I have received notice from the Minister for Infrastructure that she wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in the light of social distancing being observed by parties, I have relaxed the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they want to ask a question. Members do still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called, but they can do this by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Table here directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their question to the Minister. This is not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions will not be allowed.
Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to update Members on the ways in which my Department is responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
We have now entered our ninth week of restrictions on the ways in which we all previously lived. Those restrictions have imposed significant challenges on our family life, our communities and our economy, but they have saved lives. It is crucial that representatives and the public know that their actions have protected our health service, slowed the spread of this deadly virus and protected our families and our communities.
The people of Northern Ireland and the politicians in Northern Ireland, for the first time in a very long time, have all come together, showing that, when we work together, we can take steps forward even in times of crisis and unprecedented change. As we start to take early, tentative steps towards recovery, maybe seeing relatives and friends outdoors for the first time in months, it is important for us to remember why we must continue our resolve in our fight against coronavirus.
It is so important that we do not act in any way that could undermine the huge sacrifices that we have all made so far.
As your Minister for Infrastructure, it is my responsibility to play my part in our fight against COVID-19 and in our road map to recovery. Members will know that my Department has worked tirelessly throughout this period to find solutions to the countless challenges that the crisis has produced. I am delighted to say that today I can announce further progress that will assist citizens across the North.
One of the challenges that has proven more complex to resolve during the crisis is the issuing of driving licences for people requiring medicals. I am pleased to say that a solution is now imminent. As I announced earlier, a new EU regulation will become law in the coming days that means that driving licences with an expiry date of between 1 February and 31 August 2020 will be treated as being valid for a further seven months. That extension will automatically apply to all driving licences expiring during the period. For some lorry and bus drivers, it will remove the requirement to have a medical assessment conducted at this difficult time. It will also help any customers who could not access the website or were finding it difficult to renew their driving licence online. The extension will also allow the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) to start processing provisional driving licences again. Road safety is my key priority. I therefore remind all drivers that they have a responsibility to notify the DVA if they have a new or worsening medical condition or disability that may affect their ability to drive.
I very much regret that, as taxi driver licences are not covered by the EU driving licence directive, the extension provisions cannot be applied to them. For those taxi drivers who do not have a medical condition to declare, however, my Department will renew their five-year taxi driver licence without a medical report, although they may be asked to submit a medical report at some future date. For those with a medical condition, I will do everything in my power to ensure that they are prioritised for medical appointments and licence renewal. I know that that will be a welcome reassurance for many drivers, as many Members have contacted me over their constituents' concerns. I am grateful to my team in the DVA and across the Department, who have worked to find solutions that will help many drivers here.
I am also well aware that the continued suspension of vehicle-testing services has caused significant inconvenience for those customers who require certification for specialist vehicles and where a temporary exemption certificate is not applicable. I have listened to representatives from the freight and manufacturing industries. Given the impact that the suspension has had on business and on the delivery of essential services, I am pleased to confirm that, from 1 June, the DVA will introduce a statutory authorisation process that will permit the continued use of ADR vehicles on our roads, provided strict conditions and control measures are in place for those heavy vehicles.
I can also advise that proposals to reinstate individual vehicle approval (IVA) testing safely from 1 June are at an advanced stage. Following consultation with staff and unions, a risk-assessed process has been agreed, in line with social-distancing guidance, to ensure that my staff and our customers are protected during the testing process.
I am committed to ensuring that staff in the DVA — indeed, staff from across my Department — feel safe and supported as they return to delivering essential services. As part of my ongoing commitment, I have said that engagement must continue with the unions to ensure that, as we move forward, we do so together, supporting and protecting workers as they work to protect customers and deliver services. Comprehensive advice and guidance on all those positive steps will issue to customers shortly and will be available on the nidirect website. I know that a number of other DVA services have been suspended. I can assure Members that each will be considered, risk-assessed and resumed as soon as it is safe to do so.
