I thank the Business Committee for agreeing to list the important issue of upgrading the Downpatrick to Newry road for an Adjournment debate. I also thank the Minister for Regional Development for his attendance. I wish to place on record an apology from my South Down colleague Margaret Ritchie MP. Our new South Down Member of Parliament is off to London this evening on official business, so she cannot be with us. I know that Margaret is fully au fait with the issues under debate, and she has asked me to place on record her full support for the upgrade.
The road that I referred to is 30 miles long and runs right across the centre of south Down, from the city of Newry to the county town of Downpatrick. To strengthen my case for an upgrade of the road, rather than referring to the city of Newry I should have said that the road extends from Downpatrick to the main Belfast to Dublin route, to the railway station at Newry and to the A2 link with Warrenpoint port. To reach those modern facilities, lorry drivers, bus drivers and motorists have to endure a time-consuming and hazardous journey to get to both Newry and Downpatrick and to the main eastern corridor or to join the Enterprise train at Newry or the regular bus services to and from Dublin.
There are literally hundreds of dangerous bends along the 30-mile route, and the many side roads that exit on to the main road simply add to that danger. I recently carried out a survey of the number of exits on the subject route, and I was surprised by the findings. Excluding private dwellings, business properties, churches, schools, sporting venues and gateways leading to farmyards and farmland, 132 adapted roads lead directly on to the Downpatrick to Newry road. Many of the exits from the side roads are blind ones, because of the lack of proper visibility splays. Motorists entering the main road from those treacherous junctions take their life in their hands and pose a risk to other people’s lives as they gamble with their safety and that of others. For example, the Ballyweely Road enters the B8 between Hilltown and the square at Kilcoo. The Minister should seek a report on that junction to see exactly what I mean. While I am speaking about that area, I wish to thank the Roads Service and a co-operative landowner for the great improvements that were carried out recently at the point where the Kinghill Road enters the main Hilltown to Castlewellan section of the B8. That is a fine example of how beneficial such improvements can be.
The Newry to Downpatrick route is identified in two main sections, namely the A25 and the B8, as well as a short section of the A2, which is included where it passes through the village of Clough. It services a large hinterland around Downpatrick, and it passes through the built-up areas of Clough, Annsborough, Castlewellan, Kilcoo, Hilltown and Mayobridge. It is one of Northern Ireland’s busiest tourist routes, which is understandable given that it is one of the gateways to the Mournes, to St Patrick’s Trail and to the many valuable assets that the area has to offer to the tourist industry.
There are major hospitals at either end of the major route, namely the Downe Hospital and Daisy Hill Hospital. It should not be necessary for me to point out the benefits that the upgrade of that road would bring to the patients who attend those hospitals, particularly those who are rushed to them on life-saving missions.
In the past, I have often attempted on behalf of constituents to deal with refused planning applications for sites fronting the B8, only to be told by the Planning Service that the Department of the Environment had identified the road as a protected route and that approvals could not, therefore, be given. If one Department finds it necessary to protect what is in its care, the Minister for Regional Development must have an obligation to protect that which is in his care, namely the users of the main Newry to Downpatrick route.
I know only too well the constant demands made on the public purse, and I, therefore, do not expect an overnight upgrade of the road. However, I ask the Minister to consider my request for an upgrade to be made in three stages.First, I ask the Minister to immediately introduce safety measures at the most dangerous locations along the road. For example, 500m south of the series of bends known as the Seven Sisters in the townland of Ballydulany, which is less than 1 mile from the centre of the village of Mayobridge, there is an accident black spot that is causing great concern locally. Serious accidents have occurred and continued to occur at that spot. Lives have been lost at the location, and local people fear that more lives will be lost if something is not done to reduce the dangers that exist there. There are many other dangerous locations along the subject route that could be made safer, if only by applying rumble strips or adequate warning signs. I ask the Minister to have his Department draw up a list of the most dangerous spots immediately, with a view to addressing those problems and fears. Secondly, the Department for Regional Development should put in place a programme of work to gradually remove, in a prioritised manner, the many bad bends and dips in the road that are a constant hazard to road users. Thirdly, the Downpatrick to Newry road should be upgraded to a standard that is in keeping with its modern-day usage and to address any subsequent dangers. I know that that will require time and money, but it will never happen if it is not included in a strategic programme of work.
