Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I tender apologies from my colleague from Newry and Armagh Megan Fearon, who has another engagement. I welcome the Minister and thank him for being here. I welcome the announcement that he made on 27 September of £1·6 million for additional resurfacing in the Newry area. That is very welcome. Bessbrook has not been mentioned, but I am sure that it will get part of that.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
The 'Banbridge/Newry and Mourne Area Plan 2015' includes a proposal for a Newry southern bypass as a long-term strategic road improvement to link from the A1 Dublin Road, a key strategic road, to the A2 Warrenpoint Road, a trunk road heading to Warrenpoint port. The Department's consultation document on proposals to expand the 'Regional Strategic Transport Network Plan 2015' includes the Newry southern relief road as a scheme that performed well in assessment. After representations, the Department agreed to undertake a local transport study of the southern side of Newry to assess the impact of the southern relief road and the possible lines of a new link from the A1 Dublin Road at or in the vicinity of Cloughoge roundabout.
In October 2006, Roads Service engaged consultancy support to assist its southern division to undertake a transportation study to assess a range of road improvement options to provide relief to traffic in the Dublin Road, Bridge Street, William Street, Abbey Way and Warrenpoint Road area of the city of Newry. That work included a review and assessment of the possibility of options to provide a new road link from the A2 Warrenpoint Road to the A1 Dublin Road, establishing the potential benefits, costs and impactsof a new road link. I am sure that anyone who has driven through Newry, particularly in Dublin Road, Bridge Street, Dominic Street and the Ballybot area in general will immediately recognise particular problems in that area. Two years ago, I asked road traffic management to do a survey of traffic use on Dominic Street, which is a relatively small street in Newry. It was found that 5,000 vehicles a day use that road, and that is a lot of traffic for a street that was not built for it.
The feasibility study report published in 2009 concluded that, on the basis of the information available and presented in the report, the provision of a new road link between the A2 Warrenpoint and the A1 Belfast-Dublin key transport corridor was feasible and would be expected to provide significant economic benefits. That report also recommended that all options be taken through a wider consultation process to explore and assess the wider benefits with key stakeholders in the area. At the presentation of the report at a meeting of Newry and Mourne District Council in September 2009, when the current Minister was possibly still a councillor — I think he was — Minister Conor Murphy welcomed the findings of the feasibility study into the Newry southern relief road. The Minister said:
"I welcome the positive findings of the report on the feasibility of the scheme and the transport benefits that a new road link, between the A2 Warrenpoint Road dual carriageway and the A1 Belfast/Dublin Key Transport Corridor, would bring to this area. This scheme would provide a new strategic transport link to support the economic growth of the city, improve transport links to Warrenpoint Harbour, increase road safety and contribute to a reduction in congestion within the centre of Newry. The report takes account of traffic demands on the main road network, in the southern part of Newry city centre, together with the constraints presented by existing development, the challenging topography and sensitive environment of the area."
On that basis, the Minister asked Roads Service to proceed with further environmental and engineering assessments and to engage in a wider consultation process considered necessary to identify a preferred corridor for the Newry southern relief road.
The feasibility study prepared for Roads Service by consultants Scott Wilson provided a comprehensive assessment in which options for providing a strategic road link between the A2 Warrenpoint Road dual carriageway and the A1 Dublin key transport corridor were developed and costed. Several environmental and technical issues require further attention. There is the Carlingford shore special area of conservation in the south and the Carlingford special protection area in the north. Environmental issues associated with tree ring features on the slopes of Fathom Mountain and with crossing Newry canal require detailed investigation. I will point out that Newry canal, which was opened in 1742, is the oldest inland waterway in Ireland or Britain. I just thought I would put that in for posterity.
