North/South Ministerial Council: Inland Waterways

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:45 pm on 7th December 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:45 pm, 7th December 2020

I have received notice from the Minister for Infrastructure that she wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I will make a statement about the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) inland waterways meeting that was held on 11 November 2020 in the North/South Ministerial Council joint secretariat headquarters in Armagh and by videoconference. The Executive were represented by me, as Minister for Infrastructure, and Robin Swann, the Minister of Health. The Irish Government were represented by Darragh O'Brien TD, Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and Malcolm Noonan TD, Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform. The statement has been agreed with Minister Swann, and I am making it on behalf of us both.

The meeting was chaired by Minister O'Brien and dealt with issues relating to inland waterways and the constituent agency, Waterways Ireland. The following topics were discussed and decisions taken, where appropriate. First, we noted the response of Waterways Ireland to the challenges posed by COVID-19. The Council was advised that there had been an increase in user numbers along towpaths and trails during the period of COVID-19-related restrictions and noted the role of Waterways Ireland in leading a user-engagement project through the Network of Inland Waterways of Europe (NIWE) to achieve a greater understanding of the increased recreational use of inland waterways since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council also noted the increasing popularity of inland waterways as a holiday destination for the domestic market. The Council further noted Waterways Ireland's preparations for Brexit in the context of its status as a North/South implementation body.

We noted the comprehensive progress report provided by Waterways Ireland that covered matters including the management and maintenance of waterways, capital expenditure projects and an ongoing programme of replacing existing jetties and lock gates and installing new ones along the navigations. Ministers also noted plans for blueway developments and restoration work on the Ulster canal and that Waterways Ireland had successfully hosted the World Canals Conference in Athlone in September 2018.

In terms of corporate governance, the Council noted Waterways Ireland's annual report and accounts for 2016, 2017 and 2018, which have been laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas. We also noted that Waterways Ireland's annual report and draft accounts for 2019 have been submitted to the Comptrollers and Auditors General in both jurisdictions and, following certification, will be laid before the Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Council approved Waterways Ireland's corporate plan for 2017-2019 and associated business plans, which were prepared in accordance with the guidance issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Finance, and it recommended the budget provision for each.

We noted that Waterways Ireland's 2020-22 corporate plan and 2020 and 2021 business plans have been prepared and, following necessary approvals, will be submitted to the NSMC for approval before the end of 2020.

We also noted the process for the recruitment of the chief executive officer for Waterways Ireland. The Council consented to a number of property disposals and received a progress report on the restoration of the Ulster canal and the development of the Ulster canal greenway. We noted the progress that was achieved in the restoration of the Ulster canal, including the completion of phase 1 of the restoration from Upper Lough Erne to Castle Saunderson, the ongoing work and future plans for the restoration from Clones to Clonfad and the development of the Ulster canal greenway.

The Council agreed to hold its next NSMC inland waterways meeting in early 2021.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. We will now move to Michelle McIlveen, Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for her statement. While I understand that there is a format for recording those meetings, it is somewhat disappointing that, given the time that has lapsed since the last update and the work that has been carried out in the interim by Waterways Ireland, all that we are receiving today is a list of noted reports. That said, will the Minister outline the main priorities for Waterways Ireland in Northern Ireland in 2021 and provide details of the properties that the Council has agreed to dispose of? Will she indicate whether she would be prepared to share the reports with the Committee?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. The properties that were disposed of included a lease agreement for the airspace at Grand canal dock; the portion of the cantilevered office development of Waterways House, which extends over Grand canal dock; three separate lease agreements for the lease of airspace at Grand canal quay for the redevelopment of Bolands Mill, which will encroach into Waterways Ireland airspace over Grand canal quay at Barrow Street, Dublin; to facilitate the development off a pedestrian boardwalk and 10 residential balconies and two cultural exhibition balconies; and a 999-year lease of airspace at Grand canal quay for the development of the Mill 2 Dock Mill apartment development Barrow Street, Dublin into apartments with balconies and an incorporated lower deck.

Also disposed of was a lease of airspace at Grand canal dock for the portion of the cantilevered office development at the Malthouse, which extends over Grand canal dock; an easement of the installation of a polyethylene pipe at Rathangan across the Grand canal to facilitate storms outfall; a lease for the erection of a pedestrian bridge to service a new railway station at Pelletstown railway development, Dublin 15; an easement for an installation of a docked housing; and a power cable to provide power to the rail lines at Pelletstown railway development, Dublin 15. The Council also disposed of a 35-year lease for a revised area of land to facilitate the construction of an access gangway and retractable pontoon at Ballyvollane, Mountshannon Road, Annacotty in County Limerick; a lease to facilitate the continued construction of the Royal canal greenway; an easement to facilitate a prescribed right of way to the domestic residents and land at Moyvally, Enfield in County Kildare; an easement to formalise a right of way to access land at Bracklin Little, Kilbeggan in County Offaly; the granting of a 99-year lease and sale of an area of ground along the shoreline at Priors Point, Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim; and an easement to facilitate a right of way to a property at Clogheen, County Kildare, that they purchased from Waterways Ireland.