I, therefore, earnestly beg the Minister to set about drawing up a major works programme for the B8 and A25 roads from Newry to Downpatrick, because only when that becomes a proper working document can any real efforts be made to advance the proposals therein. I again thank the Minister for his attendance, and I look forward to his initial response to my three-tier request.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate PJ Bradley on securing this Adjournment debate and for raising an important issue about which all the Members for South Down are concerned. I, too, thank the Minister for being in attendance.
I understand the economic circumstances that the Minister and his Department face. I am sure that all Members agree that we must prioritise our limited resources. I am a member of the Regional Development Committee, as John was previously, and I see at first hand the underinvestment in roads maintenance. On a weekly basis, we hear about all the projects that are needed, including our project, the A24 Ballynahinch bypass, which, thankfully, is being progressed. This issue affects all rural areas, not just south Down. As a member of the Committee, I have argued for the B8/A25 to have a more strategic role, particularly in relation to the pivotal function that it plays with regard to tourism in the area. It is the main artery to Dublin from the tourist product in south Down, namely the Mournes, which are the biggest attraction in the area, although Jim Shannon would probably say different in relation to Strangford Lough.
Sinn Féin has lobbied for the implementation of a single tourism strategy for the promotion of south Down and counties north and south of the border. To attract additional visitors to south Down, we need to have in place an improved infrastructure that can accommodate them. In our area, the NITB has identified the Mournes and the St Patrick’s Christian heritage project as signature tourism projects. Currently, tourism in the Mournes contributes £72 million to the local economies of Banbridge, Down, and Newry and Mourne.
Many areas of great natural beauty suffer because of their attractive qualities, and south Down is no exception. I want the Department to give equal weight to our industries, which are mainly tourism, agriculture and fishing. There are very few factories in the area, with the aircraft factory and a couple of fish processing factories in Kilkeel being the exceptions. However, there are restaurants, hotels, B&Bs, cafes, public houses and small and medium-sized enterprises that are dependent on tourists getting to south Down. We do not have rail; all we have is road.
Those of us who know the B8/A25 know that it is dangerous, with its sharp corners and sweeping bends, particularly, as has been mentioned, on the stretch between Mayobridge and Hilltown, which is known as the Seven Sisters. I am sure that the Minister knows that part of the road very well. Indeed, I remember going on school trips and swinging about in the back of the bus. It was like a rollercoaster.
On a serious note, I remind the Minister that there have been serious collisions on the road linking Downpatrick and Newry, including dozens of fatalities, in recent years. The volume of traffic and demands on the road have increased. It is estimated that 6,000 to 9,000 cars use the B8/A25. The A25 section, between Downpatrick and Clough, is very busy and carries around 9,000 cars a day. Another busy stretch is the Hilltown to Newry section, which incorporates traffic coming from the Mournes on the B27 Kilkeel Road and from Newcastle on the B180 Bryansford Road.
I do not want to be totally negative. I pay tribute to the staff at Roads Service for endeavouring to do their best with the resources that they have. There have been resurfacing projects, as P J touched upon, in and around Kilcoo, in Clonvaraghan, which is outside Castlewellan, and in Hilltown. There have also been traffic calming schemes in a number of towns, as well as junction improvements at Burrenreagh Road, Castlewellan; the Castlewellan Road and Kinghill Road junction in Hilltown; and the Vianstown Road junction in Downpatrick, all of which are to be welcomed.
I will touch on a couple of issues that require the Department to recognise the unique circumstances in south Down. The B8/A25 road will carry more tourists to our area. Newry and Mourne and Down District Councils are committed to tourism, which is the main backbone of our economy, and more tourists are visiting the area as a result of the strategies that are in place. We have a unique landscape, which includes the Mourne Mountains, the strategic importance of Newcastle, the potential of the Silent Valley, the Christian heritage and cultural trails, including St Patrick’s Trail from Armagh to Downpatrick, and that other tourist gem, Strangford Lough. We have to improve the roads to facilitate tourism growth, rather than just responding to demand and continually firefighting.