The focus of my Department's work has been on finding creative solutions to problems arising from COVID-19. I am proud that my team has been able to deliver so much over the past number of months. On roads, we have focused on emergency repair work. We are now in stage 1 of the Executive's recovery process, however, so it is appropriate to extend the works carried out by my Department to the maintenance of public roads. As our internal and external contractors have come to grips with new ways of working that allow staff and the public to be safe when works are carried out, confidence has built to an extent that resurfacing and surface-dressing programmes and minor capital work schemes are being taken forward. That decision was not taken lightly and involved discussions with the industry and trade unions, as well as with officials on the engineering and the health and safety sides. However, let me be clear: the works will be allowed only if the contractors involved provide evidence that the risks have been properly assessed and addressed and that mitigation measures such as compliance with social-distancing requirements and the provision of appropriate PPE can be met and are adhered to.
I am committed to moving forward when and where we can, but, to do that, I must be absolutely assured that health and safety is protected. As Members will be aware, the Department for Infrastructure is vital to our recovery. Our work in running water, public transport and road services will underpin our economic recovery and development. That was true before COVID, but now it is even more fundamental. As a Government — indeed, as an Assembly — and as a society, we need to invest in infrastructure if we are to build our way into the new normal; developing a new world that supports growth and seizes the opportunity for real change.
Change will be easy, at times, and, at others, much more difficult. As we look to recovery, there will be difficult decisions for the Executive and for Ministers. The stark reality is that resources are low and the job of Government is to make decisions that will best protect our communities. That means being open, honest and transparent. I want to advise Members that it is no secret that my Department faces significant budgetary challenges; those I have inherited and new pressures from loss of income due to COVID-19. I welcome the Executive's commitment to supporting public transport and their allocation to my Department of £30 million towards helping to address the funding pressures. However, I must be honest with the Assembly that I am growing increasingly concerned that, to date, we have not seen the same recognition and understanding of the funding crisis that NI Water is experiencing as a direct result of COVID-19.
Members, the public and businesses expect Northern Ireland Water to look after our health and well-being through access to clean water and proper sanitation. Likewise, Northern Ireland Water, as a publicly-owned company, is rightly looking to the Executive to provide the essential funding that it needs to replace the lost income and increased costs of the current pandemic. Going forward, whether it is about washing our hands, building more homes or helping businesses to restart, Northern Ireland Water is fundamental, and I hope that the Assembly, across all parties, will support me in ensuring that resources are directed to protect our communities and economy as we look to recovery.
While investment in infrastructure means that we get the basics right — we can protect our water system and our public transport network and keep the lights on and our roads safe — it is through infrastructure that we can also transform our communities, improving lives and making Northern Ireland an attractive place to live, to visit, to work and to start a business. It is time for us all to start thinking bigger and bolder.
I fully acknowledge that lockdown has been challenging and that many people have been waiting and longing for things to return to normal, but, in looking back, we need to consider the best of what "normal" entailed and what we have learnt over past months and to imagine and plan for a better, greener, healthier and happier future. I have said it before, and I will say it again: we need to seize the chance for change. For that reason, I also want to provide you with some further detail on how my Department and I will lead a green recovery.
Since social-distancing measures and lockdown were introduced, air pollution across all of Europe has dropped measurably. Northern Ireland is no different. Transport is the second-biggest contributor to greenhouse gases here, and, with far less traffic on the roads, the benefits to our environment have been immediate and significant. However, the reality is that, as more of us move back to our workplaces and get out and about, our traffic volumes will increase again.
In my last statement to the Assembly, I announced that I would be creating, in my Department, a walking and cycling champion to spearhead delivery of our commitment to increasing the percentage of journeys made by walking and cycling. I have invited stakeholders to join an advisory group to help the champion to identify opportunities so that we can move quickly in making changes on the ground. I want to build real momentum, and we are seeing progress. Some of the interventions that are being trialled and tested may only be needed for a short time, but, in the longer term, I will consider permanent changes to our streetscapes that will transform how our town centres facilitate walking and cycling. Above all, I am determined to make changes that will underpin a green recovery and improve public health.
While I am focused on the prize of a sustainable future, one immediate need is helping people with social distancing in our city and town centres. As a result, my Department is taking forward pilot schemes in Belfast, Derry and Newry. In Belfast, Hill Street and Gordon Street in the Cathedral Quarter have been pedestrianised and footpaths have been widened across the Linen Quarter. In Derry, I will provide extra space for people along the riverfront and I will work with the council and other stakeholders to bring forward plans for reducing traffic within the city walls as businesses begin to reopen. We are also working in partnership with Newry, Mourne and Down District Council on innovative solutions in Newry. Initially, changes will be made with cones and temporary barriers. If something does not work, I will remove it and try something else. My Department will be flexible and responsive but it will not be afraid to try new approaches.
