North/South Ministerial Council: Transport

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 25th May 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 25th May 2021

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 light of the social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber must do that by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during the statement or the question period immediately after.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in the transport sector held via videoconference on Wednesday 5 May 2021. The meeting was chaired by Eamon Ryan, Minister for Transport in the South, and was attended by First Minister Arlene Foster and me. A number of issues were discussed at the meeting, including the latest EU funding position; New Decade, New Approach commitments; sustainable travel and transport; and our future work programme for the transport sector.

Ministers welcomed the continued cooperation between my Department and the Department of Transport on EU funding-related matters and the potential for significant funding opportunities for North/South cooperation in the transport sector. The Council noted the various commitments outlined in 'New Decade, New Approach', particularly in the area of infrastructural investment. On the A5 western transport corridor, Ministers noted that both Governments remain committed to the A5 scheme. The Council noted that I, as Minister for Infrastructure, have fully considered all the recommendations made in the interim report from the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) in September 2020 and have now announced the next steps for the scheme. They include the preparation of a further addendum to the environmental statement for consultation in early autumn, leading to the reopening of the public inquiry early next year.

On high-speed rail connectivity, Ministers noted that both Departments have further developed draft terms of reference for a strategic review of the rail network on the island of Ireland that will take account of the need for balanced regional development, particularly in relation to connectivity with the north-west. The Council noted that the all-island strategic rail review was jointly launched by Minister Ryan and me on 7 April 2021 and that that work and the study will be overseen by a high-level steering group comprising representatives from both Departments as well as transport authorities from North and South.

The Council noted the commitments in 'New Decade, New Approach' on the Narrow Water bridge and agreed that Departments will consider next steps to progress the scheme.

Ministers noted that the review to explore potential government support for renewed air services between Belfast and Cork and Derry and Dublin is being led by the Department of Transport, working with the Department for the Economy and the Department for Transport in London.

The Council also noted the ongoing work on cross-border greenways.

The Council noted updates provided by the Department of Transport on a sustainable mobility policy review and by the Department for Infrastructure on transport decarbonisation policy development, including increasing sustainable and active travel. Ministers noted that officials from both jurisdictions will continue to liaise on policy development on sustainable transport and travel. The Council agreed that a further update, including on opportunities for future collaboration, will be provided at the next meeting.

Ministers also noted the outcome of the review carried out by both Departments on the current NSMC transport sector work programme and agreed the revised transport work programme.

The Council considered a number of other issues, including the Safefood business plan and budget for 2021. Ministers approved the Safefood business plan for 2021 and the recommended budget provision for 2021.

In respect of the North/South language bodies, the Council also approved the 2020-22 corporate plans for Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency and the 2021 business plans for both agencies. The Council recommended the budget provisions for Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency for 2021 and noted the indicative budgets for both organisations for 2020-22, which will be subject to budgetary considerations by both Administrations. The Council appointed Regina Uí Chollatáin as chair of Foras na Gaeilge and Freda Nic Giolla Chatháin to its board. The Council also appointed Freddie Kettyle as vice chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency and Allen McAdam, Lavinia Tilson and Karyn Devenney to its board.

In closing, I welcome these important formal NSMC meetings and will continue to work with my counterpart, Minister Ryan, as we continue to collaborate on many aspects of transport across the island in order to improve connectivity for all our citizens.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas ón Aire. I welcome the Minister's statement. I am delighted that greenways were mentioned, but I am a wee bit disappointed that the Middletown to Smithborough greenway will not meet its 2021 target. In light of that, will the Minister undertake to work with the NSMC and others who are involved in the project in order to deliver it as soon as possible? She knows how important the project is for that area.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Ulster canal greenway is one of the primary greenway routes in 'Exercise, Explore, Enjoy: A Strategic Plan for Greenways', which was published by my Department in 2016. As the Member will know, phase 2 of the Smithborough to Middletown project is under way. The greenway stops just short of Middletown village, at Annagola bridge, where a footway link to the village is to be constructed by my Department. Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council has put forward a proposal to extend the greenway northwards, which would assist delivery of the next phase of greenway development to Caledon. I am keen that my officials work to support those efforts and all efforts across all council areas to expand our greenway connectivity across the North and across the island.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her commitment to North/South relationships and to this work, which is important for the economy and the environment.