Also disposed of was an easement to formalise a right of way to access lands in Mullingar in County Westmeath; an easement in respect of a 500 millimetre diameter and 300 millimetre diameter rising main under the Grand canal using an existing 1,500 millimetre culvert as part of the Upper Liffey Valley sewerage scheme; an easement for surface water and foul sewer pipes under the Royal canal at Branniganstown; an easement to facilitate access to their property at Skirteen, County Kildare; a right-of-way easement to facilitate access to the property at Jigginstown, Naas, County Kildare; and an easement to facilitate access to their property at Rogerstown, Edenderry, County Offaly. It also disposed of a 99-year lease for the erection of a road bridge crossing the Barrow River as part of the Athy distributor road scheme; and the granting of a supplemental lease of an area of Shannon waterway in County Roscommon.

All the disposals were in the South of Ireland. None was contentious. Some were financially significant, and each property is, naturally, subject to valuation prior to disposal to ensure that best value for money is achieved.

I am happy to share the reports with the Committee and with Members.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement. On the issue of waterways, what plans are there for a lifting bridge at Newry southern relief road as well as at Narrow Water to ensure continued access to Newry canal?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. That issue was not discussed at the meeting. However, the Member will know that I have been engaging with local stakeholders on the issue. Most recently, I met representatives of all political parties in the council to hear their views on a lifting bridge. I am continuing with that focused engagement to ensure that we get the right project for the Newry southern relief road. The Member will also be aware of my commitment to a bridge at Narrow Water.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement. She will be aware that, in my constituency, there has been a campaign for many years to extend the Ulster canal to Portadown. I look forward to hearing about that in a future statement. The canal is a commitment in New Decade, New Approach, so can the Minister provide an update on the Ulster canal greenway?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am happy to provide an update on the Ulster canal greenway. As the Member rightly points out, the Ulster canal restoration project is a commitment in New Decade, New Approach, as is the Ulster canal greenway.

Waterways Ireland, in collaboration with Monaghan County Council, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, and East Border Region Ltd, took the lead in submitting an application for INTERREG funding for the project. The application was successful, and just under €5 million was allocated towards the cost of the greenway.

The Ulster canal greenway strategy, devised by Waterways Ireland in collaboration with local authority partners along the Ulster canal corridor, identified 12 potential greenway routes totalling almost 200 km in length, and two of them comprised this project: Smithborough to Monaghan, and Monaghan to Middletown.

The annual socio-economic value of improved health outcomes from local population access to those 200 km of greenway for walking and cycling is estimated at £14·4 million, so they are projects with huge multiple benefits. That fits into my priorities as well in ensuring that we have a green recovery from COVID-19.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. It is quite a large project. What conversations have there been with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to promote the project in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. Waterways Ireland is committed to working in partnership with local authorities and their tourist representative bodies. The Ulster canal greenway, and the canal itself, are projects that will deliver multiple benefits, not only for physical and mental health but also in attracting visitors to the area, so they are hugely important for their tourism benefits. Waterways Ireland will, no doubt, continue to work with all key partners in the delivery of the project.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance 1:00 pm, 7th December 2020

I thank the Minister for her statement. My question is on the Ulster canal greenway. Phase 2 is Smithborough to Middletown, and the Minister said that that is on course for delivery in 2021. Is the Minister confident that that will occur? Are there any timescales for future phases and completing the entire project?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. I have not received any information on the time frame other than what has been set out, but I am happy to come back to the Member with further details if that does not prove to be correct.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Can you advise whether the recruitment competition for the chief executive post has begun? If so, when will it be concluded?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The CEO post in Waterways Ireland became vacant with the departure of the former postholder. As a result of the absence of the NSMC at that time, a successor could not be appointed, so the post was filled on an interim basis and with a fixed-term contract. I can confirm to the Member that a recruitment competition was launched by the Public Appointments Service on 23 October; the closing date was 12 November. Following the normal process of shortlisting and interview, the successful candidate will be appointed by the NSMC.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire inniu. I welcome the Minister's statement and the announcement in relation to the Middletown section. There are question marks over whether it is Middletown to Monaghan and then on to Smithborough. Did that discussion come up on the day, Minister? Is that the whole route? Will the Minister give a commitment to work with local councils to get that project under way as soon as possible? This will be a game changer for Middletown, with big opportunities to promote tourism and everything else. It will certainly help that wee border village.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. I agree that it is a game changer and that there are huge benefits. My understanding of the route is as he has set out, but I am happy to provide further detail to the Member as we move this project forward.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