I am grateful for the support and can-do attitude and approach of the three councils that my officials have been working with so far to bring early ideas to fruition. It is so important that, in partnership, we learn from each other as we navigate our way through these unprecedented times to deliver for all our citizens. As well as creating a number of pop-up cycle lanes, my Department is looking at ways in which we can support communities, particularly those in disadvantaged inner city communities, that do not have easy access to space for recreation and leisure.
I have no interest in imposing change from on high. Councils, local businesses and communities know what will work best in their locality and change will only last if we work in partnership. That is my commitment and my approach. However, that is only one example of how my Department is helping to shape our recovery. In conversations with business, the green sector and other stakeholders, the understanding that infrastructure spending will be crucial in restarting the economy is reiterated time and time again.
In the wake of COVID, but also with the looming disaster of Brexit that faces these islands, we all need to roll up our sleeves. We must now get to grips with the serious pressures. That means working together; it means working inside and outside government, across the public and private sectors and across these islands. We need to be willing partners and ambitious leaders. This is our chance for change — our opportunity to show that leadership in the Assembly and in the Executive can deliver for our citizens and our communities.
I thank the Minister for making her statement to the House. Before I call the Chair of the Infrastructure Committee to ask her question, I remind Members that this is not a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Response to COVID-19. Therefore, it is established in Standing Orders that questions on the statement will be given an hour; they will not be given an hour and 15 minutes. Members must be succinct and ask their questions directly, and Ministers must be succinct in their answers also.
I welcome the content of the Minister's statement and, in particular, the extension for driving licence renewals and the resumption of IVA testing. However, I was disappointed to hear from the Finance Minister last week when he informed us that discussions on support for hauliers concluded that an intervention was not necessary and also that no package for the taxi industry had been presented to him for consideration. I would be interested to hear from the Minister for Infrastructure on those issues.
The Finance Minister also reiterated that furloughing staff was up to individual Ministers and not the Executive. Given the budgetary pressures across the Department, including those on Northern Ireland Water, which were highlighted in the statement, may I ask the Minister for clarity: at what point, if any, during this crisis did she or her officials ask Translink, DVA and community transport to explore the possibility of furloughing staff? In hindsight, was there more that she or her officials could have done to lessen the financial pressures that are being felt in those areas of business?
I thank the Chair for her question. DAERA leads on the issue of the hauliers, and my Department has been working with a cross-departmental group of officials to make a case to DfT and to the Treasury.
The Finance Minister is correct: at this time, it is Treasury's assessment that there is not sufficient evidence to bring forward a financial package for our haulage industry. However, I assure the Member that my officials will continue to do all that they can, working with DAERA and the Department for the Economy, because we recognise the critical role that our hauliers are playing during the crisis.
The Chair of the Committee will be aware of the number of items of correspondence that I have sent to Executive colleagues on the need to provide support for our taxi industry. That support is outwith my Department's responsibility as we are responsible for regulation.
The Chair also asked about furloughing. At the request of the Finance Minister, my Department carried out a detailed analysis on the potential furloughing of Translink and Northern Ireland Water staff. We presented that analysis to the Finance Minister. He has not come back to raise additional concerns, so I assume that he accepts that analysis. Ministers are responsible for looking at the furloughing of their arm's-length bodies. It is my understanding, however, that responsibility for the furloughing of Northern Ireland Civil Service staff lies with the Finance Minister. As Minister for Infrastructure, I cannot alter the terms and conditions of individual civil servants within my Department.
I can assure the Chair that I am aware of the difficult financial situation. I made a number of bids to the Executive, but only one has been accepted, which was the £30 million for Translink out of the £95 million that was sitting centrally. Some of that money has gone to our ferries and airports. We are, therefore, doing everything that we can within my Department. However, the reality is that the financial situation that was facing the Department for Infrastructure prior to COVID was deeply concerning, and that has been compounded by the COVID crisis.
