North Coast Transport Infrastructure

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 16th June 2014.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 4:15 pm, 16th June 2014

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 contributors will have five minutes.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls upon the Minister for Regional Development to invest in the transport infrastructure at, and leading to, the north coast to assist the commercial, commuter and tourist sectors of the economy.

I am pleased to be able to put forward the case for infrastructure development and improvement at and around the north coast to enable all aspects of the economic development of the area to improve and meet the needs of the 21st century user.  I acknowledge the work that has been and is being done.  It is important that that work be acknowledged.

As the Minister is aware, I have mentioned to him, on a number of occasions, different projects that I believe are worthwhile for the north coast.  A dual carriageway the whole way to Coleraine from the end of the M2 on a phased basis, a climbing lane at Gortcorbies on the A37 Limavady to Coleraine road and a bypass for Dungiven to alleviate the congestion and pollution problems in that area are all essential road projects.  It is vital that I point out that the A37 is the route used by emergency ambulances transferring patients to Altnagelvin Area Hospital.  The A26 is the main route for transferring patients to Antrim Area Hospital and the Belfast hospitals.  Improvement in journey times could be viewed as being very beneficial to patient outcomes.

All the projects that I have mentioned would have a great and positive impact on the north coast.  The area is home to many commuters.  Enhanced road works would benefit them by allowing them more time with their families, by reducing congestion and, definitely in the case of Dungiven town, by reducing pollution.

I have heard local firms on the north coast say that it is frustrating for them, as staff and vehicles are often severely delayed by the tailbacks on the A26 and A6 arterial routes.  Delays cost businesses money that could be used to employ more staff and enhance services.  There is also the cost of fuel and the financial impact of that on businesses to be considered, as much-needed income is removed from the pockets of commuters.  Many aspects of the economy would benefit if improvements to road infrastructure were made.

There has to be acknowledgement of the high number of people who have lost their life on the A26 and the need for improvements on the road.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  Does he acknowledge that the Department has made quite an investment — £8·2 million — into the A26 as a result of lobbying over a period from his good self and many others from the north Antrim area?

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I acknowledge the Member's contribution.  I was just about to come to that.

Work needs to be done, preferably to build a dual carriageway to replace the existing old road, to help to minimise road casualties on a phased basis.  I appreciate that that road project is among the Minister's priorities.  However, I would like to hear a definite start date from him.

In public transport, we have seen much investment in the Belfast to Londonderry rail service.  I appreciate that there are legitimate reasons for the delay in the signalling project.  However, I am aware that people who are affected by the planned development between Coleraine and Londonderry would like clarity on progress so that they can make plans.  I welcome the investment programme so far and eagerly await its ultimate completion, especially of the new rail platform development at Bellarena outside Limavady.  As part of the investment in the rail infrastructure, there has been much interest in a rail halt at Ballykelly, especially since the relocation of the DARD headquarters to the site there was announced.  I am sure that the Minister will not be surprised at my mentioning that.  It would be a beneficial project for DARD staff and locals alike.  Perhaps the Minister can give an update on any discussions that he has had with his DARD counterpart on the possible start date for the project.

I mentioned the Gortcorbies climbing lane, a project that the Minister and his predecessor will be aware of my commitment to.  In recent years, the need for it has become increasingly obvious as traffic levels increase.  Daily, there are long tailbacks at peak times.  Regrettably, that results in some motorists taking chances to overtake, thus endangering lives.  A climbing lane would enable traffic to flow much more freely on that arterial route.  Inwards investors look for good transport links, which are essential for that investment.

The north-west also has its own airport located at Eglinton, which I believe could be more fully utilised, with a side effect of saving the council money.  That type of transport infrastructure is essential to develop our economy.  When the area can boast Project Kelvin, the high-speed Internet project, let us ensure that we have the transport infrastructure to match. 

All the projects that I mentioned will improve the connectivity of the north coast to the rest of Northern Ireland, with benefits in so many sectors.  I believe that investment in such projects is good value for money, when and if the resources become available. 

What I have not mentioned is the impact that transport infrastructure improvements will have on the tourist sector.  I want to mention the importance of the Rathlin ferry to the tourist economy.  We have been fortunate to host an Irish Open in Portrush and coped well overall.  The British Open in 2019, which I warmly welcome, and which was announced today, will require roads improvement in the areas mentioned.  Those events are, of course, on top of the annual North West 200 motorcycle race, the Milk Cup and the air show, which are smaller but equally important events that support the north-west economy, and which will benefit also. 

Some families are feeling the financial squeeze, and I understand that staycations have become increasingly popular.  In 2012, 8·4 million day trips were taken in Northern Ireland.  Better transport infrastructure makes travelling by car or public transport a good option for such trips.  That scenario supports business and offers a cost-effective option for staycations.  Bearing in mind the widespread impact of these projects on the north coast in general, we can see how improvements in the transport infrastructure will provide value for money and be positive. 

I appreciate that I may have overlooked specific items, but I am sure that other Members will raise them.  I hope that all Members will see the benefit of supporting this motion for the entire population of the north cost.  As we all know, all departmental budgets are constrained at present, and I acknowledge that.  However, when funding becomes available, I hope that the Minister will consider the needs of the north coast for the reasons that I outlined.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin 4:30 pm, 16th June 2014

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  I support the motion and most of the proposer's shopping list for the infrastructure that is undoubtedly needed along the north coast, from the north-east all the way over to the north-west. 

