Roads in South Antrim

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:00 pm on 14th September 2021.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 5:00 pm, 14th September 2021

In conjunction with the Business Committee, Mr Speaker has given leave to Mr Trevor Clarke to raise the matter of roads in South Antrim. The proposer of the topic will have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

Whilst the topic may be roads in South Antrim, it could refer to any roads across Northern Ireland, where we are seeing a lack of repair, with roads falling very much into disrepair. Indeed, it is causing much frustration to many people. Many of us believe that there has been a lack of investment in roads.

I want to say at the outset that none of my comments is directed at individual staff. Staff in each of the offices have worked extremely well with us, as elected representatives, and have always shown professionalism. That having been said, there is an issue with replacing staff when they leave. In the local section office, a good gentleman who left in the past number of months has never been replaced. That adds to the problems and frustration that we, as elected representatives, face when we contact them to raise issues on behalf of our constituents. I am sure that, if that happened in other areas, Members for those areas would express the same frustration. We want to hear from the Minister about what she will do to bring the staff complement back up to where it should be, so that the service that was previously delivered in those areas can be delivered.

That leads me on to the delay in repairs. In many areas, we see yellow circles or lines drawn around the potholes that need to be repaired. However, those repairs remain undone for so long that, in many instances, the lines need to be redrawn. Many of us are aware of legislation on the depth of potholes. Some time ago, after a review of the policy, less serious potholes were not fixed and the focus was put on those that were more severe. It is time that we got back to fixing all potholes, given the damage that they cause to vehicles on the roads. The condition of roads is visible. Daily, many people who use the roads will witness and suffer an experience that is caused by those conditions.

Road safety features are another issue that have come to my attention through my office. I can cite one example from outside Randalstown in my area, where we waited almost 12 months — again, I am not referring to DFI Roads staff, because this is down to contractors — to get safety lines and signage on site. That is unacceptable, given where we are now. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is unacceptable given that we are tying to improve road safety and decrease the number of people who lose their life in road accidents. From many of the conversations that I have had, even with staff from the old Roads Service, it seems that that is merely down to contractors. The work is passed to contractors that are on a list, but it does not seem to go anywhere. My perception is that the contractors decide what is a priority for them, rather than what is a priority for the people of the areas that we represent. That should not be the case.

Indeed, we have heard anecdotal evidence that contractors have lost staff because of COVID. Unfortunately, some have returned home; they have left this island to go off to different places and never returned. That is not acceptable. With so many people unemployed now, there are opportunities there. Roads needs to provide an evidence base to show that it has gone out to actively recruit people to carry out those roles.

A former Roads Service employee told me that, in many instances, the contractors much prefer to come to where there is a good road, drop their spreader and drop as much tar as possible; they are not interested in the smaller-scale schemes. As you will appreciate, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for your constituents and my constituents who live in more confined areas, that is not the key issue. In the past few weeks, I spoke to a lovely lady in Newpark. She said to me, "I have lived on this street for 50 years. With the amount of money that they have spent on potholes over the last 50 years, they could have resurfaced this street." In Newpark, she said, her street has not been resurfaced in the whole time that she has lived there. That is an unfortunate indictment of DFI Roads.

I am not blaming the Minister, because there have been many Ministers in the past 50 years, and I am sure that the current Minister is not even 50 years of age, so I will afford her the privilege that the mistakes of all the previous Ministers are not her responsibility, but it is high time that we got to the position where people can see delivery on the ground. It is awful that a woman in her later life — I was much younger than she was — can tell me that the amount of money that was spent over those years would have resurfaced that street many times.

I can give examples of many different issues in my constituency. On a Saturday night on the A26, the main road between Ballymena and Antrim town — a dual carriageway — five cars, one after the other, burst their tyres, and immediate repairs had to be done to the road that night. I congratulate the officials for bringing someone out on a Saturday night to carry out those repairs. I feel very sorry for the five individuals whose cars were damaged and who could not continue their journeys. That example poses the question of why we have to wait for a road — a dual carriageway — to get into such disrepair that it takes five cars to be damaged before DFI Roads will do something about it. It is an indictment of the underinvestment in the maintenance of our roads.