The need for the road becomes increasingly urgent. In 2012, DOE confirmed that air quality at Trevor Hill and Canal Street was the worst in the North. At that time, DRD, under the present Minister, said that the southern relief road project's development was dictated by numerous factors, not just air quality. Air quality is one of a number of environmental factors considered at each stage in the development and assessment of a major road improvement scheme. DRD said that, in particular, the benefits identified in the scheme include an alternative route for heavy goods vehicles travelling to and from Warrenpoint port and a regional gateway to the A1 Belfast/Dublin dual carriageway, avoiding the congested urban network in the city of Newry. A southern relief road would be expected to provide a measure of relief to the Dublin Road, Bridge Street, Abbey Way and the Warrenpoint Road area of Newry.
Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade has said that delivery of the road would bring numerous benefits to the greater Newry area. A southern relief road will not only alleviate traffic congestion but have other financial spin-offs, including providing alternative access routes for the Albert Basin, increasing its development potential, freeing up land for development at the Greenbank estate and opening up tourist links between County Down, County Louth and south Armagh, as well as reducing emergency service vehicle response times and reducing air pollution in Newry city centre.
The Minister also represents our constituency of Newry and Armagh, and I urge him to take on board what I have said. I truly appreciate that he has a limited budget and many priorities. However, there is nothing wrong with being parochial sometimes, and I am sure that I have spotted the Minister going to Omeath for cheaper diesel. He can correct me if I am wrong. As I said, there is nothing wrong with being parochial sometimes, and there is no doubt that a southern relief road would bring great benefit to our constituency.
I support the call for a southern relief road in Newry. I frequently travel from Kilkeel to Banbridge, and I would not like to add up the hours that I have spent waiting in Kilmorey Street, waiting to cross the bridge into Newry or waiting to go through to the Quays shopping centre. It is the ultimate bottleneck.
To be fair to the Department, Newry has received some good road infrastructure news in recent years. The dual carriageway that links the Banbridge dual carriageway with the motorway that starts at Dundalk was completed, and that has greatly speeded up travel on that side of town. There has also been some progress on the Narrow Water bridge project, although we do not know exactly where we stand. First, that bridge is far from certain, and, secondly, even if it were built, it would not relieve much of the traffic that we are dealing with. It would certainly not relieve the large number of juggernauts coming through from Warrenpoint harbour.
One of the great successes of south Down is that, throughout the recession, Warrenpoint harbour has prospered. It has met great challenges, has overcome them, is in profit and is doing well. It is a fulcrum of economic development in that part of south Down. Its chief executive tells me that it is very frustrating for him that large lorries coming from Warrenpoint have difficulty accessing the port and getting away from it, particularly to markets in the Irish Republic and in the Belfast area. One is very mindful of the fact that, when you stand close to the Irish language primary school — the nearest point, I suppose — you can see lorries spewing out fumes and getting absolutely nowhere. Not only is that an expense to the harbour authority and those who take consignments to and from it but it is leading to a reduction in air quality.
Over the years, I have asked the Minister to bring me up to date on the cost of the scheme. I think that the last figure he quoted was between £150 million and £200 million. I have no doubt that, today, he will bring us right up to date on the exact figure. Everyone must accept that that is a huge amount — there is no question about that — but I ask him to check a couple of funding possibilities. First, is there any way that cross-border EU moneys could be obtained? I accept that the scheme would link, dare I say it, one part of the United Kingdom with another part of the United Kingdom, in the sense that it would not transgress into the Irish Republic. However, being serious about it, I think that it could be argued that it would be a very important cross-border development. Obviously, a lot of the traffic to and from the southern part of Newry is going into the Irish Republic. Therefore, there may be merit in trying to access European money, though I know that that is difficult. Secondly, if I may be the first to mention the elephant in the room, the A5 is on hold. That was a £400 million scheme, and I understand that there is still money in the kitty allocated for that. There may be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as it were, that could be used to start the scheme. I accept that it is expensive, but the cost would be spread over quite a few years. Thirdly, I wonder whether, when the economic conditions improve, a joint venture between us and the Irish Republic would be possible. Undoubtedly, this would bring great economic benefits to traffic coming from the Republic as well as from Northern Ireland. Those are the various models.