In recent months, we have had the Giro in north Antrim.  Obviously, the Open has been held and will be held again in the Port in the time ahead.  I have always said that there is huge tourism potential from north Antrim and east Derry all the way over to Derry city.  We have failed to realise that for a variety of reasons, one of which is infrastructure. 

In recent weeks, we have referred to the issue of air passenger duty.  If we want tourists to get to the north coast, we have to get them to the North first.  The Executive and, in particular, the economy Ministers need to get to grips with that.

 

Last night, I was looking at a brochure for the Causeway Coast and glens, which stated that the route is one of the world's greatest road journeys.  The Antrim Coaster, service 252, serves the bus route from Derry to Coleraine to Ballycastle all the way down to Carnlough and then to Larne.  However, in the summer during the peak period, for the world's greatest road journey, there are only two buses a day from Coleraine to Larne, and vice versa.  So, we need a proper bus service along that route not only for local people but for tourists.  It is a case of build it, and they will come. 

Historically, there has always been a deficit, particularly in the north-east.  The train infrastructure runs to Coleraine, Portrush, Portstewart and Larne, but the transport infrastructure to Ballycastle has always been short.  The figures outlined in the research paper that was provided by Dr Raymond Russell underlines that fact.  In the North, 6·1% of people use public transport.  In East Belfast, 13% of people use it.  However, if you look at other constituencies, you see that, in East Derry, only 3% use public transport and, in North Antrim, only 2·5% use it.

That is not because people in those constituencies do not want to use public transport; it is because of the choices available to them.  That indicates how poor some of our public transport options are.  It is ironic that we in North Antrim, the place where we build buses, are least likely to use them.  Most people there would like the opportunity to avail themselves of bus and train services, and we need to ensure that those services are in place for our rural communities in particular. 

I come from an area with a number of villages including Ballybogey, Stranocum, Dunloy, Rasharkin and Loughguile, and they are all just off the beaten track.  I sometimes wonder about connecting such villages to Ballymoney and Ballymena, from where there is main transport infrastructure to Belfast and Derry.  There should be a bus service for all those villages.  If there was, the 2·5% figure would soon increase.

As outlined, a lot of lives have been lost on the A26, and I welcome the work carried out by the Department in moving towards an upgrade.  There is a big opportunity there for park-and-ride facilities.  Wherever park and ride has been provided, the uptake has been phenomenal, and that would be the case for the A26, too.  It would serve the needs not only in the Ballymoney/Ballymena area but of the commuters who come down from Ballycastle on to the A26 in the morning, and they would, no doubt, use it.  I have also argued that, if you provided a train stop at Dunloy, you would be able to tap into that arterial route from Ballycastle to the Drones and on to the A26.  Many would use a train service if it was handy for their daily commute. 

The proposer also referred to the Rathlin ferry.  It is good not only for getting tourists to the island regularly but for the islanders.  When I went to the island on the ferry recently, there was a lot of chat amongst the islanders that there seemed to be a bit of a baby boom, so the population of the island is starting to increase.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

I am sure that a number of factors are involved in the population increase on Rathlin, but it goes to show that good transport infrastructure not only improves the economy and increases tourism but improves constituents' quality of life.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I was hoping that we would have a holistic approach to the debate, but I had no idea that we would get a baby boom in the middle of it. 

The infrastructure deficit, particularly in the north-west, is steeped in history and goes back to partition.  Indeed, if one were to read the playwright Harry Barton, one would see that it goes back to the sixteenth century, when the MacSweeneys, the McQuillans and all the other clansmen perhaps had a more sophisticated form of transport than we have today.

It was during the dark days of direct rule that the railway was in serious danger of disappearing, certainly north of Ballymena.  Even today, despite the commitments of the Minister, it would require very substantial capital investment to bring it to a stage at which we can say that there is an hourly intercity service to Belfast and, hopefully, onward to Dublin, Cork, Galway, and so on.

Everyone here knows that Michael Palin described that railway journey as one of the wonders of the world.  Recently, the Minister issued a press release on his future strategy, which I thoroughly agree with.  I think that the strategy was courageous, and I look forward to hearing the Minister put the flesh on the bones it because I am very conscious that the Budget agreed here in 2011 by the DUP and Sinn Féin somewhat restricts forward thinking.

When the Minister took office, he immediately went to redress the empty money bag left by the previous Minister.  I am sorry to be critical of anybody, but what happened was disgraceful.  Despite Mr Kennedy being from an opposing party, I give him credit.  He found £20 million and stopped what could have been the closure of that line. 

I am sure that those who tabled the motion are happy to say that "infrastructure" includes other forms of transport, including roads, ferries, air travel and canals.  The ferry service to Rathlin was mentioned, and I am disappointed that nobody mentioned the ferry service between Magilligan and Greencastle.  Perhaps that is something that needs to be examined, with a long-term view to developing tourism going both ways, because international tourists know nothing of borders and partition. 

I am not sure how we fit the Ulster canal into this motion; but we can, of course, because when the Ulster canal is open, tourists will come in their thousands and that will benefit the Lower Bann, the Foyle as well, and right over to Scotland.