I thank the Minister for her statement. We are supportive of exploring ways to build sustainable infrastructure — that is very much welcomed — but concerns have been raised by businesses and people in the community about the removal of parking spaces. It is something that I have raised with the Minister in the past number of days. The Minister mentioned the importance of not imposing change in areas when going through this, but there has been confusion, particularly around the plans for the city centre of Newry in my constituency. Over the past few days, it has come to my attention that local businesses were informed at pretty much the last minute of plans to start work yesterday. That work has been halted, and I welcome that. There needs to be proper and meaningful consultation with those businesses and key stakeholders, as you mentioned in your statement. That is important. They know the locality best, and they know what will work well for them. Will the Minister elaborate on her plans to engage with those stakeholders? There seems to be conflicting statements, even from her colleagues in the area, about whether the work is due to start or what is happening. It is important, because we want to do this right. It has to be done with the people and not to the people.
I thank the Member for her question. She is absolutely right: it is important that we do this and that we do it together. The Member will know that I established the active travel champion, who is leading on the consultation, and she may know that, this week, I am due to meet the council group leaders to discuss plans.
My Department has been working with the councils, but I have been clear that while my Department can provide the drive and impetus, it is not best placed to provide the detail. Local communities know what will work best. I am clear that things have to be done in consultation with local councils and the partners within the council area. I am also clear that I am not imposing change from the top down. I became aware of the confusion in Newry, over the weekend. I assure the Member that I have not signed off on any plans.
As we go through this, it is important that we understand how that confusion arose and that we learn from that to ensure that it does not happen in Newry, or in any council area in the North. I want to reassure the Member that I am committed to partnership working, to pursuing the active travel agenda and to tackling regional imbalances. I look forward to working with her and others as we deliver the change that will work.
I thank the Minister for her statement and for the work and leadership shown within the Department during these difficult times. I have been contacted by many in the community transport sector who do fantastic work for many of the most vulnerable in our community. Will the Minister give some assurances to the community transport operators over funding support as she looks forward to her budget?
I thank the Member for his question. I recognise the vital role that community transport plays, particularly in rural areas. I am keen to support the community transport sector in the redeployment of its services to help some of the most vulnerable during the COVID crisis. It has made a tremendous contribution, and I put that on record.
My officials sent letters to the community transport sector about an interim quarterly payment. That was to provide some sense of reassurance and certainty, at a time of great uncertainty, while I finalise budget allocations.
I reiterate that I recognise the importance of community transport. It has demonstrated that over and beyond, in its response to the COVID crisis. I am committed to supporting it.
The Minister spoke of the need for a green recovery. Some capital infrastructure projects can reduce congestion in the middle of Belfast city centre, improve the air quality, create construction jobs and improve the efficiency of the whole Northern Ireland economy. Will the Minister provide an update of the progress of the Yorkgate/York Street interchange, which will bring many benefits at different levels? It is important that it progresses.
I thank the Member for his question. There is a danger of falling into a false dichotomy, where you are either for active travel or for investment in our road network. I recognise that this is all part of getting us to the right place. York Street is an Executive commitment. It was subject to legal challenge, which has put back the project, but it will bring multiple benefits as the Member outlined.
Research issued yesterday showed that 56% of commuters with a driving licence, who used public transport prior to the pandemic, are considering buying a car and using it as a means of transport. That is a matter of real concern. In England, a scheme has been announced where you get a £50 voucher to cover the cost of repair of a bicycle. Is that something the Minister is considering introducing? Also, when is the capital going to be released for greenway funding?
I thank the Member for his question. He points to an issue of great concern. Given the robustness of the messaging to people, to stay at home and engage only in essential travel, we have a real issue when it comes to restoring public confidence and encouraging people to come back to use public transport in safety. The Member will be aware that Translink has implemented a number of measures, including protective screens, deep cleaning and a range of policies and procedures to protect people in the use of public transport.
I have set up the walking and cycling champion. She has been tasked, along with the steering group, with looking at a range of measures that have worked right across the board. One of the issues that they will be examining is that of the voucher scheme that the Member has raised.
I thank the Minister for her statement, which is fairly positive. Looking at the active travel element, we discussed these matters with our super cities, Londonderry, Belfast and Newry. Will the Minister give assurance that these schemes will also be rolled out to other provincial towns?
I give the Member that assurance. Initial engagement gathered momentum around the cities of Belfast, Derry and Newry, but that is not to the exclusion of other areas. This will work only if we are able to roll it out, so I am committed to engaging with councils across the North, and with communities and businesses, so that we can see the active travel agenda pursued and implemented right across Northern Ireland.