Some have suggested that there could be a toll bridge. Experience shows that it is highly unlikely that any private investor would build this massive project with any realistic prospect of redeeming the cost through tolls. We all know the success of toll bridges in parts of the Republic's motorway system. However, it is noticeable that, in other parts, where the traffic projections were clearly wrong, the Irish Government now pay money to private contractors to make up the shortfall. The only successful ones are at the Boyne and on the Dublin ring road; the rest lose money. I cannot honestly see how anyone could redeem such a huge amount through tolling. However, if the Minister has a crystal ball and can advise me otherwise, I would be very interested. People would not pay a toll; they would simply continue to congest that very busy part of Newry.
It is important to keep this up to date. The area plan recognises that we need it. Frankly, I see it as the last piece in the jigsaw of Newry's development. I hark on about this, but I used to say that I was elected before some people in the room were born. Looking around, I do not think that that is the case today — Mr McCallister may claim otherwise, but I doubt it — but I recall that, when I was first elected in 1982, Newry was in South Down. It is not untrue to say that there was practically sagebrush blowing down the main street. The town was a basket case economically. As a result of the work of people such as Mr Haughey and Gerard O'Hare, Newry has been pulled up by the bootstraps, and its economic output has increased enormously. That is a remarkable testimony to indigenous entrepreneurs working hard to revive their economy. Having done that, Newry deserves support, and the southern relief road would be the last piece in the jigsaw of its ultimate regeneration. Of course, there is also the canal basin redevelopment, which really would make Newry an exemplar to the rest of the country for what can be done.
I support what Mr Brady is saying and am sure that others will join me in that. I have my doubts about whether the Minister will announce today that he is about to cut the first sod or is planning the cutting of the ribbon. It may be slightly further off than that. However, I would like to think that, as a result of today's debate, he can give us an indication that progress is being made on achieving this much-needed project.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo ar bhóthar faoisimh theas an Iúir. I am glad of the opportunity to participate in today's debate on the southern relief road at Newry. At the outset, I state that the SDLP strongly supports the provision of the road. Indeed, I raised the issue with the previous Minister several times in the House and, indeed, just last year during the debate on the investment strategy.
Our party locally has conducted a vigorous postcard and petition campaign in support of the road. The Members who spoke highlighted the importance of the project for tourism and for the economy, and I very much agree with that. The project will benefit south Armagh, the city of Newry and south Down. The traffic congestion in Newry is a problem, especially with huge lorries coming to and from the harbour at Warrenpoint. That traffic congestion creates a problem and puts people off coming to shop and to do business in Newry. The project is supported by the greater Newry vision group, and I think that all parties represented here have signed up to that greater vision. The Minister, as a local representative, will be aware that the proposal is well supported in the business community and the wider community in the greater Newry area.
The road can be constructed in a way that respects the built heritage and natural environment of the area. Mr Wells referred to the importance that the road will have to the harbour at Warrenpoint. It is a busy harbour, and, as I said, there is much traffic to and from it. The road would add to the competitiveness of Warrenpoint harbour, in so far as it will increase access and egress times from the harbour and, therefore, make it more competitive in relation to other similar harbours North and South. The relief road would be a key strategic road for future economic and tourism development in the region and, indeed, the whole east coast of Ireland.
I assume that the Minister will tell us that the feasibility study report, which was published in August 2009, concluded that the provision of the new road between the A2 Warrenpoint Road and the A1 dual carriageway is feasible and would be expected to provide significant economic benefits. That was one of the significant outcomes of the feasibility study.
The Department for Regional Development's strategic transport network plan has included proposals for the Newry southern relief road. As we know, Newry has a proud history at the heart of the island's economy, and Mr Wells outlined how local people — some of whom he mentioned in his speech — were instrumental in advancing the economic viability of Newry and making it into a prosperous city. I will mention the contribution made by a local co-op with Work in Newry (WIN). Having viewed the dire unemployment figures and economic prospects, that group was instrumental in ensuring that the economy of Newry was revived and that the city became a vibrant force once again.
