase. However, it will reach nowhere near the level that would allow all those who qualify for SmartPasses to avail themselves of the free transport system. That must be addressed.
For example, if I want to go shopping on a Saturday, the first bus from Kilrea to Coleraine leaves at 2.10 pm and the last bus leaves Coleraine at 3.30 pm. Unless I were Donald Duck on ice skates and had a shopping trolley that was capable of overcoming the laws of centrifugal force, I doubt whether I would get any shopping done.
It would be remiss of me not to mention road safety, which is critical. The sooner we get more people off the roads and on to either trains or buses, the sooner we will begin to address road safety and issues that are connected to it.
The draft Budget has set the goal of achieving one million additional public-transport passenger journeys by the end of the Budget period. Although that is highly commendable, how will it be achieved? Those figures will certainly not be distributed across rural regions, where public transport is a threatened species and where efforts to develop rural-transport initiatives are spasmodic. Excluding those initiatives that have been very successful, it is questionable at times whether such strategies contribute anything to rural transportation.
At the end of the month, the Committee for Regional Development will examine public-transport systems in other regions, and I look forward to that. Until we address that issue, we will not have kick-started the recovery in all its forms. It is in the interests of everyone to do so, particularly those who are socially and economically disadvantaged due to a lack of investment in road and rail services.
We often consider the Republic to be a good example of what happens when there has been investment in public transport. Railways that were abandoned in the dark days of the past are coming alive again, particularly in the west of Ireland. The recently modernised rail service to Sligo, which I mentioned this morning, now attracts double the number of passengers. That is a good example of how investment produces results.
Indeed, we can look closer to home, where past investment in new trains had a very positive impact on the number of people who used the rail service between Derry and Belfast. Hence the programme for a decent intercity service must be moved up the list of priorities and proceed at all costs.
I have nothing more to say except to thank those Members who tabled the motion. The motion appeals particularly to people from the north-west, because they feel that they have had a bad deal in the past, and they look to the new Minister to redress the imbalance. The Minister has the support of all the people in the north-west, including many from his own party, to do that.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am grateful to those who have participated in the debate and for the words of encouragement from the north-west. I am very conscious that people in the north-west have been let down by previous Administrations, including the previous Executive.
I am also grateful that Members have put forward a wide range of interesting views to what is a wide-ranging motion. The motion covers four areas: the level of funding in public transport compared with that in other regions; the contribution that public transport can make to reducing traffic congestion and carbon emissions; the key role that public transport can play in reducing poverty and social exclusion; and the balance of spending between public transport and roads.
In any discussion on transport provision and funding, it is helpful to begin by referring to the regional transportation strategy, which still steers us in our decision-making. The regional transportation strategy, which was published in 2002, provided a strategic framework for the planning, funding and delivery of transport throughout the North. It recognised the strategic importance of transport infrastructure and services to the future development and prosperity of the region. It acknowledged the context of historical underfunding of transport and set out proposals for balanced development of infrastructure and services over the 10 years until 2012.
I wish to make a broad point about the wording of the motion, which draws a distinction between funding for public transport and funding for roads. That implies that there are two distinct funding streams and that funding in one area provides no benefit to the other. That is not the case. As Members will know, buses are the principal means of public transport in the North. Although we are investing in improvements in the rail network, it is limited and is not available to large areas, and many Members have mentioned that fact. Therefore, to most people, public transport means bus rather than rail services. Some 89% of people who use public transport travel by bus, and buses run on roads. Investment in roads benefits bus users by improving journey speed. The investment that we have already made in improving roads has improved bus travel, and it will continue to do so. For example, the dualling of the A6 will improve journey times for a substantial number of people travelling between Belfast and Derry. Likewise, the dualling of the A5 will bring similar benefits for those travelling by bus between Derry and Dublin.
I acknowledge the point made in Mr Gallagher’s amendment that cars will continue to be a necessary means of transport in rural areas. We have been improving rural transport services, but those improvements cannot cover the full range of transport needs in the countryside. Therefore, I am committed to ensuring adequate funding for, and maintenance of, roads in rural areas.
The point was raised about underinvestment in public transport. The regional transportation strategy recognised that all aspects of transport had suffered from a lack of funding. Thanks to the regional transportation strategy, transport was recognised as a priority funding area, and substantial levels of funding began to be channelled into public transport and roads. We began from a low baseline, and we have been trying to rectify the deficits, while ensuring that other vital public services received adequate levels of resources. It is true that, according to some indicators, we do not yet compare favourably with other areas, whether in Britain or in the rest of the island of Ireland. For example, we still spend less per head of population on rail and bus subsidies than is spent in other areas of Britain.