You mentioned climate change targets, Minister. What further work do you envisage that there can be collaboration on to tackle the climate change crisis?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. We are working on projects that are all about tackling the climate emergency. Minister Eamon Ryan is passionate about the subject, and we are both ambitious about what we, as Ministers, can do. The all-island strategic rail review is an example of how we can work collaboratively to encourage people to get out of their private cars and use public transport. We have reviewed our work programme and added a new agenda item on sustainable travel and transport that will look at areas of collaboration and at encouraging the modal shifts that are required. A lot of work has been done, but it is important to review and update the work programme to reflect the changed environment of the climate emergency and the importance given to that so that we see much more positive and collaborative work that translates directly into climate action across the island.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

The Minister's statement mentioned the New Decade, New Approach commitments on infrastructure investment, but several NDNA schemes are unfunded. Will the Minister acknowledge that, if she prioritises unfunded NDNA projects over road safety improvements, maintenance and resurfacing, it could come at the cost of increasing the number of potholes and compromising the safety of citizens?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. We went through that in quite a lot of detail during yesterday's Question Time. The reality is that there is a significant shortfall in investment and in the funding that has been allocated to my Department. My Department will carry out its statutory obligations. Once we have our budget, we have to take out the Executive flagships and our statutory requirements, which we are contractually obliged to do. It is true that that does not leave much flexibility to do anything else, but it is important that we recognise that 'New Decade, New Approach' is the agreement on which the institutions were restored. It is the basis on which I entered the Executive on behalf of the SDLP. There is therefore a responsibility on all Ministers to deliver on the commitments set out in 'New Decade, New Approach'. That is why I have been trying to work closely with the British Government to maximise funding and to ensure that they honour their commitments to turbocharging infrastructure, which they promised to the people of Northern Ireland in 'New Decade, New Approach'. I am also working with the Irish Government on the Taoiseach's Shared Island Fund so that we maximise opportunities to draw down funding and can deliver on the commitments that we have made to the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Minister for her statement. I am glad that the meeting finally went ahead.

The Minister's statement provides an update on sustainable travel and transport. As the Minister is aware, the Minister and the Government in the Republic of Ireland have committed to rebalancing their budgets towards public transport and active and sustainable travel; for example, 20% of the budget in the Republic of Ireland will go towards active travel: 10% to cycling and 10% to walking. Does the Minister intend to take a similar lead in Northern Ireland? I was concerned yesterday when the Minister outlined that she intends to deliver a similar level of £20 million investment in a blue-green fund in this financial year, yet she has a 29% increase in her capital budget, so that is a comparative cut for active travel. Will the Minister reverse that decision and rebalance the budget towards sustainable travel?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. In respect of sustainable travel and transport, we will continue to work on decarbonising our public transport network. That is important for improving air quality and reducing congestion. We will also work together to see how we can encourage more people to walk, cycle and wheel and to use those as their primary modes of travel in our towns and city centres.

As a member of the Infrastructure Committee, the Member will know that the spending that is required for the Executive flagship commitments is ratcheting up. As I said to Mr Stewart, when you take out the statutory obligations and Executive commitments, there is not much flexibility in the budget to do everything that we would like to do. I gave a commitment that I will continue with the blue-green fund.

That is the first time that we have had an infrastructural blue-green fund, which is to act as a catalyst for change on climate action.

The Member will also know that we have invested £96 million in the purchase of zero-emission and low-emission buses to decarbonise our public transport fleet, which is an important part of climate action. He will also be aware that we invested £66 million in 21 new train carriages. We are engaging in a lot of different work, including work on the e-charging infrastructure, and all of this is about giving people much more attractive choices for sustainable travel and encouraging them to use our public transport system. We will continue to do that and maximise our ambition and delivery within the limited financial envelope that has been given to us.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 25th May 2021