I thank the Minister for her statement. As you know, your Department has received the highest amount of capital spending that it has ever done, and I am conscious that there have been nine years of austerity. In your statement, you talk about road safety, regional inequalities and connectivity. Can you assure me, the people of Derry and those of the north-west, that you are fully committed to the two flagship projects, the A5 and A6, and that they will continue to progress under your watch?
I welcome the Minister's statement. I declare my membership of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. Over the past number of years, we have seen a steep decline in the number of taxis that there are to service the community, including a very low number that are equipped for wheelchair users. That is now coupled with a significant increase in drink-driving during the lockdown period. I am grateful for the Minister's movement on medicals and the extension of licences, and I note her answer to the Committee Chair, but what is the state of progress between her, the Minister for the Economy and the Minister of Finance to assist that key sector?
I thank the Member for her question. On the issue of taxis, I assume that she is talking about financial support for the sector. She is not on the Committee, but the Committee had requested evidence of what I have been doing to try to raise that matter. In March, I think, I wrote to both the Economy Minister and the Finance Minister. The sector has been hard hit. We need to understand how we can assist it. There is also the outstanding issue of social guidance. I have been in correspondence with the Economy Minister on that.
I am very clear that I recognise that the industry needs support. I am also very clear that I want to work with all Executive colleagues to ensure that taxi drivers get support. However, there is also a number of sole traders who find themselves in a similar situation who have not been able to avail themselves of the hardship or financial support schemes that have come through from the Department for the Economy. On that and on all matters, I am keen to work with Executive colleagues. Given that we have different roles, responsibilities and remits covering that particular issue, it is only when we work together that we can address it within the financial difficulties that we all currently face.
I recognise the issue of disability access to taxis. I have looked to see what is being done in the Republic of Ireland, for example. The Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee (IMTAC) sits on my steering committee on efforts on the walking and cycling champion. IMTAC is very clear that that is a particular issue. I would like to see more being done in my Department and across the Executive on disability access and the rights of the disabled community.
The Minister's statement talks about recovery and how she can play her part in that. I suggest to her that one very obvious way in which she could play her part would be to finally make a decision on Casement Park. It is a vital project, which has Executive approval. It would play a significant role in the economic recovery. When will she finally give clarity and make a decision on Casement Park?
I thank the Member for her question. It gives me an important opportunity to establish the facts. The Member will be aware that my Department is working at pace to process that application so that it can be brought as quickly as possible to me. That is a statutory process which must be completed before it comes up for a decision. I am sure that no Member or anyone who has any interest in any planning application that is before my Department would want due process not to be followed.
On that application, I am advised that my Department anticipates that all necessary responses will be received soon, and that officials can make a recommendation to me. I know that it is a long-awaited decision. After three years of no Government, it is important that progress is made across the board for communities and economic recovery, particularly as we look to the future beyond the pandemic.
I thank the Minister for her statement. It is very encouraging indeed. Going forward, are there any projects in the Department that might be able to be rolled out quicker that would generate capital spend and could jump-start or boot the economy as it comes out of the crisis?
I thank the Member for his question. A number of Executive capital projects are referenced in 'New Decade, New Approach'. Work is continuing on the A5 and A6. Work has commenced on the transport hub. It is recognised right across the world that infrastructure and the investment in infrastructure that the Member has pointed out will be the bedrock of recovery. We face a very difficult and serious recession. Evidence from around the world shows that we need to build our way out of that recession. That is why I am keen that my Department plays its fullest role. Working with Executive colleagues, we can envisage investment in infrastructure, and we can try to do exactly that: build our way out of the incoming recession.
The Minister made reference to individual vehicle approval tests being resumed. Can she clarify whether that will happen on 1 June or whether it remains, to some extent, a work in progress? When it does resume, will the prioritisation of vehicles that deliver essential services include bin lorries?
I can assure the Member that IVA testing will resume on 1 June and that, because we recognise the critical role that key workers are playing, there will be a prioritisation process and it does include our bin lorries. Yes, it will commence on 1 June and there will be a prioritisation process.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I welcome the measures. However, she did indicate that the taxi industry may lose out on driving licensing in some cases. Will the Minister commit to looking at other ways of licensing, such as discounting the cost of renewals, which is over £100, given the heavy burden that taxi drivers are under at the minute?
