York Street Interchange Project

Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 15th November 2016.

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Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker 3:30 pm, 15th November 2016

Ms Kellie Armstrong has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister for Infrastructure. I remind Members that, if they wish to speak or to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Ms Armstrong asked the Minister for Infrastructure, following his acceptance of the public inquiry and decision to progress, for an update on the York Street interchange project.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I have just announced the publication of the public inquiry inspector's report, departmental statement and notice to proceed. That allows officials to begin consultation with key stakeholders, including the local community, in line with the recommendations in the inspector's report.

The scheme will address a major bottleneck in the strategic road network, replacing the existing signalised junction at York Street with direct links between the Westlink, the M2 and the M3, three of our busiest roads in the North. It will also separate strategic traffic from local traffic movements.

The inspector appointed to chair the inquiry to examine the case for and against the scheme concluded that the case to replace the existing York Street junction had been demonstrated. The procurement process for the scheme is well advanced and was progressed in parallel with the statutory processes. The appointment of a contractor would aid discussions with the local communities on the impacts of the construction process. However, I will need to consider the funding for the project, together with other priorities, as part of my budget 2017-2021 considerations before deciding whether to award the York Street interchange contract. The scheme remains a priority for me, and I am committed to do all that I can to deliver it in the current financial context, working with the Finance Minister and other Executive colleagues.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Thank you very much for your clarity. It is good to see the Minister here and to hear his update. What criteria will be used to prioritise other road-building schemes over the York Street interchange? Can you clarify just where it is in the priorities? You said in your statement that York Street was a priority but there is no money for it, and others are proceeding.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

On a point of clarity, I do not think that anywhere in my statement I said that there was no money for York Street; I said that, going forward, it has to fit within a programme of works and we need to do more to ensure not just that we have the funding to start a project but have funding in place to the end.

As regards the criteria for road schemes, I have four infrastructure flagship projects that are agreed by the Executive: the A5, the A6, the Belfast transport hub and Belfast rapid transit (BRT). Those are the four infrastructure priorities for the Executive, but that is not to take away from the fact that there are other large-scale projects, such as the York Street interchange, the Newry southern relief road, the Ballynahinch bypass, the Cookstown bypass, the Enniskillen bypass, the Narrow Water bridge, investment in public transport and billions of pounds of investment in our water infrastructure. There are huge demands on the infrastructure budget, and they are all competing. It is my job and that of my Department to put our priorities in place so that we can deliver as much as we can with the finances that are available to us and can do that strategically in the years ahead.

Photo of Jennifer Palmer Jennifer Palmer UUP

I welcome the Minister's statement. What a difference a month makes in policy and direction. Can he give assurances that, when he meets the Chancellor on Brexit implications, the York Street interchange will be at the top of his priorities?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

As I just outlined to the previous Member, I have a number of competing priorities with the four Executive flagship projects. Last week, we saw the launch of the consultation on the Belfast transport hub. I will go to mid-Ulster tomorrow, where top of the agenda will, no doubt, be the Cookstown bypass and progression of the A5 and the A6. Everybody inside the Chamber will have different priorities. I have no doubt the Member would love to raise the possibility of a Sprucefield bypass with the Chancellor if she had the opportunity. We all have competing priorities. Certainly, as a Department, we now have to put in place a programme of works that meets the needs of the economy but does so in a regionally balanced way so that, whenever I say that I will address the infrastructure deficit, particularly in the west, I mean what I say. Projects such as the A5 and A6 maintain priority with me, as does the Belfast hub and BRT, but that is not to suggest that we will not have any money at all for other projects. Of course, I want to be in a position to deliver the likes of the York Street interchange.

I know that other Members have suggested — you are hinting at and alluding to this — that Belfast is somehow being neglected all of a sudden and that this priority in the west is taking over, which, again, is not true. I will spend more money in Belfast than in any other town, city or village in the years ahead. Belfast sits primed to receive money for BRT, the Belfast hub, investment in water infrastructure — whatever it may be. Let Members be assured that we will not forget Belfast in the years ahead.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement to the House. I welcome his acceptance of the public inquiry's findings. The York Street interchange is absolutely vital in connecting Northern Ireland, the port of Belfast, the M2 and M3 with west Ulster and our airports. It is hugely important for business, particularly the haulage industry and tourism. Now that the case has been demonstrated, procurement is well advanced, negotiations with the EU are ongoing and assurances have been given by the Treasury in London, when will the Minister be in a position to come to the House and tell us that work will start on the York Street interchange?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

Like many in the House, I hope I will be in a position to do that in the comings weeks and months. The Member made reference, obviously, to assurances that the British Treasury believes it has made on a number of projects. I am yet to be convinced, having met the British Secretary of State and others. One assurance, however, from the British Treasury that I am very aware of is the wave of austerity that is coming our direction for the next five years or longer. That will put huge strain on my Department as well as others. We have seen the effects of austerity to this point. There is nothing to suggest it will not be the same, if not worse, in the years ahead.

Those are the sorts of considerations that I have to take into account when I am putting together my programme of works for the years ahead.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin 3:45 pm, 15th November 2016

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I welcome the decision that has been made to make progress on this very important project. Bearing in mind what he said about funding, I hope that the Minister will agree that there is an opportunity to consult further with the residents in the area, who are most affected by the project. They have some concerns about the plans that they have seen. I do not think that it would be a big effort to make the adjustments necessary so that the project goes ahead with less impact on the local residents.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

Absolutely. Aside from banking the progress to date, the written ministerial statement enables my Department to move ahead and engage with the local community, as set out by one of the recommendations in the report, and also to examine ways to increase the amount of cycling provision that any new infrastructure at the junction has. Engaging with the community is very important. We now have the potential to realign the road away from Little Georges Street and look at antisocial behaviour at the steps on North Queen Street. There is also a need for sympathetic treatment of the McGurk's bar memorial, together with architectural landscaping enhancements to local structures and the rear of properties at Little Georges Street. All of that work is vital. Making the statement today allows my Department to re-engage with the community and take that forward in the months ahead.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Why did the Minister cite Brexit as the reason initially for putting the project on hold, given the commitment from the UK Treasury to fund any structural projects awarded EU funding beyond the point of any Brexit?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I never once announced that the project was on hold. What I said was that the procurement process for the project had been lengthened, which allowed me to take stock of the financial and geopolitical situation that we now face. The Member will no doubt admit that we are in very uncertain political and financial times.

