Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 22nd June 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 in the Chamber that, in light of social distancing being observed by the parties, Mr 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 may 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. This is not an opportunity for debate, and I will not allow long introductions to questions. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the period for questions afterwards.
With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) inland waterways meeting that was held in the North/South Ministerial Council joint secretariat headquarters in Armagh and by videoconference on 21 May 2021. The Executive were represented by me, as Minister for Infrastructure, and the Health Minister, Robin Swann. 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 make it on behalf of both of us and the Executive. I chaired the meeting, and the following is a record of what was discussed.
We noted the progress achieved in the activities of Waterways Ireland, including extensive restoration work to repair the Meelick weir on the Shannon, with a new 295-metre publicly accessible walkway on top of the weirs, and the commencement of enabling works to Carnroe weir on the lower Bann in January 2021, which are due to be completed in April 2021. The in-river works are due to commence in the spring of 2022, with completion expected by autumn 2023. Abandoned, non-compliant and non-live-aboard boats along the canals were removed, significantly improving by-law compliance rates across navigations from 56% to a percentage in the mid-80s. Work commenced on the 46-kilometre Barrow blueway in the late summer of 2020 in Kildare and Laois, with that stretch due to be completed in 2022. Ecology surveys and preparations for planning submissions for five-year long-term maintenance plans along the Barrow and south Shannon are ongoing and will be completed in 2021. Some €150,000 was awarded to Waterways Ireland in March 2021 under the urban regeneration development fund for development options, a viability appraisal and a master plan for Tullamore harbour.
Waterways Ireland, with support from Minister O’Brien and Minister Martin, launched the Shannon tourism master plan in March 2021. Over €70 million of investment will be injected into the Shannon river region by 2030. In March 2021, Waterways Ireland, with support from Minister Noonan and Minister Ryan, launched the Royal canal greenway, which is Ireland’s longest greenway, stretching over 130 kilometres. Waterways Ireland is progressing plans on Dublin canals development opportunities and living communities. The Waterways Ireland heritage plan 2016-2020 concluded in 2020, having directly invested over €650,000 in the delivery of heritage projects. Work is ongoing on the formulation and delivery of a new 10-year heritage plan.
Waterways Ireland continues to work on its 10-year climate change adoption and mitigation plan, being one of the first organisations in the public sector to do so. Research by Waterways Ireland determined that over half of the population in both jurisdictions visited at least one of its waterways in 2020. Walking, cycling, commercial boating, rowing, angling, sailing and canoeing were just some of the activities that people engaged in. Progress to improve governance, risk and controls is ongoing. The 2021 internal audit plan and associated reports have been completed, and a business process review of Waterways Ireland's finance function is ongoing, with an estimated target completion date in June 2021. The 10-year long-term plan is nearing completion. Final articulation of the plan is ongoing, and preparatory work is already under way in preparation for pre-public consultation engagement with key stakeholders, including sponsor Departments, in advance of appropriate screening and public consultation.
As part of our examination of our commitments in New Decade, New Approach, we noted the progress achieved on the restoration of the Ulster canal. That includes the ongoing work on phase 2 of the restoration, from Clones to Clonfad, the plans for phase 3, from Castle Saunderson to Clonfad, and the plans for the development of the Ulster canal greenway.
We discussed our response to COVID-19. We noted the response of Waterways Ireland to COVID-19 and the increase in user numbers along towpaths and trails during the period of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020. We also noted the increasing popularity of the inland waterways as a holiday destination for the domestic market, as has been demonstrated by the increase in bookings for the 2021 season.
The Council noted the impact of Brexit on Waterways Ireland in the context of its status as a North/South implementation body.
We approved Waterways Ireland's draft 2020-22 corporate plan. We noted that Waterways Ireland's annual report and accounts 2019 have been signed off by both Comptrollers and Auditors General and will be laid before the NI Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas in the near future. We also noted that Waterways Ireland's annual report and accounts 2020 have been submitted for audit.
On staffing and organisational matters, we agreed that options for an independent organisational review of Waterways Ireland will be considered by sponsor Departments and the body, and we noted that draft terms of reference will be submitted to the NSMC for consideration at a future meeting.