The economic impact of tourism arises from expenditure by visitors to the Mournes area on accommodation, retail, catering and attractions, thereby supporting direct employment in those businesses. Good transport links are essential to the long-term growth of our economy. Moreover, under the proposed reorganisation of local councils in the RPA, Newry and Mourne District Council and Down District Council will amalgamate. Given that proposed merger, an enhanced road network is needed to link the two main towns within the boundaries of the new council. Is there potential to submit a bid for European funding to improve road infrastructure to support tourism development under the INTERREG programme?
Much of the case for an upgrade to the B8 has been laid out by my colleagues. Knowing the road, the area, the surrounding countryside and the pressures on them very well, I think there is an excellent case for the route moving up the Roads Service agenda. From my time on the Regional Development Committee, I am aware of the difficulties that Roads Service faces and the pressures that it is under in prioritising its workload.
I want to make the case to the Minister that, in building and renewing the economy in south Down, particularly tourism, as pointed out by Mr Willie Clarke, it is vital that we improve its infrastructure. The fact that the South Down constituency contains two of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s signature projects — the Mournes and part of St Patrick’s Trail — emphasises its importance to a tourism strategy. The fact that the constituency links in to Strangford Lough and opens up to other parts of Northern Ireland underlines why it is vital to improve the pivotal section of road between Newry and Downpatrick.
In addition to tourism, we need to develop and encourage our small and medium-sized businesses, as they respond best when the infrastructure that they need to grow and flourish is in place. Improving the B8 is a key part of building the infrastructure in order to improve a key corridor of the South Down constituency.
I also make the case for improving the safety of the road. Mr PJ Bradley made the case for that very well and recognised that it will not happen overnight due to budgetary constraints. However, it would be good if the Minister could tell us about some of the work that will happen to improve the B8 route in the short to medium term and address some of the severe safety concerns that my colleagues and others have raised. Roads Service can make a huge contribution to improving the safety and quality of our roads, which is vital to everyone in the area. Mr PJ Bradley mentioned certain sections of the B8 route, and the Seven Sisters section was also mentioned. Various sections of the road need to be improved. We cannot overstate the importance of such improvements to road safety and to our economy in south Down, and I urge the Minister to do all that he can to make sure that they happen.
Le roinnt blianta anuas, phléigh mé an cheist seo le muintir an Dúin Theas, agus tá siad iontach buartha faoi staid líonra na mbóithre sa Dún Theas. Níl cuid mhór de na bóithre seo oiriúnach don fheidhm, go háirithe na bóithre sin i gceantair tuaithe, agus chuir an drochgheimhreadh go mór leis an bhfadhb seo.. I want to clarify that I am speaking as an MLA for the area.
Ní gan ábhar a luaigh mo chomhghleacaí, Willie Clarke, go ndearna Sinn Féin stocaireacht i bhfabhar fheidhmiú straitéis aonair margaíochta um thurasóireacht chun an Dúin Theas agus an cheantair máguaird a chur chun cinn. Ach chun cuairteoirí breise a mhealladh chuig an Dún Theas, ní mór córas feabhsaithe bonneagair a bheith i bhfeidhm le cur in áit an bhonneagair reatha, ar oidhreacht ó pholasaithe dír-rialaithe é.
I have been engaging with the people of the South Down constituency on this issue for a number of years. There are serious concerns about the state of the road network that services the area. Many of the roads, particularly in rural areas, are simply not fit for purpose, and my colleague Willie Clarke named some of them. The severe winter has compounded the problem.
The Department for Regional Development needs to recognise that a lack of spatial development throughout the North, but particularly in south Down, is having a significant impact on developing the area’s tourism infrastructure. Willie Clarke spoke about that, and it is essential that we build our tourism infrastructure from Newgrange to the Mournes to capitalise on the tourist potential of that part of the island.
Feicfidh Seirbhís na mBóithre ó mo chomhfhreagras roimhe seo gur chóir do mhuintir an Dúin Theas a bheith buartha faoi shábháilteacht líonra na mbóithre áitiúla agus faoi na tionchair atá aige seo ar shláinte agus ar shábháilteacht gluaisteánaithe agus coisithe araon.