Lots of these issues are European, and, again, I give credit to the Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee who spearheaded a visit to Brussels on this very subject.  Again, the Minister has been to Brussels, and I know that the staff there are working very hard to attract funding.

There are, of course, three roads that are important; not just the one or two that Mr Robinson referred to.  The A26 brings the traffic from Ballymena and the A6 brings it from Belfast, but remember that the A5 brings traffic from Dublin.  Those three arterial routes are absolutely critical to the future well-being of the coastal area; and, of course, the coast runs right up to Malin Head

I hope that the motion will stimulate thought and provoke action.  I do not know of any other area where there is a greater need to develop a long-term plan that puts in place an infrastructure.  That infrastructure will bring to the north-west — economically and socially deprived for too long — the enormous benefits of new inward investment and, particularly, international tourism.  The relative peace that we have now has created new opportunities to start addressing issues, which were probably neglected throughout the 40 years of the Troubles —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member please draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

— but are now awaiting the interest of long-term investors who want to see a stable return for their money.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank those who tabled the motion for bringing it to the House.  I welcome the opportunity to speak on today's motion on north coast infrastructure.  I start by acknowledging today's great announcement of the return of the Open to Royal Portrush, which will, no doubt, bring a very welcome headache for transport and logistic planners.  When we look at the success — it has already been mentioned — of the Giro d'Italia, which took in so many of the north coast's best features, we actually know that they are up to it.  And we cannot mention the Giro and the north coast without referring to Councillor Sandra Hunter's pink sheep and the fantastic tourist attraction that those were. 

I acknowledge the great support provided to tourism by Translink, through its seasonal Rambler services, including the discounts available at some attractions to those travelling with Translink.  Those services supplement the conventional services, many of which are benefiting from new buses with the European funding component.  I will return to that point later. 

When we think of the contribution made to the north-west by the Department for Regional Development, we often forget about rural transport and community transport.  North Coast Community Transport provides an essential service.  It fills a gap for the many people who inhabit rural areas but, unfortunately, cannot readily access public transport services because of reduced mobility.  This is a lifeline for many, and I am pleased that, once again, the Department under the Minister has guaranteed the budget for these important services.  Some have been making mischief on that front in recent weeks by claiming that the budgets have been reduced, but I am assured — I am sure that the Minister will reassure us again — that, as he has done in previous years, he will seek to secure additional funding for those important services.

I return to European funding opportunities.  DRD has the best track record of success when it comes to European funding, whether it is for new buses — I acknowledge the 40 Wrightbus buses now in service with Translink that have a component of European funding — upgraded railway stations or road improvements.  I think of the funding secured for the A8 scheme, some £15 million, which is the largest single amount for any project in Northern Ireland.  Indeed, European funding has been sought to develop not only a transport hub for Belfast but a signature station for the Waterside in Londonderry.

I am also informed that European funding will be used for the new designs of the Rathlin ferry and the public information services that will be happening in July.  Mr McKay referred to the baby boom that is taking place on Rathlin.  As I am sure you know, Minister Kennedy is the Minister responsible for Rathlin; he can answer for his own actions on that later.

There has been mention of two ferries: the Rathlin ferry, which is not only of tourism potential but a lifeline to the island, and the Malin Head ferry.  We also need to mention the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry and the tourism potential that it can bring to the entire north coast when it is running.

It is fair to say that, sometimes, a motion like this would be well served by a response from the Finance Minister in which he could set out what strategic projects promoted by other Ministers he is prepared to fund.  The A26 Frosses scheme has started, and there is the intention to further dual the section of the road to Coleraine, with goodwill and future funding.  That finance might not have come about had it not been for the well-placed photographing of Mr Campbell with the newly installed Finance Minister.  That photograph acted as a catalyst for the funding that we secured for the continuation and start of the A26.

Much has been made of the tourism potential of the north coast and the area.  It is something that the new council — Causeway Coast and Glens — will be looking to fully utilise, and it will want to ensure that the infrastructure is there to support that.  We need to look at the strategic plan for the tourism potential of the north coast.  We can look at the excellent facilities at the Giant's Causeway visitor centre and the fantastic numbers visiting it, but it could have been so much better and greater if the road structure and infrastructure had been put in place before it was built or while it was being built.  A complete, holistic package would have fully utilised what is a fantastic tourist attraction.  I know that the Minister is supportive of the proposed cycle and walkway scheme from Bushmills through the Causeway centre to the Aird.  I look forward to further announcements on that.  We will support the motion.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance 4:45 pm, 16th June 2014

The Alliance Party supports the motion and, indeed, would support and encourage the Minister for Regional Development to invest in transport infrastructure throughout Northern Ireland, as it goes without saying that a region with a modern road and rail network can and will prosper through economic development, thereby creating much-needed employment for all our people.  If we are to get our economy moving, we urgently need all parts of it to be working at their best.  The north coast is an essential part of our economy, particularly because it is a significant tourist venue with attractions such as the Giant's Causeway, the glens of Antrim, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and many other wonderful places of interest and beauty.  It is almost as pleasant as the Strangford constituency and the Ards peninsula.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

Almost.  It is also an essential piece of our transport infrastructure as it connects our two largest cities.  Given that they will be the economic hubs of Northern Ireland, easy transport between them is essential to the smooth running of our economy.  As a result, it is crucial that the infrastructure be appropriate.  I welcome the presence of the Minister for Regional Development, Mr Kennedy.  Somebody said that it would have been useful if the Minister of Finance and Personnel had been available, but on this occasion, not like the last, we at least have a Minister present.