However, let us look at the more positive measures. We have more bus provision per capita than in the rest of the island of Ireland, and, in line with our targets in the regional transportation strategy, our rail fleet is newer than that in any area in Britain. Our bus fleet is also being renewed rapidly. We are also seeing a reversal of the downward trend in the use of public transport, with numbers growing as a result of recent capital investment.
As the motion states, the development of public transport can contribute to the reduction of congestion and, consequently, carbon emissions. Good transport provision, which includes good public transport, is also essential if we are to tackle social need.
It provides access to employment and training, health and social services, education and shops. Lack of access to transport contributes to social exclusion and need. That was recognised in the regional transportation strategy, which aimed to target efforts and resources on factors that cause social need and exclusion among deprived and socially disadvantaged people.
Barriers of isolation and remoteness can be broken down by good public-transport systems. The regional transportation strategy has increased the overall spend on transportation. It assumed a total investment of £3·5 billion, which comprised maintenance of the pre-2002 baseline level of £2·1 billion and £1·4 billion additional funding, although with the caveat that the final outcome would be subject to the normal budgetary processes. The result has been that transportation has been successful in attracting finance, particularly in the areas of road and rail.
With respect to the split between roads and public transport, the average ratio for spending from 2002-03 to 2006-07 was 72% on highways and 28% on public transport. The figure has varied from year to year, depending on the size of the schemes coming forward. In the current year, 61% has been allocated to roads and 39% to public transport.
I agree that there is a need to continue support for public transport and to address the historic underinvestment in transportation generally. However, I must balance the needs of roads against those of public transport. The roads network is particularly vital in rural areas and, as I mentioned earlier, there is interdependence between roads and public transport, in that the majority of people who use public transport travel by bus on the roads. Also, a range of measures funded from the roads budget, rather than the public-transport budget — such as the development of the quality bus corridors and park-and-ride sites — directly benefit users of public transport. Additionally, the vast majority of freight is transported via the road network: therefore, any improvement in the road infrastructure significantly benefits the economy.
With regard to public transport, the past few years have seen great progress. My Department has provided funding of some £93 million, from 2004-05 to 2006-07, to enable major projects to be completed on the railway network. As a result, 23 new trains have been operating since September 2005; large projects have been completed to complement their introduction, including the new train care facility at Fortwilliam; and major works have been completed to upgrade the core network of railway lines. A project to upgrade railway stations and halts in accordance with disability and discrimination legislation and Translink’s new rail vision, is well under way and should be completed by the end of this financial year or early in the next. As a result of that work there has been substantial growth in railway passenger numbers, with a 12% increase across the network generally from 2005-06 to 2006-07.
DRD has also provided funding of £56 million between 2003-04 and 2006-07 to enable Translink to purchase over 500 buses. Those buses now operate across the region and have had a positive impact on passenger numbers, particularly in relation to the Metro service, where passenger numbers have increased by 15% over the two years to March 2007.
I am committed to continuing to invest in public transport. My Department submitted a wide range of bids in the Budget and ISNI II processes for a variety of roads and public-transport schemes. The draft Budget 2007 has provided an allocation of £137 million for railways over the three years to 2010-11. That will allow NIR to commence procurement of 20 new trains to replace the remaining old stock, and to enhance services both around Belfast and to Derry. The £12 million scheme to improve the Ballymena to Coleraine section of the Belfast to Derry line will come on site later this year for completion by 2010. Significant works, costing some £40 million, are also planned over the next three years between Lurgan and Knockmore. Work will commence on the relaying of the Coleraine to Derry line towards the end of the current Budget period. That will also involve the provision of a passing loop and the installation of a new signalling system. The total cost of the Derry line works is expected to be in the region of £64 million.
The funding in the draft Budget will also allow for further development of the Translink bus fleet. A key provision in the Budget and ISNI II relates to the development of a rapid-transit system for Belfast. This new form of public transport offers enormous potential to deliver a step change in public transport in Belfast and promises to be a modern, efficient, environmentally-friendly transport system, fit for the twenty-first century. We are concluding our study of rapid transit, and will shortly take decisions about the routes and the technologies.
I have mentioned the regional transportation strategy a number of times and I do so once more. The strategy contains a commitment to undertake a mid-term review. Given that we are half-way through the life of the strategy, that needs to be undertaken now. I intend that it will adopt a three-themed approach, considering the progress of implementation to date; the changing environment since 2002; and the budgetary position.
The review will need to consider what adjustments or changes may be required to the regional transportation strategy’s key outcomes, including emissions from traffic, traffic speeds at peak hours and the accessibility of transport services. It will also seek to deal with several developments that have taken place since 2002, which include the focus on climate change and sustainable development. It will, of course, re-examine the funding needs of roads and public transport and the most appropriate balance between the two funding streams.