Willie Clarke rightly pointed out that Sinn Féin has consistently lobbied for the implementation of a single tourism marketing strategy for the promotion of south Down and neighbouring counties in both parts of Ireland. However, in order to attract additional visitors to south Down, we need an improved road system to replace the current system, which is a legacy of direct rule policies. South Down has suffered from a failure of investment, and we aim to change that.
I also want to make the Minister aware of the serious number of collisions along the road that links Downpatrick and Newry, which were referred to. There is a clear need for Roads Service to assess the safety of the road network linking Downpatrick and Newry and to carry out safety and improvement schemes as a matter of urgency. I would very much welcome from the Minister, Conor Murphy, details of what his Department is doing to improve that road. I am sure that Conor is also very aware of dangerous sections of the road. The Seven Sisters were mentioned, a series of bends on a lengthy stretch of road between Kilcoo, Hilltown and Mayobridge. It is important that the necessary resources be made available to Newry and Mourne District Council and Down District Council so that road improvements can be carried out. I have no doubt that the Minister is listening carefully and that he will carry out a detailed assessment as a matter of priority.
Roads Service will see from my correspondence that the people of south Down are justifiably concerned about the safety of local road networks and the implications for the health and safety of motorists and pedestrians. As Conor is well aware, I was to the fore in campaigning for the border-link bridge across Carlingford Lough at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint. We worked as part of the North/South Ministerial Council, as well as with Newry and Mourne District Council and Louth County Council. That type of flagship development is essential if we are to develop a co-operative approach to trade and tourism, and it would make Crotlieve, the Mournes and north Louth much more accessible tourist destinations, as well as improving the lives of the many commuters who regularly travel across the border in both directions. As I said, we need to develop our tourism product from Newgrange to the Mournes and to capitalise on the number of visitors that Newgrange gets every year.
Tá cúpla ceist agam don Aire. An bhféadfá an t-eolas is déanaí a thabhairt dom ar a bhfuil á déanamh agatsa mar Aire Forbartha Réigiúnaí lena chinntiú go mbeidh comhoibriú leis an Rialtas ó dheas chun dul chun cinn a dhéanamh sa réimse seo?
I would very much appreciate an update on what my colleague the Minister for Regional Development is doing to ensure that there is co-operation on the matter with the Government in the South of Ireland at Minister-to-Minister level and also at North/South Ministerial Council level. I would also welcome an update on the A24 Ballynahinch bypass and the A7 from Doran’s Rock to Rowallane.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to debate the upgrading of the B8 route from Downpatrick to Newry. I do not have to explain to the Members who are present that the route from Downpatrick to Newry falls within the Newry and Mourne District Council and Down District Council areas. It passes through a number of villages, including Mayobridge, Kilcoo, Castlewellan and Clough, en route from Newry to Downpatrick. The B8 section of the route in the Newry and Mourne council area extends northwards from Newry for about 15·5 miles through Mayobridge and Hilltown, joining the A25 a mile west of Kilcoo in the Down council area. The final section of the route — the A25 — extends for 16 miles from Kilcoo through Castlewellan, Clough and on to Downpatrick.
Traffic volumes on the B8 between Hilltown and Kilcoo have been measured at about 6,100 vehicles a day, dropping to about 5,500 vehicles a day between Kilcoo and Castlewellan. Traffic volumes are slightly higher along the A25 between Castlewellan and Clough at 6,300 vehicles a day, and between Clough and Downpatrick they rise to about 8,200 vehicles a day. There are 1,062 miles of road network in the entire Newry and Mourne district and 750 miles in the Down district. When compared with other roads here, particularly in the Newry and Mourne and Down council areas, the B8 is not so heavily trafficked.
The context in which Roads Service improves the road network in the North is set out in the regional development strategy and, more specifically, in the regional transportation strategy. Its purpose is to support the regional development strategy and to make a significant contribution to achieving the longer-term vision for transport throughout the North. Members will be aware of the key components of the regional transportation strategy and the need to concentrate our efforts on improving the regional strategic road network. Members will also be aware of the substantial improvement works that have been carried out over the past number of years to upgrade the A1 Belfast to Dublin strategic corridor. The final section of that project, at Newry, which has been ongoing for the past three years at a cost of £182 million, is due for completion later this year. Further work is ongoing to progress other proposed major improvement schemes in the Newry and Down areas of the North, including the A24 Ballynahinch bypass, the A7 at Doran’s Rock and Rowallane and plans for a Newry southern relief road.