That group and other local groups are very much in support of the project. I hope that the Minister can give us an update on a preferred route for the road and tell us when he expects to announce that. I also hope that the Minister is lobbying among his Executive colleagues to obtain the necessary support for the project. It would be good if the Minister were in a position to tell us when some sort of announcement will be made about the future of the road. As I said, there is tremendous support for the project in the city of Newry, south Down and south Armagh, and I think that it is one that deserves the type of resources needed to bring it forward. I hope that it will become a reality in the not-too-distant future.
I support the motion. The draft 'Banbridge/Newry and Mourne Area Plan 2015' includes a proposal for the Newry southern relief road to link the A1 Belfast to Dublin road with the A2 Warrenpoint Road. Although the scheme has performed well in the DRD's assessment, it has been deemed not affordable at the moment. Minister, I do not whether this is take two or take three, but we have sat on opposite sides of Newry and Mourne District Council discussing the issue in the past. It was important then, and it is even more important today.
As other Members have said, the creation of such a road would have significant economic benefits for the whole south Down, south Armagh and Newry area. Narrow Water bridge is merely a tourist bridge, but the relief road would take heavy goods vehicles off the streets of Newry, reduce traffic congestion and attract even more shoppers to the city. Heavy goods vehicles would also have a direct route to Warrenpoint port, increasing trade in the port area. Warrenpoint port currently ranks third in Northern Ireland, significantly behind two other east coast ports. As Mr Wells said, Warrenpoint Harbour Authority has ambitious plans for the development of the port, including its becoming a visiting destination for cruise liners next year.
The road would also act as a gateway to the development of tourism in south Down. There are ambitious plans for the development of Warrenpoint, Kilkeel and Newcastle as part of a south-east-coast master plan. However, we must get people to turn off the main A1 and into Mourne country and St Patrick's country. There also great potential with the development of the Cooley and Slieve Gullion tourism area.
We see similar schemes when we travel around Ireland, England and the rest of Europe. I listened to Mr Brady say that we had the engineers, and so on, around to construct Newry canal in 1742. What is holding us up today? Where there is a will, there is a way. I hope that Mr Kennedy, along with his Executive colleagues, finds that will.
Colleagues present are conveniently all from the constituencies of South Down and Newry and Armagh, so I do not expect the Minister to announce anything but good news. I always get a bit anxious and worried when Mr Wells reminds us that he was elected in 1982. It is high time that he was retired, but, thankfully, he still has had a contribution to make in the past few years. I agree with some of what he said about Newry.
I do not live that far from Newry. The changes that have happened there over the past 25 or 30 years are enormous. The city's regeneration and vibrancy, the drive of the Newry business community despite some very difficult times, and the enthusiasm of different groups in the city are all to be commended.
As with other major towns and cities, one of the hugely limiting factors in Newry is congestion. Travelling into, or parking in, the city has become so difficult that it could start to stifle business there. Travelling into and around Newry is very difficult at times, particularly for those coming from the Warrenpoint side. The traffic also has a detrimental effect on the potential growth of the harbour at Warrenpoint. We should be mindful of that, because the port is an economic driver there. It is hugely important to the south Down economy, as well as to the wider Northern Ireland economy, as the trade that goes through the port is vital to us. The southern relief road would have a huge impact and bring advantages for both Newry city, in relieving congestion there, and Warrenpoint port. It could make a huge contribution.
I know that the Minister has visited Warrenpoint harbour on numerous occasions and will be familiar with it. We will have to bear that in mind, along with all the other things that a project such as this could do for south Down and the wider Northern Ireland economy.
I thank the Member for giving way. I do not want to disappoint him, but although I have been around this Building for a very long time, I started very young, and I am certainly nowhere near retirement age.