We agreed that officials will explore options for the establishment of a board to oversee the work of Waterways Ireland and noted that an update will be provided to the Council at the next NSMC inland waterways meeting. We consented to a number of property disposals. We agreed to hold our next NSMC inland waterways meeting in late 2021.
Will the Minister explain further the review of Waterways Ireland's finance function, as outlined in the statement?
I thank the Member for his question. I am genuinely pleased to see engagement on the statement from my colleagues across the Chamber.
The Member may be aware that the North/South implementation bodies were established under the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) Order 1999. Two of the six bodies, one of which is Waterways Ireland, were established without a provision for them to have a board. The board of any organisation forms part of its governance structure, and we should keep the absence of a board for Waterways Ireland under review. It is eight years since the options for setting up a board for Waterways Ireland were considered. Now is an appropriate time to review the position. At our meeting, we therefore agreed that officials will explore options for the establishment of a board to oversee all of Waterways Ireland's work. An update will be provided to the Council at the next NSMC inland waterways meeting. We need to look at this with fresh eyes, and I look forward to officials bringing forward recommendations on the matter for our consideration.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for her statement. I know that she is keen on green and blue infrastructure. Waterways Ireland asked the Infrastructure Committee for additional funding for the Ulster canal greenway. Will the Minister give us an update on that and on what action she has taken to resolve the issue? As COVID restrictions ease, we are trying to encourage people to get back out and use the facilities.
As the Member is aware, the Ulster canal greenway is progressing. It is under consideration by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). The period required for construction has been extended, so there is a funding shortfall. I understand that that is under consideration by INTERREG. At this stage, it would not be appropriate for my Department to become involved, given its role as an accountable Department, but I am keen to see the outcome of INTERREG's deliberations and consideration. As the Member rightly points out, I am committed to the expansion of our blueways and greenways, and I will be keen to see what my Department may be able to do to advance that.
I thank the Minister for her statement. When we go through it, we see that it highlights 16 areas of cooperation and delivery for all citizens on this island. I understand that the NSMC plenary meeting was obstructed again last week and was not able to take place. That is totally unacceptable. What options are open to the Minister to ensure that the functions of North/South meetings are no longer allowed to be blocked by anyone or any party?
I thank the Member for his question. Yes; it was hugely frustrating, not least given the amount of work that officials had put in to prepare for the very important NSMC meeting last Friday, to discover that that meeting was obstructed from going ahead. As I have said many times in the Chamber, we overcome our challenges when we work across these islands, east-west and North/South. As Ministers, we also have legal obligations and responsibilities to uphold our duties, and that requires us to engage in the North/South Ministerial Council meetings. I hope that, with a new DUP leadership and whatever ministerial team at the Executive table that that leads to, all Ministers will live up to their legal responsibilities. I hope that we will see full attendance at all North/South Ministerial Council meetings. I very recently attended the British-Irish Council summit, which was of huge importance for shared learning and collaboration. It is equally important that we have the same level of engagement on a North/South basis.
Before we proceed with the next question and on the theme of encouraging active travel, I will say that we have travelled quite some way from inland waterways to the DUP leadership. I urge Members to try to relate directly to the content of the statement. I am not saying that the DUP leadership do not use inland waterways; I am sure that they all do, on occasion. Can we try as far as possible to relate to the content of the statement?
In the Minister's statement, she indicated that discussions and considerations about establishing a new board for Waterways Ireland are ongoing. Will the Minister advise why that is needed on top of the civil engineers or the civil servants who presently have that responsibility and are directly accountable to the Minister?
I thank the Member for his question. He refers to the fact that auditing, finance and governance processes already exist. This consideration lies in the fact that a board is a vital element in the governance structure of any organisation. As I said in response to the question from the Chair of the Infrastructure Committee, we should keep the absence of a board in Waterways Ireland under review. It is not clear to me why there is no provision for a board in the legislation that established Waterways Ireland. Therefore, it is right and proper that the issue is reviewed. I am in no way pre-empting the outcome of that review and what the recommendation will be, but, for governance reasons, it is important that we examine the issue closely and come to a considered conclusion on it.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I will touch on the New Decade, New Approach section about the restoration of the Ulster canal. I welcome the progress on that. Does the Minister agree that it is important that we all, in the Executive and the Assembly, focus on the delivery of the commitments in the New Decade, New Approach agreement in the spirit of genuine partnership and trust, because that is the only way that government in Northern Ireland will work?