The A25 and B8 Downpatrick to Newry route falls within the subregional transport plan, and any work or improvements on it must compete for the available finance against the demands for improvement to other sections of the road network. As Members will be aware, Roads Service prepares annual work programmes to improve and maintain the road network in line with the available funding. That work typically includes a range of measures, such as minor improvement schemes, traffic management measures, street lighting, winter gritting and improvements to highway structures, and structural maintenance, including resurfacing work.
Roads Service prepares programmes that detail the works to be carried out on a council area basis. Those are presented to the relevant councils for consideration, including Newry and Mourne District Council and Down District Council, during the spring and autumn each year. Copies of those reports can be obtained online from Roads Service southern division, in which the Newry to Downpatrick route lies.
I should explain that, in distributing the resources available for the maintenance and improvement of roads, allocations are made to the four Roads Service divisions on the basis of need, using a range of weighted indicators that are tailored to each activity. The divisions use those indicators when apportioning resources across the council areas to ensure, as far as possible, that there is an equitable distribution of funds across the North.
Across the Newry and Mourne and Down council areas, Roads Service spent in the region of £19 million in the 2009-2010 financial year. For example, the spend in the Newry and Mourne council area last year included more than £5·7 million on structural maintenance, £932,000 on minor improvement works, £463,000 on traffic management measures and £404,000 on highway structures. In the Down District Council area, £4,225,000 was spent on structural maintenance, £600,000 on highway structures and £660,000 and £367,000 on minor improvements and traffic management measures respectively.
Willie Clarke asked about EU funding. He will know, in relation to the east border region, that we have been making applications for priority 2 INTERREG funding that may be available for supporting collaboration on infrastructure. Roads Service is preparing a bid for a percentage of the €10 million available under priority 2 funding. However, it is important to note that three regions — Scotland, the North and the South — are competing for a percentage of that €10 million. The full amount will not be spent in a single region member state.
Caitríona Ruane asked about the route from Doran’s Rock to Rowallane. Roads Service is developing proposals to improve a section of the A7 Downpatrick to Belfast link corridor between Doran’s Rock and Rowallane, and a preliminary design has been drawn up. Works continue to refine and optimise the design, and it is planned to hold a public exhibition in due course to describe and explain the developing proposal and to obtain feedback from the local community.
Returning to the subject of the road between Downpatrick and Newry, I assure Members that considerable improvements have been made over the past five years. Resurfacing and strengthening works have been completed in the urban areas of the B8 at Newry and at rural sections near Hilltown, at Yellow Road, the Old Road, Clonduff Road and Goward Road. I assure Members that I am aware of the intricacies of the Seven Sisters, having cycled that route on more that one occasion.
Resurfacing work on the rural stretches of the A25 has also been completed in Castlewellan, Aughlisnafin, Moneyscalp Road, Ardnabannon Road and Ballybannon Road, as well as in urban sections of Downpatrick. The cost of completing that work has been in the region of £770,000, and further works are proposed on that route at Sandy Street in Newry, Kilcoo and Mayobridge. Minor improvement works costing around £300,000 have also been completed at the B8 Kinghill Road junction, the A25 Burrenreagh junction and the A25 Vianstown Road. Further improvements are planned for routes at Haughey’s Hill, Tobercorran Road and Ardnabannon Road. Traffic safety improvement measures have also been carried out over the past few years, particularly traffic calming at Kilcoo, Hilltown, Mayobridge and Castlewellan.
I am sure the House will agree that improving the road network across the North places huge demands on the budget. Careful consideration must be given to targeting schemes of greatest priority. Although resources must continue to go to the parts of the strategic road network that require attention, I assure Members that important maintenance and safety-related work will continue to be undertaken in other parts of the network, including the B8 and A25 Downpatrick to Newry Road, in line with policies and competing priorities.
Adjourned at 5.37 pm.