I thank the Member for his question. The Member will know that we have issued, free of charge, the six-month extension to PSVs. Taxi drivers without a medical condition to declare will now automatically get a five-year extension when they apply. Some may be asked within that to provide a medical assessment. There is a difficulty that it is proving enormously complex to resolve, and that is for those drivers who have a medical condition that they must declare. In all these things, I have to try to balance finding the solution while recognising that I have a duty to ensure road safety for taxi drivers and their passengers.
The Member will know that I announced that we were working in partnership with the BMA and GPs to ensure that those taxi drivers and key workers who need to have a medical assessment can get that. That is working in many places, and I want to put on record my appreciation. There are still some difficulties for those requiring specialist medical assessments because of the strain on our health service. However, I have set up a dedicated email address for taxi drivers who find themselves in this situation, and that will be fully available on nidirect. I am very conscious that it is difficult for the group of drivers who require further specialist medical attention and assessment, but I will continue to do all that I can to find a practical resolution that does not compromise their road safety.
I welcome the Minister's appointment of a walking and cycling champion and action on the long overdue pedestrianisation of the Cathedral Quarter. The Minister is talking about big and bold actions and supporting inner-city communities to access clean and active travel. What investment will be made in walking and cycling? Will that include the delivery of a toucan walking and cycling crossing to link the Braniel estate to the Connswater Community Greenway, investment in on-road cycle training for children and adults and greater access to trains and buses for cyclists?
Again, I thank the Member for his question and his passion for this subject. I am not in a position to be able to highlight specific projects and the projects that he named. However, I can assure him that we are working through budget allocations to put force behind this, if you like. I am very cognisant of the fact that you can do all that you can to promote walking and cycling but if you do not facilitate safe spaces in which to do so, people will not be able to engage in those activities. I can assure him that we are working, led by the walking and cycling champion, with people from right across society who are on the steering group and also with the local councils. Very soon, I hope to be in a position where we are able to confirm the specifics of the projects that will be taken forward in conjunction with the councils.
I thank the Minister for her statement and answers thus far. The Minister referred to building our way out of the recession that is coming towards us. Will the Minister commit today to bringing forward legislation to extend planning permission for those individuals and groups whose permission is now running to an end? My colleague Liz Kimmins raised this issue on several occasions with her, but, to date, we have not had a commitment to bring the legislation forward. The Minister will note, for instance, that the Communities Minister has been able to bring legislation through the House quite quickly. The House can give consent to speedy legislation when necessary.
I thank the Member for his question. It is an issue that I have been very conscious of. It is very difficult to quantify the extent of the problem of expiring planning permission. I have tasked officials to do that but they are saying that it is very difficult to assess how many have had works commenced and how many have not. That is not to say that it is not an issue. The Member will know that I have said that we were exploring legislative options because primary legislative change is required in this instance. There had been discussions that the Executive would bring forward a Coronavirus Bill, and we had hoped to place this piece of legislation within that, but I am still exploring a piece of individual legislation. I am trying to weigh up, as construction works recommence, what is the best and most efficient and effective solution for people, but I can assure the Member that I have not taken the legislation option off the agenda. We are assessing it and we will continue to assess it. In the interim, we have provided advice. The chief planner sent out correspondence to all the councils. The option exists that people could renew planning permission at a much-reduced fee, but that is not ideal. There is now the added option of having commencement works started, given that we are seeing easements around construction work.
I thank the Minister for the update. She talked about the difficulties that are facing Northern Ireland Water. Can she spell out, in a bit more detail, what it will mean for communities, including building, if we do not get more funding for Northern Ireland Water?
With regard to the development of Casement Park, Ulster GAA fans and others who are interested in that development will want to ensure that the process is done properly so that there are no more challenges. It is pointless to try to push through a speedy decision that will result in the development either falling through or there being more objections. Can the Minister confirm that, please?
I can confirm that — and I hope that this will be the case across the board, regardless of party politics and point-scoring — every application should be assessed and should follow due process. My job, as Minister for Infrastructure, is to do my job right, not to rush it, and I am committed to doing that.