I want to talk about the public transport infrastructure, which is where we should focus our efforts in supporting the motion.  The train service between Derry and Belfast is a crucial part of the infrastructure, and it is a wonderful service for the towns that are part of the route.  However, as has been said, it serves only the towns at which the trains stop.  We should look to bolster that with an integrated transport system that would provide a simple way for people to travel to stations to catch the train, whether by private car or, preferably, public transport.  Safe cycle storage should also be part of those plans. Likewise, bus transport should be more available to people who do not live close to the railways.  I would be interested to see whether the bus service between Belfast and the Giant's Causeway could be increased to make it easier for tourists to visit that fantastic location.  That would be one way of using public transport to stimulate our tourist industry in that area.

As a realist, I know that the roads system is a key part of the transport infrastructure.  That is not only because we need to build roads for buses to go on but because it is likely to be the default transport method for many in the future.  As a result, I ask the Department for Regional Development to begin to undertake a thorough survey of how roads infrastructure is coping and whether there are any specific bottlenecks or other issues that restrict the free flow of transport.  There will be specific local issues that could be fed into that.  It could be a useful role for the new councils to highlight those and work with the Department to remedy them.

I have long believed that the north coast is a particularly important part of Northern Ireland for its tourist potential and for providing a link between Belfast and the north-west of this region.  An efficient transport system for the area is vital.  As a member of the Regional Development Committee, I encourage the Minister to support the motion and take the necessary action to invest in and upgrade the infrastructure of roads and transport around the north coast.

Photo of Adrian McQuillan Adrian McQuillan DUP

I am sure that many people are all too aware of the beauty and attractiveness of the north coast of this Province.  The Giant's Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, Dunluce castle, Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine are all major attractions, with world-leading events such as the North West 200 and the Auld Lammas Fair attracting many thousands of tourists and visitors to the Province.  The Giant's Causeway is, without doubt, the largest and most attractive of the entire natural heritage we have to offer.  It attracted over 750,000 people in 2013.  The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge attracted over 250,000 people.

On the back of the motion, the BBC news correspondent Andy West decided that he would try today to get from Belfast to the Giant's Causeway by public transport.  He left the Europa Buscentre at 11.40 am on bus route 252 to Coleraine at a cost of £11·50 one way.  After numerous stops and one changeover at Coleraine, he arrived at the causeway at 3.14 pm, which is a travel time of three and a half hours.  The question to the Minister is this: is that acceptable?  Does it provide the most direct route to our largest tourist attraction from our capital city?  The visitor figures are magnificent, and they demonstrate the attractions that the north coast has to offer, as well as its market value.

I also mention Rathlin Island and, particularly, the Rathlin ferry, which provides first-class transport to and from the island.  It is important that that service is maintained and supported.

In 2013, when Londonderry was the UK City of Culture, an investment was made in the Coleraine to Londonderry railway line.  That was in response to the demand to maintain the existence of the railway line to that historic part of Ulster in its 400th year as a walled city.  I want to see that sort of investment in the north coast.  The Causeway Coast and Glens tourist area plan 2012-17 states that the 2012 baseline provided for growth, especially in the wake of the opening of the new causeway visitor centre and the Irish Open at Portrush.  There is, therefore, room for improvement and building on some of the best figures in Northern Ireland.

The motion calls for more investment in the transport infrastructure of the north coast.  I echo the call for the Minister for Regional Development to act.  Investment in the transport infrastructure would offer better access to the north coast, easy access being the foothold of any business.  Such an investment would offer better access to the north coast and the north-west region in order to manage demand better, as well as to attract more visitors and tourists with more efficient transport infrastructure.  It would offer an investment in the present market and in the future, presenting a legacy that will sustain tourism in this part of our Province for decades to come. 

Tourism is the heart of economic activity in my constituency.  It sustains a significant part of the private sector in the form of small and medium-sized businesses such as retail outlets and accommodation.  We must build on that and not ignore facts.  The north coast offers the most attractive of places outside Belfast for visitors and tourists.  Reducing travel time from Belfast and a more open and efficient transport system will make it even more attractive as a tourist destination, as well as opening up the travel corridor between Northern Ireland's two largest cities. This will offer an economic legacy in attracting more foreign direct investment and will increase our exports through a more reliable and accessible transport system that is open to the main ports and airports in Northern Ireland.

As well as attracting tourism, the north coast covers a large rural network with many businesses such as engineering and farming, to mention a few.  Those businesses need the support of sustainable roads that are maintained and upgraded to meet demand.  That has not been the case.  There are many roads around the north coast, in particular, the A29 from the Bushtown Road roundabout at Coleraine to Garvagh, which has been neglected and is in a poor condition.  Parts of the route are eroding into two tracks making it difficult to drive on.  I have contacted the Minister about this stretch of road on at least three occasions but, as yet, to no avail.  This is the main arterial route from mid-Ulster to the north coast and should, in my opinion, be a priority.