Minister, I have a rundown of every culvert and pipe in all the counties throughout Ireland, and I appreciate the work that is going on down there. However, can you confirm what the priorities are for Waterways Ireland here in Northern Ireland in 2021 and beyond?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Waterways Ireland is obviously about ensuring that we maximise our blue infrastructure. The Member will be aware that, particularly during COVID, we have seen a huge increase in the number of people who are accessing our local heritage and our local blue and green infrastructure. It is about ensuring that that is safe and that we are able to invest in that infrastructure so that we grow it. One of the things that we have seen during COVID is a huge increase in the number of visitors and the number of people who are using this infrastructure as part of their staycations. I would like to see us build on that, and I know that Waterways Ireland is committed to that. It has been engaging across Europe and looking at international best practice to ensure that we are able to showcase our blue infrastructure, our navigations and our canals in a way that ensures maximum benefit to health and well-being, but also for tourism — for people who live here, but also for when we are able to open up again and invite people from around the world to come and see the many assets that we have.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas. I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, you said in the statement that you discussed the status of Waterways Ireland. However, given that the North will lose EU oversight, perhaps by the end of today, did the North/South Ministerial Council discuss issues relating to improving and maintaining the quality of Waterways Ireland's waters and protecting that from further environmental harm? We know that there will be no good Brexit for the North of Ireland.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. It is absolutely clear that there should be no reduction in any of our environmental standards. When we spoke about Brexit, we examined the preparations that Waterways Ireland has undertaken for the end of the transition period. We also talked about the impact that it may have. Although there is no possible outcome from Brexit that will impact solely on Waterways Ireland, there are various outcomes that will impact on the organisation. EU directives will no longer apply to GB and NI, which may lead to an incremental divergence in legislation between the two jurisdictions over time. GB and NI will also not have to comply with the EU procurement directives, so some rules may be changed. In the short term, following the exit, our rules are likely to remain the same; however, they may change in the medium term. The additional procurement regime will also bring added administration and Waterways Ireland has considered the implications of the need to migrate to a new tender advertising portal and platform.

As the Member highlighted, EU funding will no longer be available in the North, except for PEACE PLUS, which the EU has committed to continue to allocate. Of course, any changes to the common travel area arrangements would impact on Waterways Ireland staff whose area of work covers both jurisdictions, as well as on users of the navigations, particularly the Shannon/Erne waterway that runs through Counties Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh. To assure the Members, those issues were discussed.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, thank you for your statement. I live on the towpath, and it is a real asset. I was on it yesterday on my new electric bike, which you also made legal.

I noted the increase in the capital budget that was provided to Waterways Ireland. Will the Minister tell us more about why that was provided?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. It is great to hear that he is embracing the active travel agenda — literally on his e-bike. <BR/>Waterways Ireland has a statutory duty to engage, maintain, develop and promote the navigations for which it is responsible, mainly for recreational purposes. To fulfil that statutory duty, the navigational infrastructure must be fit for purpose and meet health and safety requirements and customer expectations. Severe weather events, particularly the more frequent incidences of flooding in recent years, as well as ongoing usage, causes the deterioration of infrastructure. DFI capital allocations to Waterways Ireland are invested in repairing damage to the infrastructure — replacing jetties, moorings and other facilities that are beyond repair — and providing additional facilities to accommodate the increasing number of users on Lough Erne and the lower Bann.

Specifically, in the years 2017 to 2020, Waterways Ireland delivered a number of capital projects on Lough Erne and the lower Bann. Toome lock house was refurbished and opened as a waterways heritage centre and cafe that is operated by Toomebridge Development Amenities and Leisure Limited, a local community association. Existing jetties were replaced, some with floating jetties, at six sites on Lough Erne, and access ramps were also replaced where necessary. A leakage and the swing bridge were repaired at Portna lock and an automated lifting device was installed. Work will commence on the rehabilitation of Carnroe weir in spring 2021 with an anticipated completion date of autumn 2022.

It is also important to note that Waterways Ireland has reported an increase of 3,288 boat registrations since 2016. That demonstrates the increasing popularity of our inland waterways.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. It refers to the draft accounts for 2019, which are not yet completed. That is some 11 months after the accounts were closed. In accounting for public money, it is helpful to have timely reporting. Given that Waterways Ireland does not have a board, who can be held to account for that late finalisation of the accounts and expenditure of public money?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister of Finance here had cleared the accounts. The Minister of Finance in the South did not have time to clear them in advance of the meeting, but I understand that they have now been cleared. Therefore, those accounts will be laid in the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas.