I thank the Minister for her statement. I, too, am glad to hear cross-border greenways being mentioned. Can the Minister advise whether the Carlingford lough greenway was discussed at the meeting, particularly the plans to link the greenway from Victoria lock in Newry to the border? That would significantly enhance what is already a fantastic greenway and would certainly improve safety for walkers and cyclists, who currently have to join the road again at Victoria lock to meet the greenway on down the road.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. Our greenways are a pragmatic example of how we can improve people's lives by collaborating and maximising the opportunities for greenways. The Member will know that three greenways — the Ulster canal greenway, the north-west greenway and the Carlingford lough greenway — have been subject to INTERREG funding. Difficulties are emerging with timescales and funding pressures, but my officials are working closely with the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) because we realise the importance of the delivery of the Carlingford lough greenway and all the greenways that have been mentioned. We will continue to work with the SEUPB to ensure that we get the required additional funding to see those projects realised.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Minister, you mentioned air connectivity and sustainable travel in the statement, and TDs Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Darren O'Rourke and I recently met the City of Derry Airport board. As you know, Derry's airport services the entire north-west and further afield, and 40% of the passengers who use it come from Donegal, yet the operational cost of the airport is left to the ratepayers of Derry, with the Irish Government making no contribution at all. Was the operational cost and financial sustainability of City of Derry Airport discussed? Was the Derry/Dublin public service obligation discussed at the meeting?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. She will know that I, as Minister for Infrastructure, have limited statutory powers in relation to our three main airports. That is set down in the Airports (Northern Ireland) Order 1994. My Department and I were able to provide support to airports, including to City of Derry Airport, during the pandemic. For expediency and logistical reasons, my Department facilitated the distribution of a £5·7 million support package of emergency funding, on behalf of the Executive, to Belfast City Airport and City of Derry Airport in spring 2020. The cost of that was shared between the Executive and the Department for Transport. Further to that, and following Executive support, my Department provided £1·23 million in additional support to City of Derry Airport, and that short-term support grant has helped that airport to remain operational during the pandemic.

The issue of air connectivity falls to the Department for the Economy. While we raised the issue in general, discussions are ongoing between the Department of Transport in the South, the Department for the Economy here and the Department for Transport in London on the wider air connectivity piece, so the Member may want to raise that issue directly with the Minister for the Economy. However, I assure the Member that I am very conscious of the continued impact on our airports, and, either this week or next week, I will meet representatives from City of Derry Airport with the Minister of Finance. I hope that the Minister for the Economy might join us in that meeting, given that the responsibilities fall across our three Departments.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement. It is clearly evident that she has worked feverishly to advance North/South and South/North opportunities. However, she has been obstructed by the DUP Ministers from taking forward important North/South Ministerial Council meetings. Can she advise on the impact of potential delays on crucial meetings and crucial all-island projects?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. The North/South Ministerial Council meetings provide a very important platform for us all across the island, and for my Department in particular, to work pragmatically on issues that will deliver multiple benefits for our citizens. The climate crisis, for example, knows no borders. It affects all of us, and the solution therefore has to be that we all work together.

It has been hugely frustrating that a number of NSMC meetings that I had been due to attend, as either a lead or an accompanying Minister, have been deliberately obstructed. I have raised the matter with ministerial colleagues. The nature of our place means that our engagement can often be very difficult and uncomfortable. We still need to engage, however. Moreover, we have to engage North/South and east-west, because the people of this island, when they voted for the Good Friday Agreement, mandated us to do so. Thirdly, engagement is not only the right thing to do but our legal obligation under the ministerial code. As we enter a new week with a new dynamic, I therefore hope that people will reflect carefully on how we can heal division in our society, how we can and should work together in partnership across these islands and how we must fulfil our legal obligations as Ministers around the Executive table.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. In it, she said that Ministers noted that both Governments remain committed to the A5 scheme. The scheme will result in improved access to Donegal. Was there any discussion about whether the Republic of Ireland will reinstate the full £400 million roads grant that it offered towards the A5 and subsequently withdrew?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. We raised the A5 project and its important role in tackling regional imbalance, connecting communities and, of course, improving road safety. There are so many communities, particularly in rural parts west of the Bann, that can benefit from investment in the A5 project. I very much welcomed the Irish Government's reaffirmation in New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) of their £75 million commitment to the A5, and I have had useful discussions with the Irish Minister for Transport, Minister Ryan, and the Taoiseach about delivering on our shared commitments. The Taoiseach announced the Shared Island Fund, which is €500 million. He is keen to use that to deliver NDNA North/South infrastructure projects, of which the A5 is one. I will continue to have very constructive engagement with my counterparts to ensure that we maximise the opportunity to drive forward that important commitment and all the other NDNA commitments.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I note that sustainable travel was discussed. Having a modern and reliable charge-point network is key to sustainable travel. I welcome the fact that the Department supported the INTERREG-funded FASTER project, which will install 73 charge points in Ireland and Scotland. Was the project discussed? Does the Minister have an idea of the number of charge points, of that 73, that will come to this island?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. We did not get into the specifics of e-charging infrastructure. I want us to explore the issue further, now that we have added the new agenda item on sustainable and active travel, because we need the continued interoperability in our e-charging network across the island. We did, however, refer to the INTERREG funding as another example of collaborative working across the island and with Europe.