The Member will know that Northern Ireland Water provides vital public services across Northern Ireland. Ensuring that it is financially supported is not only fundamental to Northern Ireland Water's future but critical for protecting our communities. It is important to point out the facts. First, businesses have closed, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, leading to a funding gap in Northern Ireland Water of £30 million. Secondly, despite the fall in business use, demand for water has increased overall during lockdown, as we are using more water at home. Sewer blockages have also increased, with more wet wipes being flushed down drains, and Northern Ireland Water has had to adapt working practices to keep its front-line staff safe. All of that means that it is incurring extra costs. Thirdly, Northern Ireland Water is a regulated utility, with a delivery plan that has been carefully and independently scrutinised by the Utility Regulator. It is required to deliver a challenging efficiency programme, which it has done and continues to do. Fourthly, Northern Ireland Water cannot access any of the COVID-19 business support mechanisms for rate relief or loans that are available to the private sector. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Northern Ireland Water provides the most vital of services to our population, providing clean drinking water, taking away and treating waste water and protecting our health at the very time that we need it most. How anyone can defend not providing Northern Ireland Water with the support that it needs baffles me. The fact is that if we do not invest in our water and waste water infrastructure, we will not be able to build the homes that we need, we will not be able to grow our economy and we will not be able to properly recover from this crisis.
I thank the Minister for her statement. She talked about looking forward to economic recovery etc and, obviously, that would include capital projects. There are a number of projects that I have heard spoken about, particularly in the east of the Province. What plans does she have to bring forward some of the projects in the west, particularly the south-west, such as the Enniskillen bypass?
I thank the Member for her question. I recognise that it is an important project and the Member has raised it with me a couple of times. Yes, we are in the process of finalising the capital projects that we intend to bring forward. I hope to be in a position, very soon, to update the Committee, and Members across the House, on those decisions.
I thank the Minister for her responses today and for her, and her Department's, response to the crisis that has engulfed us. I commend the Minister on not only her response to the crisis but her vision in looking beyond the crisis, particularly in the sphere of active travel. I was excited to learn of the Minister's proposals for her active travel plans for Derry city, which is in my constituency. Can she outline some of those, which I am hopeful will include the commencement of the Strathfoyle greenway in the future?
The Member never misses an opportunity to talk about this particular greenway. Yes, I have announced that we are looking at works on pedestrianising and widening streets around the riverfront. We are also working with the council to identify other opportunities for change. Again, this week coming, I am engaging with the group leaders across Derry city council, because I think that it is very important, which I spoke about earlier, that we do these things in partnership. There is no point in me coming into areas and imposing change; I need to be working with local councils, businesses and communities to understand what will work best in their locality, and that is what I am committed to doing not only in Derry but right across Northern Ireland.
I thank the Minister for her statement, particularly the ongoing recognition of the need for a green recovery and a just transition. If councils are not involved in doing the work or piloting projects now on the reallocation of road space, how can communities that want to look at specific areas in their town and village communicate that to the Department?
Can I take the Minister back to the lack of financial support for the haulage sector? I heard what she said to the Chair of the Committee, which was to the effect that the Department for Transport and the Treasury said that there was no need for support. In fact, last week in the Chamber, when I asked the Finance Minister about this, he said:
"I know that part of the transportation money that we had been holding back was in anticipation of a request in that area. That did not emerge, and we went ahead, then, with the allocation to Translink." — [Official Report (Hansard), 19 May 2020, p28, col 2].
That is very different from saying that the Treasury decided that there was not funds. That is the Minister of Finance saying that there was a pot of transportation money sitting in his Department, awaiting an application to support the haulage industry, but that it did not come and the money instead went to Translink. Is that correct? If so, why was the haulage sector neglected?
If I might, in her pursuit of green energy, will the Minister undertake to visit and meet Wrightbus to discover the exciting plans that it has for hydrogen buses, which, of course, Translink could greatly benefit from?
I thank the Member for his question. He will know that my Department has been working closely with DAERA and the Department for the Economy on hauliers. The Member may also be aware that £95 million came across and was being held centrally for a transport package. From that £95 million has come the support package for the ferries and the support package for the airports. Translink was allocated £30 million, but £59 million is being retained in the centre for that transport package.