Another issue that is constantly raised with me is the deployment of the red coats on the north coast, particularly in the rural towns of Garvagh and Kilrea, which results in visitors being deterred from stopping and shopping in small, independent businesses in such towns and forces them into larger towns and supermarkets.  I ask the Minister to review the deployment of red coats in such an area.

I commend the motion to the House and call on the Minister to act, especially as we are coming into a new budgetary period and given the news that the Open championship is to be staged in Portrush as early as 2019.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  Beidh mé ag labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin seo. I support the motion, but I am surprised and disappointed that my amendment was not allowed as it sought to further define what is meant by the north coast and the north-west.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind Members that we should not discuss an amendment that was not selected.  We are here to discuss the motion.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  I suppose that, strictly speaking, the north coast of the North is what lies between Derry in the west and Belfast in the east.  It is, therefore, through these two cities that many of our visitors filter.  Two of the major bottlenecks in the North are on the A6, at Dungiven and Moneynick, and it is with great frustration and vexation that I see that those works have not progressed with urgency given the economic and tourist development that would accrue.  Likewise, delivery of the A5 project would be of great benefit to the entire North.  That said, I welcome the commencement of work on the A26 at Frosses and the announcement of the Magherafelt bypass.

The delivery of all these infrastructure projects will be a game changer for the wide variety of events that are on or may come.  Today's announcement on the Open is very welcome, as would any announcement be on the all-Ireland fleadh, an Irish City of Culture in 2016 and the possibility of the European City of Culture being in Derry at a later date.  That is as well as the top-flight events that we already have, such as the Milk and Foyle cups, the North West 200, the Auld Lammas Fair and visitor attractions such as Roe Valley Country Park, Bushmills, the blue flag beaches and, of course, the causeway.

Phase 1 of the Derry to Coleraine railway line has been completed, and phase 2 will hopefully start soon.  This investment, whilst welcome, has unfortunately not led to an improved service time.  Indeed, in a unique challenge next week, two of my constituents will attempt to highlight the dreadful amount of time taken by the Derry to Belfast train.  Peter will leave the general post office in Derry, walk across the Peace Bridge and board the Belfast-bound train.  John will also leave the GPO in Derry on his bicycle and will attempt to reach the central post office in Belfast before Peter.  It will be a damning indictment if John were to come in first or even close after.  By the way, the train takes nearly two and a half hours, and the distance by road is 75 miles.

Another vital piece of infrastructure that receives no subvention from either Government is the Greencastle to Magilligan ferry, which has carried millions of passengers over the years and can now operate only on a limited and seasonal timetable, a sure impediment to tourists and to social and economic development.  A modest investment there would surely increase the number of visitors to the north coast.  Indeed some years ago, when I was chair of the North West Region Cross Border Group, which included many of the councils in the area, we commissioned a report that showed that two-thirds of travellers were going on to visit a north coast attraction or to shop locally.  Likewise, the EuroVelo route that traverses the North was intended to attract higher spending cyclists from across Europe who wished to visit the most spectacular scenery in western Europe.  It unfortunately does neither, and studiously ignores the north coast and its attractions.

The possibility of the reopening of the Ulster canal would open up limitless opportunities in tourism.  The idea that, once again, we could travel from Coleraine to Limerick, Dublin and Galway by boat would be absolutely wonderful.

The motion calls for an adequate investment in infrastructure in the area and that should include high-speed broadband and enterprise zones as well as transport infrastructure.  I support the motion.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin 5:00 pm, 16th June 2014

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  I support the motion.  I welcome the debate, because the transport infrastructure that we have on the north coast, from Belfast to Larne, taking in the glens and right through to Donegal, is not up to standard for today. 

One thing that nobody has mentioned, and I will dwell on it for a minute, is the question of health.  More and more people are being sent to the hospital in Antrim, and more and more people from my area and around Ballycastle are being sent to Coleraine.  If the Minister, under Transforming Your Care, closes some of the present services in Coleraine, those people will then go on to Altnagelvin, which will cause bigger problems.  At present, we have no transport to take people to Altnagelvin or even to Coleraine.  You are in the hands of private hire.

I experienced the situation myself when I was attending the cancer unit in the City Hospital.  To get from the glens or Ballycastle to the City Hospital takes far too long on the bus.  You either go on private transport, or if you can get the train to suit your appointment, that is fine.  However, if you go to Antrim Hospital from the glens or Ballycastle, you have to take three bus journeys.  You can get to Belfast on one bus, but you cannot get to Antrim.  Three journeys is far too long.  Imagine some of our older people going to Antrim Hospital for a check-up and having to sit there all day waiting to coincide with the three buses before getting home.  You could leave home at 8.00 am or 9.00 am and not get home again until 7.00 pm or 8.00 pm.  It is not uncommon for that to happen.  I ask the Minister to look at that.

Special needs children from the Ballycastle and glens area who get their education in Ballymena because of its special needs schools are being sent to Ballycastle and Coleraine to see paediatricians.  That means that their parents have to take them out of school and then go to Coleraine.  The whole thing is not coordinated.  If the people in the hospitals would coordinate appointments to suit the bus journeys, or see whether appointments do suit before giving them out, it would make things a lot better, especially for those with special needs who have to go all over the country to get to their appointments.  My daughter goes to Coleraine and Ballycastle.  She hardly ever goes to Antrim Hospital.  She goes all around the place to get to her appointments, and you have to go to Ballymena to take her out of school.  I ask the Minister to bear that in mind.