My position is clear: I want to secure a transport infrastructure that is of sufficient standard to underpin economic growth. I want to continue to develop public-transport services that will also support the economy and promote social inclusion. Past, present and planned investment demonstrates my and the Department’s commitment to those aims. Go raibh maith agat.
I thank Members who have contributed to the debate, which, as the Minister has just said, has been wide ranging. It covered key issues that none of us can afford to ignore any longer, such as emissions, ever-increasing traffic congestion and the importance of a two-track approach that involves investment in both public transport and rural roads.
Members from various constituencies, some of which are not in the west, indicated that their communities share the same problems as those in the west, such the need to rely on cars in the absence of alternative transport. The important matter of road safety was, quite rightly, raised. I welcome the comments of my colleague John Dallat, who said that the Committee for Regional Development will take an in-depth look at road transport.
I thank the Minister for his presence during the debate. I welcome his comments, particularly his commitment to try to secure adequate funding for the maintenance of rural roads. However, I disagree with him slightly on one issue: I do not believe that the north-west was entirely ignored during the previous Assembly mandate. For example, I recall the welcome announcement of new rolling stock comprising 23 trains, which would benefit the north-west railway routes. That and other matters that come to mind, such as the Dungiven bypass, must be built on as we move forward.
I want to make particular mention of the importance of North/South co-operation on public transport. I am aware that Bus Éireann and Translink work together on some issues. However, greater co-operation would bring greater benefits to many people. For example, there is a regular bus service from Donegal that, at certain times, goes through either Fermanagh or parts of Tyrone, then on to Cavan and Monaghan. That is a good service. With the development of the new road between Dublin and Monaghan, Bus Éireann has introduced an hourly service to Dublin, which operates every day. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the possible examination of that matter by the North/South Ministerial Council, because it is hoped that that service could be extended in the future.
I hope that I have covered most of the relevant issues. Once again, I extend my thanks to all Members who contributed to the debate, and I ask that they support the amendment.
The debate has been interesting, bearing in mind the large measure of agreement from all corners of the House, albeit with certain differences of emphasis. I want to deal with one of the key points that Mr Gallagher raised. The amendment suggested that, somehow, my party’s original motion asked for spending to be rebalanced, specifically by taking money away from areas such as rural road maintenance and putting it towards public transport.
Specifically, we did not do that. There are other issues. Indeed, in the past, the Department has been creative with regard to where it has acquired funding for road developments. We only wish that it could be just as creative when looking for money for rail and bus developments in the future. Clearly, there is an issue, which was raised by several Members during the debate, about the needs of rural communities that are not currently being met. It seems to us, as proposers of the motion, that the lessons that have been learnt from the provision of quality public transport are every bit as relevant in rural areas as they are in urban areas.
Mr Moutray, speaking on behalf of the DUP, talked about the need to target investment to encourage confidence in public transport. It seems that that has been entirely proven. A few years ago, when there was serious investment in the Enterprise service, the number of people who caught the train to Dublin rose dramatically. With regard to issues in my own constituency, such as the Templepatrick Airbus, a small park-and-ride service has had to be expanded three times. By providing a quality regular service, people get out of their cars and use public transport. That is the key lesson — as several people said — that must be taken all the way round.
I was particularly interested in John McCallister’s comments. It seemed that he agreed entirely with every word that Stephen Farry had said — and then said that he would support the amendment. He made some key points about the need to reduce reliance on the car and, in particular, about the needs of poorer families in rural areas. Those points were re-emphasised by the DUP’s Mr Irwin. Possibly the best bit of Mr McCallister’s speech was the intervention by Ken Robinson in which he said all that I might have said — and, possibly, even more — about the need for enhancement of rail services. Therefore, I presume that Mr Robinson, if not Mr McCallister, will support the original motion.
John Dallat made appropriate comments about the need to address issues such as road safety. It is absolutely true that public transport is significantly safer than private transport; however, although it is a key issue, road safety is not exactly the issue that is addressed in the debate.
I welcome the positive response that the Minister gave in his comments. I entirely take his point that the costs of bus lanes and park-and-ride have tended to come out of the Roads Service budget. Significant progress has been made regarding issues such as park-and-ride, and I mentioned the Templepatrick Airbus service. Can the Minister tell us when we will we see a decent park-and-ride that will actually encourage people out of the cars on the M2? In that way, people, like John Dallat, will be encouraged to get on a train or a bus rather than drive through my constituency, causing pollution as they do so.