The Member and I have both attended meetings in Warrenpoint where Newry and Mourne District Council has unveiled exciting proposals for cruise liners to be brought into Warrenpoint. The water depth is sufficient, and I know that the harbour authority is very up to it. However, does the Member accept that it will be very off-putting if we bring lots of wealthy tourists into south Down and then when we try to take them anywhere beyond that immediate area, they will get logjammed in Newry in their bus going absolutely nowhere?
I agree with that.
The only reason why the Member is not so near retirement age is because the Government keep moving it.
I agree with the serious point that he made. I think that bringing that type of tourism into Northern Ireland and south Down would be hugely beneficial. I remind him of the successes that there have been in Belfast with bringing in cruise ships. That is having a huge impact, and it is something that I would like to see and encourage in south Down. It could have a huge impact and be very valuable for the economy, both locally and in the entire surrounding area. The impact that it would have across the board on business would be enormous. So, it is a project to which we are all very committed.
I look forward with great interest to what the Minister has to say. He may perhaps shed some light on whether, at this stage, he has spent the A5 money about 10 times over. Certainly, he will have had demands for it to be spent. Does he still have the A5 money, or has it gone back to DFP? We might need to make sure that Simon Hamilton is as enthusiastic about the southern relief road as I expect the Minister to be.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Members who have remained for this important debate.
One of the consequences of attending the debate is that I will not be available for the opening of Markethill Livestock and Farm Sales in my constituency this evening. However, I take the opportunity to place on record my congratulations to Mr Hampton Hewitt and everyone concerned. I wish them well in that relocation, given the importance of that business to the local economy in mid-Armagh and further afield.
I asked my officials to take note of issues so that if I do not have time to pick up any of the points that Members raised, I can write to them following the debate. I have, of course, listened with care to Members' comments, and it will come as no surprise at all to you to hear that I am a very strong supporter of the southern relief road and project.
I am very familiar with the peak-time traffic conditions in the city of Newry, especially on Kilmorey Street, William Street, Bridge Street and Dublin Road in the southern part of the city. I also understand the benefits that a southern relief road might be expected to provide.
The expanded SRI programme makes specific reference to the Newry southern relief road in a list of schemes that performed well in the assessment but that were not affordable in the ISNI budget to 2015. I inherited the situation in which only a feasibility study had been undertaken, albeit that the findings were positive, as we expected.
As Members recall, the study assessed a range of options for a new road link between the key strategic A1 Belfast to the border dual carriageway and the A2 Warrenpoint Road dual carriageway, which is a trunk road leading to Warrenpoint harbour. Much has been made of the need for improvements to that road for the harbour traffic, and I accept that entirely.
The study took account of the Government’s five main objectives for transport: environment, safety, economy, accessibility and integration. The report concluded that a southern relief road would be feasible; would create a more strategically connected road network; would provide a measure of relief to traffic in the city; and could be expected to demonstrate value for money. At that time, construction costs in the range of between £100 million and £211 million were indicated. That remains the case. Those costs reflect the challenges presented by the topography and constraints of the area through which the proposed road would pass. That area includes the Newry river and canal, which was opened in 1742. If you wait a moment or two, you will hear me going back slightly further than that. It also includes the steep slopes of Fathom Mountain, the Belfast/Dublin railway line and the environmentally sensitive areas in Carlingford lough, which are downstream of the location.
Traffic surveys undertaken in 2007 indicated traffic levels in excess of 24,000 vehicles per day on parts of Bridge Street. That included a significant proportion of heavy goods vehicles travelling to or from Belfast and Dublin to the port at Warrenpoint. Also, at that time, Newry traders were benefiting from visitors from the Republic of Ireland who were attracted to shop in the city by the relative currency values. Peak traffic demands in excess of the available road capacity led to delays and congestion on the local and strategic road network. Although we no longer have the same volume of southern shoppers, peak demand continues to exceed capacity. In that respect, the feasibility report concluded that the provision of an alternative route for strategic traffic would create a more strategically connected road network, while providing a measure of relief to traffic on the Dublin Road, Bridge Street, William Street, Abbey Way and Warrenpoint Road areas of the city of Newry. The report went on to make clear, however, that it should be recognised that the significant volumes of local traffic would continue to create delays and congestion in the city, particularly during the morning and afternoon peak periods.