I have been in the tourist industry for over 25 years, and, on the north coast, it has never improved.  We have had countless documents and reports.  We are now on to our second master plan report, and still nothing has been done.  My party colleague Daithí McKay mentioned the bus services coming through — the two Goldliners — in the summertime.  When they come to the glens, they are full.  They are packed in Belfast so cannot pick anybody up along the coast.  My party colleague Cara McShane, who was the chair of Moyle Council, wrote to the Minister on the problems that that was causing in Ballycastle and Ballintoy.  We have still not sorted that one out yet.  Why send out one bus when it is full before it even gets a quarter of the way along the route to pick up people who cannot then get on?

One Member mentioned the Budget and the carve-up between the DUP and Sinn Féin, but the Budget was an Executive thing, so I do not know where the Member was.  Arlene Foster's Programme for Government highlights the north coast, the Antrim coast and the glens, to which we must pay more attention.  The one good thing that we did get out of it, which would have been a big draw for tourism, is the national park.

I ask you, Minister, to look at bus journeys for people attending hospital and for those young people who are asked to sign on at a job centre and go for interviews.  You go to Ballymoney for interviews and end up having to spend the whole day there waiting for a bus to come back again.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

That is the same when you go to Ballymena. 

I support the motion, but I ask the Minister to look at the bus times.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I welcome and support the motion.  I begin by commending the Minister for the fact that, when he came to office, he grasped the issue of the long-neglected A26 improvement, and steps are now afoot to extend somewhat the dual carriageway up to the Ballycastle junction.  I suppose that the problem for the Minister is that, when he does something positive like that, he but whets our appetite for more.  Rather than him thinking that he has done his bit for north Antrim and east Londonderry, I want to disabuse him of that idea and assure him that, collectively, we are looking for more.  We do not want just a quality road to the turn-off at Ballycastle but a quality dual carriageway right through to Coleraine.  That spine road is the key to the opening up of the entire north coast area and the exploitation of its full potential.  Rather than resting on his laurels — yes, the Minister can collect the accolades for getting something done about the A26 and is entitled to do so — you cause us to want you to finish the job.  That should be his ambition and his achievement in that regard.

I also commend the Minister for the manner in which he took an interest in, saw improvements to and is seeing improvements to the railway connection through to Londonderry.  I urge him to never forget the fact the Ballymena station still needs considerable improvement and that we need the extension to the park-and-ride facility to really exploit and take full advantage of that.  There is much being done, but there is much to be done, and I trust that the Minister will take those remarks in that spirit and continue to aim to please in regard to those matters.

Some useful points have been made in the debate.  Mr McQuillan made the point that, to go by public bus from Belfast to the Giant's Causeway, our prime tourist attraction, it can take as long as three and a half hours.  That just should not be.  Surely, particularly in the summer season, it is possible to have a better facility than that. 

I draw a particular gripe to the Minister's attention.  There are many day trips to the north coast by coach tour, but one of the complaints that has been raised with me is that they come and return again on the same day.  One of the reasons that has been suggested for that is that there is no adequate de-sludging facility on the north coast to decant the sewage on the tour buses.  Surely that can be addressed so that, instead of having to return to Belfast to cope with that problem, the coaches and buses can have a facility in or about the north coast.  That could encourage overnight stays and longer coach tours to the north coast. 

It is practical issues like that that, as well as the grand gestures like improving the spine structures of the road and the railways, will in fact, bit by bit, make a difference.  The Minister has proven himself to be a listening Minister, and I think that he will also be listening on the small details and will continue to press forward with those issues.  I am sure that many of us will continue to press him on those issues as well.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I thank all Members who made a contribution to what has proved to be an interesting debate on this important motion.  On probably the hottest day of the year, there has been a sense of a Santa's wish list.  I hope to deal with many, if not all, of the points that Members raised, and I will endeavour to do so. 

As Members are aware, investment in the transport infrastructure at and leading to the north coast is very important to me, and I want to stress that. We could have no better day than today, with the wonderful announcement of the return of the Open to Royal Portrush in 2019, to debate this important motion.  We have a number of years to plan for the event, which is much longer than the months' notice of the Irish Open being held there in 2012.  I believe that having that time will strengthen my hand around the Executive table in securing greater funding for transport in the north coast region, with the support, I hope, of Members who made contributions here today.

I want to remind Members of some of the key messages about the overall importance of transport, specific transport investment on the north coast and future transport plans in the area.  Transport is a key component of fully developing our region economically, socially and environmentally.  I am taken by the point raised about using the Open as a focus to target increasing the frequency of rail services on the Coleraine-Belfast line.  We have plans in place to dual the Dargan bridge when we undertake work on the York Street interchange, which will remove the bottleneck for services entering Belfast.  It seems perfectly sensible to me that we move forward with the infrastructure to expand the half-hourly service on this line, and, of course, I will look for support across the House to press the Executive and the Finance Minister in particular to get behind the proposal.  As an Ulster Unionist Minister, I am proud to have saved the Londonderry-Coleraine line.  It was earmarked for closure when I took office, and it will soon move to an hourly service by 2016, hopefully, on the completion of phase 2.