I will be very parochial, with an example from outside my house. I remember awakening one morning — I live on the Portglenone Road — to see four cars at the end of my drive in a similar scenario: pothole marked, yellow lines, contractor had not come. The pothole was so deep that four cars, one after another, had smashed their wheels and could not carry on. Again, that is a main carriageway that carries thousands of cars a day, and it is an example of the disrepair.

I will cite another example. I had the pleasure of attending a recent surgery that was carried out by our MP. On that day, it was stark. As many of the other representatives here will know, quite frequently, where you have surgeries, not many members of the public turn up, but on that occasion they did. Without fail, every person who turned up at the surgery in Randalstown that day complained about being awakened by lorries from 5.30 am, not because of the noise of the lorries per se but, again, because of the condition of the road. There have been so many repairs over the years that there are so many trenches or divots, if we want to call them that, that those lorries bounce along the road.

I was with an official on Friday — I will not name him; I know that I am not permitted to — and I was glad to hear that he intends to bring that work forward. He was aware of that scheme and intends to bring it forward for an improvement. Having had that conversation, I feel — I will choose my words carefully — sorry for the individual staff members. The amount of money that they have got to carry out those repairs means that many other streets and roads will go unrepaired. We are beyond the point of picking and choosing. Much more money needs to be ploughed into repairing our roads.

Also from that visit on Friday, I learned — I put on record that I welcome it — that the spreader is in Randalstown again, in Neillsbrook, another social housing development that has suffered. The potholes were so bad that they were repairing the pothole repairs rather than the road. I am glad to say that I got word yesterday that the spreader is in Neillsbrook carrying out those essential repairs, but, again, it took 18 months. It takes people to get their cars damaged before these things are actioned.

This is no reflection on the constituency that the Minister represents, because it is something that I say to my colleagues — indeed, I say it to you, Mr Principal Speaker — but there is life outside Belfast.

Minister, I extend an invitation to you to come to South Antrim. I know that you have been there recently, because I have seen you in the village visiting some of the improvement work that has been done. We thank you for that, but I would love you to spend some time with all the representatives of South Antrim. Take some time to come and see the condition of the roads that we drive on. Maybe, when you get back to the office, you will decide that we are more deserving than some of the schemes in Belfast and that the rural constituencies deserve bigger input from your budget.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I was tempted to bring the Member to order at that point, but, no, he expressed his sentiment very well.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Speaking for all the Members for South Antrim, I will say that we could all give a litany of some of the roads that we have in our constituency. Regrettably, in the great town of Ballyclare, I have the Ballycorr Road. The Ballycorr Road is deemed to be the third-worst road in Northern Ireland. It can be deemed to be the third-worst road in Northern Ireland only because no one has seen it recently. It is now probably, along with its connection to Church Road, the first-worst road in Northern Ireland.

I do not want to denigrate Ballyclare, because a lot of good work is going on across South Antrim. There has been an awful lot of investment going in, particularly by property developers. We can see the out-turn of that, with many new houses going up. At long last — thank goodness — we see the new bridge coming across the Sixmilewater. I would be delighted if we were to have a competition to name it: maybe it could be the "Willie John McBride bridge" or something like that. The new link road that is going around Ballyclare is good. In Antrim, we see lots of development and improvements, as well as new housing. What we are not seeing, however, is investment in the roads and infrastructure between those areas.

Like most MLAs, I dread Friday mornings when I get the knock on the door. It is always some new contractor from, say, a gas or fibre company. It is great that contractors want to invest in the town, but I always say the same thing, which is, "Please tell me that you are not digging up the Rashee Road again". I look around the Chamber at Members. Yes, every time, it is exactly the same: they are digging it up.