In short, I very much agree with the sentiment expressed in the question posed by Mr Muir. Look at the Department of Infrastructure and the remit of Waterways Ireland: we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who are accessing our blueways and greenways, particularly throughout COVID. In fact, local boat hire reported having 100% bookings for 2020 and seems to be on course to do exactly the same this year. There are wonderful areas of cooperation, particularly active travel, greenways and blueways, which can deliver multiple benefits, not just for people who live cheek by jowl with those but for the wider island and when we get many visitors coming to our shores once again.
I thank the Minister for her statement. Will the Minister give more detail on the organisation's plans to promote its waterways, as I do not believe that enough people know the huge scope of what is on offer across our island. While we are on that topic, I will say that the plans for a city park at the Albert Basin in Newry aim to reconnect Newry with its waterways. Will the Minister outline how her Department may be able to tie in with that project? The inclusion of cycling and walking lanes would be a huge boost to it.
I thank the Member for her question. The Albert Basin park was not discussed at the inland waterways meeting, but I have been engaging on it with local stakeholders in Newry, particularly the council. I recognise the importance of the proposals there and what they can do for our blueway offering for the community in Newry and further afield.
I agree with the Member in the sense that we can always do more to promote our natural assets. In Northern Ireland and across the island, we are blessed with wonderful natural assets that can not only bring huge benefits for mental health and well-being to those who live beside them but, as I said, will be a catalyst for change in our tourism offering. As elected Members, there is a responsibility on all of us to help to showcase that through our social media platforms. Waterways Ireland is also working with tourism bodies on the island to showcase and to promote what we have to offer. It is engaged in a lot of positive work, whether that is repairing existing facilities or making improvements along our blueways. We should have all shoulders to the wheel in selling that and encouraging as many people as possible to visit safely.
Minister, a few years ago, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the UK and EU undertook a joint mapping exercise to look at the scope of North/South cooperation. Inland waterways was one of those areas. A huge range of EU legislation that affects inland waterways is obviously not covered by the protocol. What work is going on to monitor the risks to the work of Waterways Ireland from EU and UK divergence and to mitigate that?
The Member raises an important point. While there was no outcome from Brexit that impacted solely on Waterways Ireland, there are some outcomes that will impact the organisation going forward. EU directives no longer apply to the UK and that may lead to an incremental divergence in legislation with the passage of time. As the Member will know, the UK no longer has to comply with EU procurement directives. Following Brexit, the UK's rules on procurement are likely to remain in the short term, but they may change in the medium term. The additional procurement regime will bring added administration. Waterways Ireland has considered the implication of the need to migrate to a new tender advertising portal and platform. I want to reassure the Member that ongoing preparatory work is taking place.
Of course, there is also the issue of funding. With the exception of PEACE PLUS money, which the EU has committed to continuing to allocate, EU funding will no longer be available to the North. Historically, Waterways Ireland has been the beneficiary of EU funding, and it anticipates that future EU funding opportunities to develop infrastructure and to promote the recreational use of waterways in the North may become limited or cease. While any lost funding could potentially be replaced, at least partially, by the UK Government or other EU funding streams such as PEACE PLUS, funding changes will remain for the future development of infrastructural assets.
Minister, I want to go back to the restoration of the Ulster canal. That is a project on my doorstep that will be a major boost to the economy in the east Fermanagh/Clones area. Given that the Ulster canal greenway has missed its target date of 2021, what assurances can you give that the Ulster canal project itself will meet its delivery targets?
I thank the Member for his question. I agree with him about the benefits that will be derived from the Ulster canal project.