   

In April, I underlined my commitment to rail travel with the publication of the 'Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy', which set out how we should take forward and prioritise railway investment up to 2035.  We now have 13·2 million rail passengers annually, and I am committed to further enhancing their experience.  I am committed to building an integrated, modern, reliable and environmentally efficient transportation network that meets the needs of communities and business.  I think that better transport infrastructure improves capacity, and better connectivity boosts trade and creates balanced growth and prosperity.  It is essential, therefore, that we invest properly in the transport network across Northern Ireland, especially in areas that need assistance to achieve their considerable potential.  That includes the north coast, which, with its unrivalled beaches and scenery, is one of our prime tourist destinations,  and home, of course, to our only UNESCO world heritage site. I was interested in the report by Andy West on behalf of the BBC on how long it took to get to the Giant’s Causeway.  I understand that, and there are issues and challenges for us, but I believe that we can meet the challenges. I am mindful that the north coast, in addition to its world-famous scenic drives and railway journeys, is more than just a place to visit.

Communities live there and businesses operate amongst that breathtaking scenery.  It is vital that we create high-quality local and regional transport connections to provide access to major towns and gateways.  That ensures that goods and markets and workers and jobs can link seamlessly.  I want to see local businesses expand their markets across Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, and throughout the European Union and beyond.

I have demonstrated my commitment to regional connectivity through major investment in road and rail projects with a direct and lasting benefit to the north coast.  That includes the ongoing construction of the A8 dual carriageway to Larne to act as a gateway to the coast road and the port of Larne, a major upgrade that is under way at the A26 outside Ballymoney and improved access to the airport outside Londonderry at Eglinton.  I have further plans to improve both the A6 between Londonderry and Dungiven and the A26 all the way to Coleraine, subject to future budget settlements.  Those are in addition to numerous investments at local level to improve junctions, roundabouts, footpaths and cycleways along the north coast to provide a better and safer journey for everyone, to help access public services and to reduce traffic delays at peak times such as bank holiday weekends.

Providing better transport infrastructure through ongoing and substantial investment will support the growth of the economy, enhance the quality of life for all and reduce the environmental impact of transport.  That means that the people of Northern Ireland will have better access to education, training, employment, healthcare and other key services, and all of those topics were raised by Members in one form or another this afternoon.  It means that goods and people, including tourists, will be able to travel quickly and efficiently in the north coast area and further afield.

The railway improvements align with the significant investment that my Department is taking forward through Translink and Transport NI to bring forward a number of key transport projects that align with the Londonderry One Plan.  I recently announced new plans to bring forward an integrated transport hub on the site of the old Waterside station in Londonderry as part of my commitment to support the One Plan.

Consolidating Londonderry’s position in Northern Ireland as a crucial economic driver in the region is an essential goal to be achieved.  It is important to remember that balanced regional growth must be achieved if we are to eradicate pockets of underinvestment and deprivation, such as that in the north-west. 

In addition to improvement in rail, my Department has also invested in the purchase of new buses, many of which service the north coast and the surrounding area, and some of them were even built in the area that we are talking about.  My Department also provides support to North Coast Community Transport to provide transport options for its members who live in rural areas but cannot readily access public transport services because of reduced mobility.  It further provides support to Disability Action to assist people in urban areas who cannot use mainstream public transport because of illness or disability.

Translink regularly engages with stakeholders to develop services to key attractions, to towns and villages and for school services on the north coast.  Indeed, access to tourist sites by public transport is a priority, and I am proud to support the Causeway Rambler service, which provides excellent value and frequent services to some of the north coast’s top visitor attractions, such as the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and Dunluce Castle.  Translink has also negotiated discounted admission at several of those attractions for visitors holding a valid Translink ticket.  We are doing much, and, yes, there is much more to do.

In recent years, the north coast has attracted a number of world-class international sporting events, such as the Irish Open in Portrush and, more recently of course, the Giro d’Italia. 

I am very proud indeed that my Department has been instrumental in giving hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to participate in these occasions, which showcase the best that our region has to offer while benefiting our economy through supporting local businesses and ensuring minimum disruption to local communities.

The North West 200, of course, remains a highlight of the European motorcycle racing calendar, and good transport infrastructure is essential for events such as these to be successful for both competitors and fans.  My Department has worked closely and will continue to work closely with race organisers to ensure that this event runs smoothly, and the recent Road Races (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 increases flexibility for organisers to complete their events, even under adverse weather conditions.  So, when we talk about the legacy of such events, we can say that our improved transport infrastructure has been an enabler, and that tourism is an opportunity that we seize and run with to showcase the very best that Northern Ireland has to offer. 

While much has been done, and I thank those who acknowledged that fact, I recognise that much more work still needs to be done to rebalance and rebuild our economy.  My Department is developing a transport delivery plan that sets out proposals for future investment in Northern Ireland’s transport infrastructure.  It is imperative that the Executive properly invest in transport to allow us to create an integrated, modern, reliable and environmentally efficient transportation network, and support efforts to secure European funding for key projects.  Hence, I take this opportunity to urge Executive colleagues to acknowledge and support ambitious investment in transportation infrastructure not only on the north coast but across Northern Ireland.