As the Member says, 73 rapid charging points are anticipated. Some will be in Scotland, but some will be in Northern Ireland, particularly in the border region. My Department is not the lead on that, but we are working closely with the FASTER project in SEUPB to see exactly where the charging points will be located and the final number that will come to the North. I will keep the Member updated, because I know that he has a keen interest in the matter.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

The Minister did not give a clear answer to Mrs Barton, who asked whether the Dublin Government will still part-fund the A5 scheme and noted how important that scheme is for the entire region west of the Bann. That region has lacked investment for decades. We can see how much frustration this final obstruction has caused residents in the north-west. Do you have a time frame of when we can expect it to be delivered?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. The Member will know that the A5 project has been a very long time coming. It has been under the stewardship of a number of my predecessors. The first public inquiry was under Minister Murphy, the second was under Minister Hazzard, and the third happened when the institutions had been brought down. We now have an interim report, which means that we have to move to a reconvened public inquiry. I understand the local frustrations about it.

My officials are working at pace to produce the required environmental addendum. We will go out to a mandatory six-week consultation period on that so that we can move it back to the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) at the earliest opportunity. Of course, I have no control over the date that the PAC will determine for that hearing, but we will do everything that we can to expedite that. Once we get to that point, it will be for the Minister to decide on the next steps. I imagine that the construction of the project will be largely determined by the funding that is provided. My hope is that, where possible, it could move in parallel with different projects that are on my desk, but the progress of all those projects is largely dependent on the funding available once all the statutory processes are completed.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It appears that the DUP are not only boycotting North/South Ministerial Council meetings but boycotting holding to account Ministers who attend North/South Ministerial Council meetings. We have five DUP MLAs in the Chamber today, including the Chair of the scrutiny Committee. I am not aware of one of them asking you a question. Perhaps they would have been safer staying at home.

Minister, on your statement and North/South high-speed rail connectivity, as I have said to you before, it will be a lost opportunity if we have trains speeding from Belfast to Dublin or from Derry to Cork and the towns in between do not achieve any economic potential from that. Will the Minister ensure that high-speed rail connectivity is matched with local rail connectivity and bus connections in towns such as Lurgan, Portadown and Craigavon?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. On his initial remarks, we have a responsibility and a legal obligation to these institutions, whether that is in the Executive or in North/South and east-west bodies. We also have a duty to ensure that we have democratic accountability and scrutiny. Therefore, it is vital that I, as Minister, am held to account, that I am scrutinised and that all Members have the opportunity to ask me questions. I am disappointed at what appears to be a lack of engagement this morning, given the importance of the issues that we are discussing. These issues are not even politically controversial. They are practical issues that would really make a difference to people's lives and to the constituents of all Members across the House.

On the rail issue in his constituency that the Member highlighted, he will be aware that preparation is being undertaken by my officials on the regional strategic transport plan, which will go out to consultation later this year. That plan is about investment in our road, rail and bus network in the North. I encourage the Member to respond to that consultation to ensure that the importance of rail connectivity to the Lurgan area is made very clear.