I can provide an update. The restoration of the Ulster canal from Lough Erne to Castle Saunderson has been completed at a total cost of £3·2 million. Waterways Ireland has already commenced work on phase 2 from Clones to Clonfad, and it is working on an update to the economic appraisal for phase 3 from Castle Saunderson to Clonfad.
The Member did not make reference to it in his question, but ,obviously, there are the remaining plans to restore the Ulster canal from Clones to Lough Neagh. The restoration of that stretch remains a goal, and all parties have signed up to it and reiterated their commitment to it in the Stormont House Agreement, Fresh Start and New Decade, New Approach. It is a commitment that I am certainly keen to see honoured so that we can get full completion and restoration of the canal, so that we have that connectivity and it can deliver all the benefits that we know it will.
I thank the Minister for her statement and the acknowledgement of the fact that more can be done to promote our waterways and their potential. In that regard, what work is being done by her Department and its agencies with local councils to assist and progress projects in Northern Ireland?
I thank the Member for his question. While it was not a specific issue discussed under the agenda items, the Member may be aware that I established the walking and cycling champion at the heart of my Department, and also, last year, I established the blue-green infrastructure fund, which I have carried on with £20 million into the new financial year. The Department has written to local councils, encouraging them to bring forward their blue-green and active travel projects that are ready for construction. I am keen that, where I can, I provide capital funding to support construction, whether it is for active travel or greenway or blueway expansion. We will write again to local councils to encourage them to bring forward proposals, and I encourage Members, through their local councillors, to push and encourage them to bring forward proposals so that we are in a position to be able to better support them.
I am glad that the Chair of the Infrastructure Committee asked you a question this time.
I want to ask about Waterways Ireland. It presented to the Executive Office Committee, and I understand that it is one of the first organisations to have been successfully allocated funding from the shared Ireland fund. That being the case, how will your Department take full advantage of these potential funding opportunities, maybe to develop additional North/South infrastructure projects? I am quite keen to see the sewerage capacity
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Derry/Donegal border. Given that Waterways Ireland successfully got funding from the shared Ireland future fund, it would be good to get your read on that.
I thank the Member for her question. She will be aware, particularly in respect of the Ulster canal, of the very recent announcement by the Taoiseach of financial contributions to the advancement of that important North/South infrastructure project from the Shared Island Fund. In fact, the Irish Government have been stepping up funding for the Ulster canal in all the phases to date.
Of course, where I can, I will have discussions with my colleagues in the South to ensure that we are able to draw down funding from the Shared Island unit. The Member will be aware of another area of my portfolio around the all-island strategic rail review, for example. There are a lot of areas, particularly through greenways and blueways, where we can do so much more. Again, that is why it is very important that we have that engagement on a North/South basis as well, so that we have cooperation and partnership working. We can also avail ourselves of the funding that is available through the Shared Island Fund, given that budgetary conditions here in the North are so constricted.
What progress has been made in repairing the devastation of our east-west links? The answer is "none", which means that I want to register the view that North/Southery should not be proceeding so long as the east-west has been trashed. I trust that the new DUP leader will so ensure and wipe the smile off Sinn Féin, who take pleasure in the DUP's acquiescence in the current situation.
I am not certain that there was a question in there, Minister. However, if you wish to respond, you may do so.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I would like to respond. As Minister for Infrastructure, I have been extremely proactive in my engagement on an east-west basis. I have had multiple meetings with my ministerial counterparts in Westminster, in Scotland and in Wales. Every time we have our engagement, we talk about shared challenges, shared learning and cooperation and partnership working in the interests of all our citizens.
I am growing increasingly tired of this dance with Mr Allister. The truth is that I, as the Infrastructure Minister — I cannot speak for any other Minister — take my role very seriously. I am sincere in my engagement on an east-west basis, even on the UK connectivity review, about which I have huge concerns that are shared across the Chamber. I have engaged faithfully in that process as well. I sincerely hope that the way I approach that engagement on an east-west basis is the same approach as that adopted by other Ministers on a North/South basis.
That concludes questions on the statement from the Minister for Infrastructure. Members will take their ease for a few moments, and we will move on to the Final Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill. Members, if you are leaving the Chamber, do not forget to sanitise the place where you were sitting.