The idea of providing a 40-car space on the edge of the Sandyknowes roundabout and calling it a park-and-ride does not seem sensible. There have been some ideas that are much more creative. I urge the Minister to ensure that his Roads Service staff are considerably more creative, in conjunction with Translink staff, on that matter. The recent investments in buses and trains are welcome. However, I should, perhaps, caution the Minister for Regional Development against criticising the attitude of the Assembly’s first Executive to public-transport funding, since the then Minister for Regional Development is now the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and he may need to keep on good terms with him. I advise the Minister to be slightly cautious who he criticises.
Some of the points that the Minister made about the mid-term review of the regional transport strategy (RTS) are very welcome. We look forward to debates in the House as that strategy is implemented. The Minister made some important comments. Perhaps, he might have said a little more about issues such as climate change and CO2 emissions, which are a crucial part of our original motion. However, he did make some of the points that we need to re-examine. It is clear that the RTS, at its half-way stage, is not up to date with some of the needs that we must address, including such issues as climate change and the need to meet carbon reduction targets — whether 60% or 80% — by 2050. At the moment, the RTS is not even on target to meet a 60% reduction in carbon emissions.
The Minister, quite reasonably, pointed out issues such as the economy. We must be careful not to overemphasise road building and economic benefits. After all, much of the talk about the widening of the Westlink, and the improvement of its junctions, was related to economic need. However, there is clear evidence that, by building roads, we simply crowd them with private cars. It is of no benefit to the economy to have a better road that is crowded with even more cars than would have been there under the existing road pattern. The Scottish Executive, in a study that was undertaken in 1999, concluded that:
“a ‘predict and provide’ approach, in which road capacity is increased to match forecast traffic growth, is environmentally unsustainable, unaffordable and self-defeating.”
In other words, building new roads to tackle congestion is like loosening your belt to tackle obesity.
We must ensure that we get the balance right for economic development, but we must be realistic about what will promote that. Unlimited road building, especially in the major conurbations and the larger district towns, is clearly not the way to promote such development. We must also bear climate change in mind at all times.
The Alliance Party believes that the creative and appropriate use of private funding will make it possible to expand the public-transport budget, as has been the case with the road-building programme on the Westlink and the M1 and M2 motorways. If that occurred, we would not be cutting the budget for rural roads.
There must be real commitment, so that instead of vague generalisations being made about a Belfast light-rail plan — or whatever kind of rapid-transport system might be proposed for arterial routes — a system will actually be put in place in the lifetime of this Assembly. Over the years, there has been too much talk that has gone nowhere.
We must recognise that issues such as social exclusion and labour mobility will be addressed by people’s having the ability to travel to work wherever they wish. We must recognise that the benefits that will be created from investment in public transport will enable a much wider use of skills. That will in turn help to develop our economy, and the assumption that that development can be achieved by building more roads that will only get clogged up will be unsustainable. It is rather unfortunate that transport does not appear anywhere in the key goals of the draft Programme for Government, which we will debate next week.
As members of the opposition party — whatever the Minister of Finance and Personnel may think of our rights — we certainly believe that key issues must be addressed. Those include the development of rail access to both the Belfast airports, and the introduction of a full and inclusive park-and-ride system at Templepatrick to help reduce traffic on the M2, which will benefit commuters from the whole of County Antrim as they travel to Belfast.
When new developments such as the Titanic Quarter are planned, consideration must be given to whether a light-rail or a guided bus system would be suitable. I have no doubt that at least one firm in Galgorm would be keen to take some more orders for guided bus systems. It is rather ridiculous that Ken Livingstone’s commitment to make use of Wrightbus’s skills has resulted in the company doing more for transport in London that it is for transport in Northern Ireland.
We must consider what can be done to make use of existing railway lines, and I am sure that the House would be disappointed if I did not mention the Knockmore line between Antrim and Lisburn. Reopening that line would create the capacity to serve a growing population between two key growth towns, through a secondary growth town, yet that railway line is currently unused.
Several Members mentioned transport poverty. Whatever we do to plan for private-car usage, the needs of a significant number of our population, both rural and urban, who do not have access to a private car will not be alleviated. An attractive alternative to the private car must be offered so that those who have cars do not need to use them every day. Belfast appears to be the only city in western Europe in which Government planners assume that building roads is the solution to a commuter traffic problem in a city of 500,000 people. There is something fundamentally wrong with that approach. Nowhere else in Europe do people think that such an approach works, and it simply will not work here.
Some Members have expressed concern about the effect that the Alliance Party’s proposal will have on rural populations. However, the motion in no way disadvantages rural people; rather, it calls for enhanced investment and a shift in balance, and it supports those rural people who do not have access to their own private car. I urge the House to support the motion.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes that public transport is currently underfunded compared to other regions; acknowledges that public transport could reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions, and play a key role in reducing poverty and social exclusion; further notes that due to the lack of public transport services across rural areas, for many people cars are the only means of transport; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to seek increased investment for improving both public transport and safety on rural roads.