We are coming at the all-island strategic rail review with no preordained outcome. The terms of reference are such that we will examine existing rail links on the island to see if those can be improved. We will look at where we can provide new links and where those would be beneficial. We will also look at the role that freight can play in the decarbonisation of transportation of goods on the island. We will examine rail connectivity to our international gateways, be those the ports or airports. That examination will be data-led. I am very excited by the all-island strategic rail review. It is the first time that we have looked at our transport network on the island since partition, which is really important. By working together and making data-led investment decisions, we will really improve people's lives across the island.

When we look at Europe, we see that they are making huge advances in rail. They recognise the importance of rail; what it can do for the economy, what it does for the environment, and what it does for the regeneration of local communities. Therefore, I am excited by that piece of work.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 11:00 am, 25th May 2021

In her statement, the Minister mentioned sustainable transport and transport decarbonisation policy development. The construction of dual carriageways has a hugely adverse impact on the local environment. Normally, they are built only when they will be used by at least 18,000 vehicles a day. Does the Minister accept that there is inconsistency in what she says, given that she plans for decarbonisation yet plans to build a dual carriageway on the A5 at Aughnacloy, which is used by fewer than 8,000 vehicles a day and is totally unjustifiable, and that, in fact, she is contributing to unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions by continuing to demand that dual carriageway when it is not justifiable for road development?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. He has passionately expressed his view about the A5 to me previously, primarily during the Adjournment debate on the matter. The original scheme that was put forward through the North/South Ministerial Council in 2007 was for a dual carriageway from New Buildings to Aughnacloy. As the Member will know, the PAC has taken a different view and has said that there is an obligation on the Department, in its role as the statutory decision maker, to consider reasonable alternatives to the proposed scheme and, therefore, to examine matters such as the extent to which town bypasses and selected improvements to the existing A5 standard would meet or fail to meet the overall aim and objectives of the dual carriageway scheme, together with an assessment of their environmental effects. I have instructed officials to carry out and then publish that assessment for consultation in accordance with the PAC recommendations.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

If Mr Edwin Poots is as good as his word, that will have been one of the last North/South meetings until the Union-dismantling protocol is, itself, dismantled. As an enthusiast for the Belfast Agreement, the Minister must know that it is said to be built on the equilibrium of sustaining east-west relations and North/South relations. With the key east-west economic relations having been trashed by the protocol, surely the Minister is not ignorant as to why it is necessary, from a unionist perspective, to ensure that North/South relations do not continue as though that trashing of east-west relations had not occurred.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

If east-west relations have been trashed, in the Member's analysis — I do not agree with it — the reality is that that is due to Brexit. We are in the current situation because the DUP mishandled Brexit at Westminster. I do not need to rehearse the arguments, because we all know that they are there. It does not matter how we try to spin that: it is there for all to see.

As a Minister, I do not have a pick-and-mix approach to my legal obligations. As Minister for Infrastructure, I have been proactive in my east-west engagement. I have had numerous meetings with colleagues in the Department for Transport and Robin Walker. I have had meetings with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I have had meetings with my counterparts in Scotland and Wales, because I recognise that we have shared challenges and that they are best overcome when we work together. I also do it because I am legally obliged to fulfil my obligations when it comes to my interactions, North/South and east-west.

I understand that the DUP has new leadership, but, regardless of who the leader is, they have legal responsibilities. I am so concerned by that particular issue that I have sought legal advice from the Attorney General on it.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Members, that concludes questions on the statement. Please, take your ease for a moment or two.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, when the Justice Minister was in the Chamber, I had my name down for a question. I was actually on StarLeaf, in the audience, waiting to be brought into the spotlight.

There was obviously some kind of technical fault that resulted in my not being able to ask a question to the Justice Minister. It was about a crucial issue. In the summer, two of my constituents were nearly burnt in a van that was hijacked in Galliagh, and they have been put through a number of hurdles trying to get compensation. I wanted to raise that with the Justice Minister in the Chamber yesterday, and I hope that I get another opportunity to do so. I want to explain to Members that it was not my fault that I did not get to ask a question yesterday, but, rather, it was some kind of technical fault.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for that. We are looking at the processes that occurred last evening. I will come back to you formally on that when we get to the bottom of the problem that was created.