As to there being no board, the Member will know that North/South bodies were established under the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (NI) Order 1999. Two of the six bodies were established without a requirement in legislation to have a board, one of which was Waterways Ireland. At the NSMC plenary meeting on 15 June 2012, Ministers endorsed the St Andrews review recommendation that sponsor Departments should consider options for the setting up a board to direct Waterways Ireland's affairs, and an options paper was presented to Ministers for consideration at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on 19 June 2013.

I am advised that Ministers agreed that the existing governance arrangements should be strengthened but that there was no requirement for the appointment of a board at this time. I assure the Member that steps have since been taken to strengthen the governance arrangements. An annual service level agreement has been put in place between Waterways Ireland and sponsor Departments, and Waterways Ireland provides biannual assurance statements to sponsor Departments.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Like everybody else, I welcome the announcement and information on the Ulster canal greenways. I am a bit jealous of Pat getting out on his bike yesterday. The rural roads of North Antrim were very frosty yesterday, but the gritting of rural roads is an issue for another day. Can the Minister update the House on the Ulster canal restoration works, particularly phase 2 of the project, and when it is estimated that the restoration of the canal to Clones will be built?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. As he will know, in 2007, the Irish Government gave a commitment to fund the total cost of the restoration of the Ulster canal from Lough Erne to Clones. In the same year, Waterways Ireland was given NSMC approval to explore the possible restoration of the Ulster canal from Lough Erne to Clones. Phase 1 — the restoration of the stretch from Lough Erne to Castle Saunderson — was completed in spring 2019 and is now open for navigation. Phase 2 — the restoration of the stretch from Clones to Clonfad — is under way. A commission to investigate the source of a sustainable water supply for the marina has been completed. Waterways Ireland is satisfied that a suitable supply has been sourced in order to facilitate the development. Creative design is also ongoing to develop a vision for the canal in Clones. Work relating to land requirements and purchase arrangements for that section of the restoration has also commenced. I will briefly mention phase 3. Work will commence on the restoration of the stretch from Castle Saunderson to Clonfad when phase 2 is complete. All three phases of the project have been funded by the Irish Government.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Before I ask the Minister a question, I wonder whether Pat Catney would bring his e-bike to Stormont and give us a demonstration going up and down the mile a few times.

I thank the Minister for her very useful statement and also for her huge efforts over the past number of months to support communities during the pandemic. I know that COVID-19 has had a particular impact on services. Can the Minister tell the House what impact the restrictions have had on Waterways Ireland?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. It points to something that has been very positive during the pandemic. Where counter metrics are available, comparisons with the 2019 figures showed a 110% increase in user numbers on towpaths and trails along the navigations from March to August 2020. Where counter metrics are not available, feedback from local government and community partners indicated an unprecedented increase in the number of users, many of whom were using the facilities for the first time. During August, all boat hire companies reported 100% bookings, solely from the domestic market, as the inland waterways became a popular option for staycations. In previous years, the domestic market accounted for, on average, 22% of boat hire business. Bookings for September and October were at 80% to 90%, again from the domestic market. It is important that we build on that momentum and success.

A number of times, I have talked about the "quiet revolution" during COVID, whereby people are re-engaging with nature, having a more active lifestyle and getting a renewed appreciation for their shared home place. I am really pleased that Waterways Ireland has been part of the delivery of that and that it will continue to build on that success and the positive feedback from visitors and local communities, because we have a real opportunity to make inland waterways a more integral part of the local community as we build the green recovery in the post-pandemic era.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I want to return to the question of openness and transparency with regard to Waterways Ireland. The Minister has told us that it has no board. That means that there are no minutes that any member of the public could ever read. In fact, when my office phoned Waterways Ireland to ascertain how one could follow its work, we were told to read its annual report. Read its annual report? The 2016 report has just been published this year. We are in the ridiculous situation where even the Chair of the Committee has to come to the House to ask what projects are under way. If there are no minutes, no accountability and no oversight, how is a member of the public meant to follow the work of Waterways Ireland as it spends our public money? Is it not a farcical situation?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:15 pm, 7th December 2020

I thank the Member for his question. Waterways Ireland is accountable to the Department for Infrastructure, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (DHLGH) and the North/South Ministerial Council. Ministers discharge their oversight responsibilities in respect of Waterways Ireland through the NSMC. That includes consideration and agreement of the budget, of corporate and business plans, and of progress towards agreed business targets and project milestones.

Quarterly monitoring meetings are chaired by senior civil servants from DFI and DHLGH. The chief executive officer and appropriate directors attend to account for business performance and corporate governance. Waterways Ireland's audit committee meets quarterly. The committee, which has an independent chair and two external members, has unrestricted access to the internal and external auditors. It also has access to the work of internal audit, approves the internal audit work plan and receives reports on various aspects of internal control.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease while we move to the next item of business.