I welcome the views expressed by Members and the opportunity to have this discussion.  I fully support the motion.  Before briefly referring to some of the contributions, I will reiterate the importance of transportation to Northern Ireland.   It is, I believe, a vital component of our economy.  The stronger our transportation, the better the rate of growth and the greater will be the increase in living standards.  I therefore hope that Members see that transportation funding is a win-win for everyone and that it will play an integral role in ensuring that Northern Ireland maximises its potential and enhances its attractiveness and competitiveness as a region to do business in, to visit, to invest in and for our constituents to live in.

Many Members extolled the virtues of the area's scenery and its tourism potential, including Mr George Robinson, who had quite a list of work that he still needs to see progress on, and I took careful note of that. 

Mr McKay is aware of the baby boom on Rathlin, and that is really good news.  I can claim credit for some things, but I do not think that I can claim credit for that. 

John Dallat was kind in his references to what we have done to restore and save the Coleraine to Londonderry rail line, and he saw and identified other potential schemes.

Robin Swann referred to the Open and today's very good and welcome news.  He also spoke about the success that was the Giro d'Italia, and, of course, the rural and community transport that we already provide, which is important.  Unfortunately, some people have tried to make mischief about that, but we provide it and will continue to do so.

Kieran McCarthy spoke of the importance of improving infrastructure.  Adrian McQuillan, again, had a list of things to do.  He even brought in the red coats in Garvagh.  So it was quite a wide-ranging debate.  Cathal Ó hOisín has voiced frustration about the Dungiven bypass, and he well documented that again today.  Oliver McMullan dealt with a lot of issues that impact on health, and some of those are the responsibility of the Health Minister.  However, —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 5:15 pm, 16th June 2014

I ask the Minister to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

— a coordinated response that meant better cooperation between Departments would be helpful. Of course, Jim Allister wants de-sludging of tour buses so that people can leave more than their mark in the north Antrim area.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Minister's time is up.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

It is a serious issue, and we will give it some consideration.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

As the Minister said, it was a wide-ranging debate.  It is coincidental but entirely fitting that it should take place on the red-letter day that it is:  after what we hope will be no more than about 68 years, the Open will return to its rightful place, which is in Royal Portrush.

A number of Members referred to the tourism potential that Northern Ireland and the north coast have.  A number of Members indicated that it was a wide-ranging debate.  Both Mr Dallat and Mr Ó hOisín managed to get in the A5.  I know there is an ongoing issue about what constitutes the north coast and the north-west, because nobody has clearly defined views, but to go to the A5 is probably stretching it by about 40 miles.  Broadly speaking, I think that most people would accept that that is the case.

A number of issues merited inclusion in the debate.  Mr Robinson, in proposing, talked about the cost of congestion if we do not get roads and rail infrastructure correct, which is very true.  The issue of Rathlin was raised by Daithí McKay and at least two others, I think.  The issue of the Open golf, of course, permeated the debate.

The A26 dualling was referred to not just in this debate but over a number of years.  The Minister, quite rightly, has claimed the credit for investing over £8 million of the Budget in what I hope will be the first of a number of schemes that will see the length of the A26 dualled.  Any photographic help that we can give will obviously be available and, hopefully, on time, as it was on previous occasions.  I am glad that Mr Swann referred to that.  I would not have liked that to be ignored or overlooked.

Mr McQuillan talked about some of the tourism hotspots.  He also referred, as did the Minister, to the Andy West issue of the travel time between Belfast and the Giant's Causeway.  On this, I ask for the Minister's listening ear, because while today is a red-letter day and an excellent day, hopefully as we get towards the time to ensure everything is in place for the Open to return to Royal Portrush, the one thing we do not want and must avoid at all costs is further headline material of the time it takes to get from A to B, whether it is in New York papers or French newspapers or any international media that could try to put a negative spin on what is a good news story.  To avoid that, we have to get the efficiencies in transportation, whether road or rail.

Mr Allister alluded to the Ballymena station, and I am sure that the Minister will have heard that.  Mr Ó hOisín talked about the Dungiven dualling, and I am sure the Minister is committed to that.  Also, community transport was mentioned, and the Magilligan to Greencastle ferry.

All in all, the debate showed what significant and tremendous benefits there are, and not just the north coast, however you define the north coast or north-west, but the jewel that Northern Ireland is in terms of tourism throughout these islands.  The reason for tabling the debate is to ensure that people can get to these events.

Many events were alluded to, and we hope that their number will be expanded; but the key driver, not to use a pun, will be making sure that people are able to get to them.  There is not much point in us having the best air show in these islands if people are stuck in traffic trying to get there or get away, nor is there much point in having the best youth football tournament if people are having difficulty getting to it.  With the Open, because of the sheer numbers involved, the same principle applies.

The Minister has responded well.  We hope that he will put meat on the bones of his promises, and we will do whatever we can to bring pressure to bear in these austere times as we try to leverage money into an exceptionally worthwhile cause.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly calls upon the Minister for Regional Development to invest in the transport infrastructure at, and leading to, the north coast to assist the commercial, commuter and tourist sectors of the economy.

Adjourned at 5.31 pm.