I can advise Members only on what I know. I understand very clearly that we have been trying to make the case for our haulage industry, and we have been working with the industry in providing the evidence for that. We have been informed by the Treasury, in our engagement with the devolved Ministers and DfT, that the analysis undertaken by the Treasury is indicating to it that, at this moment in time, there is not the evidential base for a financial support package. I can report only on what I know.
As regards his invitation, I am happy to meet anyone to advance the green recovery agenda.
The Minister mentioned the importance of listening. I agree with her about that, and I urge her Department, her as a Minister and other Ministers to listen to the concerns of residents in the Casement Park area, especially about overdevelopment.
I have raised previously with the Minister how Belfast Roads Service workers, despite raising it several times with the Department, do not have appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). I urge the Minister to intervene — it is an ongoing problem — to ensure that those workers who are working on roads, gullies and other works have protective equipment.
Given that they are ongoing concerns, what assurances will the Minister give us that, as her Department moves towards recommencing minor capital works, the workers who carry out that work will be protected and will have appropriate equipment?
I thank the Member for raising that important issue. The continuation of construction works is in line with current government advice that businesses should encourage their employees to work at home where possible, while accepting that certain jobs require people to travel to their place of work. While construction work was never included in the list of activities subject to closure or restrictions, it has been necessary to develop new, safe systems of working and to invest in additional PPE to allow various operations to be carried out safely. Because of that, I was only prepared initially to allow my Department's internal contractor to carry out emergency work. However, as additional PPE was procured and safe working systems were developed, in consultation with trade unions, I have allowed additional road maintenance and flood alleviation work to proceed, including a wide range or road maintenance operations and watercourse maintenance.
In addition to allowing our private contractors to complete work that had already been started or ordered, I have permitted new road surfacing, surface dressing and minor works to proceed. However, as I made clear in my statement, works will proceed only if there are guarantees and assurances that workers are being kept safe. I make it clear also that, if that is not the case, I need to be made aware of it immediately. I have asked officials for very regular updates on the provision of PPE for workers from Translink, Northern Ireland Water and right across my Department. I have also made it clear that, with the ongoing engagement with workers and trades unions, I want to be made aware of any safety concerns that workers have raised that have not been addressed.
The Member will know that we initially said that we were suspending the DVA testing services until 22 June. I am keeping that under review. I am clear that, when it is safe to do so, we will reopen the centres and will do so in consultation with workers and trade unions. As a member of the Committee, he will also know that the installation programme for the new lifts has commenced and is due to be completed in July, and that will greatly assist with the situation. That is aside from the three centres that are being used as COVID testing centres, and I have made it clear to the Health Minister that, if he requires any additional MOT centres as we roll out community testing, he will have priority use.
To reassure the Member, I am very conscious of public health advice and, obviously, of the Executive's pathway to recovery, and I will make my decisions in line with all of that.
Minister, you referred to getting things done when politicians work together. Is it not a terrible shame that Casement Park did not get over the line when Sinn Féin held the Ministry and was held back for a further three years by the collapse of Stormont? Given that investment in infrastructure will be key to economic recovery, what discussions, if any, have the Ministers for the Economy and Finance had with you to plan for economic recovery?
I think that there is frustration across the board in Northern Ireland about the missed opportunities and what could have been advanced in the three years when we were without a Government. I have clear about the role of infrastructure and the importance of infrastructure investment not only in the green recovery but in building us out of recession. I will continue to make that case with Executive colleagues.
I acknowledge that we are in difficult financial times. Every Department is struggling with inescapable pressures, but, as an Executive, we have a duty to support and protect our private sector. We also have a duty and responsibility to protect our critical public services — public transport and Northern Ireland Water — so I will continue to engage with Executive colleagues, because it is in all of our interests to ensure that we protect those critical public services.
I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, you will be well aware of the delay in many works across your Department due to COVID-19.As we start to move towards normality, will the Minister commit to working with me to help residents of uncompleted developments across Northern Ireland — I think that there are three that stretch back as far as the financial crash — who have not had their roads tarmacked or their water mains connected due to mishaps with the developer and NI Water? Will you commit to working with me on Birchwood Manor, in particular, to see the completion of those developments and allow those residents to live in peace?
The Member will be aware that it is a complex issue. There is the issue of unadopted roads and the legal ramifications as regards what my Department can do. However, I am keen to work with all Members. I am happy to meet you — via Zoom, given the current circumstances — to see what we can do, working together.