Recognising Warrenpoint harbour as a key stakeholder for the Newry southern relief road, the feasibility report also concluded that significant disruption was experienced by heavy goods vehicles going to and from the port, which pass through the city of Newry, and that the provision of a new road would create an alternative route for that traffic and provide relief to traffic delays and congestion. I am also aware that the feasibility report noted that the future expansion of the port was largely influenced by the efficiency of the transport links to and from the port.
The traffic modelling reported in the feasibility study indicated that over 5,000 vehicles per day may be attracted to a southern relief road, with more than 22,000 continuing to use Bridge Street. Nevertheless, the traffic and economic assessments that have been undertaken indicate that the proposed scheme would be expected to provide value for money with transport benefits, including safety benefits, exceeding the costs involved in providing the relief road.
The feasibility study recommended consultation with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and identified the need to undertake an article 6 assessment under the terms of the European Union’s habitats directive. That assessment would test the likely significance of the proposed scheme on the two Natura 2000 sites within the wider study area; namely, the Carlingford shore special area of conservation in the Republic of Ireland and the Carlingford lough special protection area in Northern Ireland. I can confirm that that has been progressed.
This is quite technical, but it is very important. Environmental issues associated with tree ring features on the slopes of Fathom Mountain, which is likely to be affected by the proposal, are the subject of a more detailed investigation, which includes consultation with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. I am advised that NIEA believes those features to be potentially significant early 17th-century sconces, rather than the more recent tree ring landscape features. I need hardly remind Members of what sconces are, but they are rudimentary artillery fortifications comprising small circular earthen banks. They date back to November 1600 and the latter stage of the nine-year war of 1594 to 1603, which involved hostilities between the High King of Ireland, Hugh O’Neill, and the forces of Baron Mountjoy. Of course, Members will be very familiar with all that.
Should the NIEA assessment prove correct, this would represent a category of site that has not been previously identified in Northern Ireland. Accordingly, my Department is continuing to work with the NIEA with a view to determining conclusively the precise origins of those features. A solution is likely to come at some cost whether the site is excavated and recorded by archaeologists or the line of the proposed road is moved.
A more detailed technical investigation of the specific options for crossing the Newry canal was also recommended, given the sensitive nature of this important heritage feature. It is expected to require at least the provision of a bascule, or lifting bridge, to allow the passage of tall ships on the canal. The width of the Victoria lock already limits the size of ship that can enter the canal and it is expected that any bridge would maintain a navigation channel that matches the width of the sea lock. My Department will continue to consult with NIEA on how the impact of the proposal on the canal might be mitigated and an appropriate design developed.
Future progress remains dependent on a number of factors, including the development process and the proposal clearing the statutory procedures, which will involve formal public consultation. It must continue to have a satisfactory economic appraisal and, given other competing priorities, progress to construction will be dependent on the funding made available in future Budget settlements.
Members will know that I am a strong supporter of this project. I have asked officials to move the scheme forward and proceed with the various environmental and technical investigations relating to the tree ring features on Fathom Mountain and Newry canal, which will assist in identifying a preferred corridor for the Newry southern relief road.
I welcome all the contributions to the debate. Mickey Brady set out the case. Jim Wells mentioned the importance of the harbour authority and other funding opportunities including from the EU and from tolls. All those things will be explored. Dominic Bradley and Sean Rogers expressed strong support for the proposal. Road building is a lengthy and detailed process. John McCallister recognised the economic driver of Warrenpoint port. There is substantial political support, and I know that there is substantial community and business support for the road. There are technical issues, which are important environmentally and otherwise. We will continue to progress the matter as quickly as possible.
Adjourned at 5.53 pm.