The Member also flagged up assurances. The first available opportunity for me to apply for European funding for the project is at some point in 2018. We are not yet sure of when that will be in 2018, but we can be sure of one thing: article 50 will be triggered long before 2018. It will probably be triggered at least a year before I can even apply for any European funds whatsoever. The Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) fund is highly competitive — member states have to fight and compete with one another to win the funds. There is nothing to suggest that we will be successful. The likelihood of the EU funding a project in a region that is in the mouth of leaving the EU through Brexit is highly unlikely. As I said, that is only 40%. I do not think that the assurances that we have received from the British Treasury stand up to that. There is also 60% that has to be found.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you, Minister, for coming to the House today. How can you justify your failure to prioritise the busiest road junction in Northern Ireland? For most people in the House, it is, on any scale or standard, the single most important infrastructure project that you should have on your desk.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

The Member might have missed the news: today I announced that that infrastructure project will proceed. If that is not giving priority, I do not know what is.

It is clear that the Alliance Party does not have any political reps outside of Belfast. When I go around the North and speak to people in Derry, Enniskillen, Strabane, Omagh and different places, they tell me that they want other areas and projects to be prioritised. They have waited for decades for roads like the A5 and the A6. Motorways stop in places like Craigavon and Randalstown for no particular reason. The allusion that the Member makes is entirely false.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

Can the Minister confirm that the construction of the York Street scheme, whenever it begins, will not be delayed by being divided into three phases, like, for example, the A6 motorway or the railway from Coleraine to Derry?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

There is no doubt that it is one of the busiest junctions that we have here in the North. Any construction process will have to be done in tandem with the huge amount of vehicles going through the junction. It will have to be managed very carefully.

I have no doubt that the issues that the Member raised will be part of the discussion with officials and engineers as we decide the best way forward with the construction works.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I trust that this statement means that the Minister has got over his hissy fit of scaremongering about this project. The Chancellor has been very clear. He said that he will promise to underwrite EU funding for all projects signed off before Brexit. He could not do anything more, and yet the Minister said in his statement:

"I believe this does not go far enough."

What does he want?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I said that there are two parts to this. The first part that we certainly want is an end to the austerity that has been crippling departmental budgets for many years —

[Interruption.]

The Members might tut, but they know full well what austerity is doing to communities, not just here but throughout Britain.

The second point is, and I have touched on this with Members previously, that the assurances talk about projects that are signed off before Brexit. We do not know — we just saw today in the news that the British Cabinet do not even know what is happening — but, in all likelihood, Brexit is going to be at some stage in early 2019. The earliest that I can even apply for any European funding is some point in 2018. It may take a year or it may take months before that is signed off. The uncertainty around this is not imaginary or part of a hissy fit. As I said, I want to progress with this project, but I am not going to put funds into a project that I do not have enough money to complete.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. Will he, as much as possible, ensure that local contractors will be employed to build this very important roads project that will also benefit the local construction industry?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

Absolutely. Obviously, we will go through a tendering process, and the procurement processes are advancing well, as I have outlined. There is no doubt that, when we invest such a serious amount of money into construction works, it has a very good knock-on effect. Every £1 that is invested in construction projects creates a £4 knock-on effect for the local economy. There is no doubt that this project, like many others, will have a knock-on effect, and we will be investing hundreds of million of pounds in the years ahead on these projects. This will have a great effect on the local economy and our local construction industry.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for his comments so far. Thank you very much indeed for the U-turn; it is excellent. One of the issues that I would like to raise and ask a question on is that, obviously, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, the CBI and virtually every business organisation in Northern Ireland see this as a vital piece of infrastructure. This is not a question of infrastructure for Belfast, it is for all of Northern Ireland and, indeed, all of Ireland north of Drogheda. Will the Minister, when he is putting together his priorities, ensure that the York Street interchange is up there with the A6, the A5 and the other priorities?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

As the Member has just outlined, we have the A5, the A6 and the other priorities; the list is endless. I engage regularly with the CBI and others and, alongside talking about projects such as the York Street interchange, they talk about the southern relief. More often than not, when it comes to the roads, they talk about the massive investment that is needed in water and waste water infrastructure and energy security, and, obviously, the Minister for the Economy will be dealing with a number of issues there.

There are a huge amount of priorities. There are more priorities than we have money for. That is why, when I make reference to the need for the British Treasury to end the wave of austerity that is crippling our budgets, again, this is not scaremongering politics or hissy fits; this is a reality. Our budgets are under serious pressure. They have been for a long number of years, and they look set to be under more pressure in the years ahead. I say to the Member — I know he has colleagues at Westminster now — that we should use our collective power as elected representatives to send the united message that we need to protect our budgets and we need to see stimulus. It is not enough that we see a capital stimulus; we cannot see the constant attack on our resource budgets, and they must let us get on with building regional growth for all our people.

As I said, I engage regularly with the CBI and the business community. The message is very clear: as well as projects such as the A5 and the A6, we need serious investment in our water infrastructure and other projects. I only wish that I had all the money to deliver all these projects.