There seems to be a lack of coordination in the developing of plans with the council. There has to be an approach whereby the roads are restored to the level that they should be at. They are getting progressively worse. What we see now is that, because we continue to patch roads, the infrastructure is never being restored to the level at which it should be. We are aware that bonds have to be raised for a lot of that work. We should insist that the bonds are made good. Minister, Ballyclare may be a good example to spread across Northern Ireland. If Ballycorr Road and Church Road were to be restored to something passable, rather than being a good testing track for tractors and Land Rovers, that would be an excellent opportunity to make a start on where we need to get to. We need to see that kind of thing.

We have good roads in South Antrim outside that. We have the A6 and the A8. However, we now see the interfaces where drivers come off roads on to the A- and B-grade roads breaking down. We see a lot of outward investment, but we do not see maintenance. When, hopefully, we get to multi-year Budgets, my party will be very supportive of making sure that the Department for Infrastructure has money in its budgets for the necessary infrastructure improvements. We will have to invest heavily in our roads. If South Antrim is to continue to be the best place by far in Northern Ireland in which to live, which all its MLAs will attest to, we have to make that investment.

Minister, we are here to help. We are here to work with you. We are here to support you when it comes to making sure that we get multi-year Budgets. We must, however, restore the infrastructure and the critical roads that we have at the moment. We cannot allow the deterioration of the roads to continue.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I remind Members about how the Adjournment debate works. The debate needs to be over at 6.01 pm. The Minister has 10 minutes in which to respond, so, on the basis of the number of Members who have indicated that they want to speak, I can give Members seven or eight minutes each, should they choose to use them.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 5:15 pm, 14th September 2021

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I assure you that I am not likely to stretch your 6.00 pm deadline.

I thank my fellow South Antrim Member Trevor Clarke for securing this important Adjournment debate. Constituency MLAs are reminded regularly of the real need to continue to repair and upgrade our existing road infrastructure in the interests of road safety and, of course, pedestrian safety. At this juncture, I should acknowledge the efforts made by local Department for Infrastructure Roads officials to continue services and responses during the recent very challenging COVID-19 period. It is appropriate that I make comments that are supportive of local officials and, indeed, of officials who work centrally in the Minister's office and in other places, just as Mr Clarke did in his opening remarks. We mean that; we understand and know the pressures that people are under.

Of course, in South Antrim, as you would expect in all constituencies, a distinction must be drawn between remedial repair and road safety-related works, and the longer-term plans and strategies that, by their nature, should be more medium to long term. If we are serious at all about a green recovery, it is vital that such planning is collaborative so that it encompasses the numerous though necessary strategic programmes aimed at improvements in relation to active travel, greenways and reducing car use.

Departmental and council efforts to create new cycling infrastructure from Glengormley to the north foreshore will be of assistance to my South Antrim constituents in Glengormley, Carnmoney and Mallusk, all of which are at the southern end of the constituency. However, these welcome improvements in turn highlight the need for similar schemes associated with necessary park-and-ride facilities in, for example, the more rural parts of the constituency. I expect that other Members representing rural constituencies will say the same about the areas that they represent. In light of that, I acknowledge the Minister's publicly stated commitment to bringing forward such planning and schemes, and her willingness to engage with us in doing so. While we await scheduled improvements, it is my hope that resources will also be dedicated to meeting the long-term needs of all constituencies, including South Antrim, with an appropriate focus on a sustainable transport system. Hopefully, cooperation on these matters will be cross-party, interdepartmental and a priority for all levels of government.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I also thank my colleague Trevor Clarke for securing the Adjournment debate this evening. Obviously, this is a matter that needs focus, a plan and sufficient investment. There needs to be a marked change in the conditions in South Antrim for all road users and for the residents. I suspect that, as my colleague mentioned, Members representing every constituency in this place could propose a similar debate, particularly those of us elected to represent large rural areas. At times, in our role as MLAs and on personal business, we visit other parts of the country, and we see the same issues everywhere: potholes, uneven surfaces, lack of adequate road markings and dangerous junctions. So much needs to be done.

We are now left to address this situation, and I have several examples of where we need investment, particularly in resurfacing. In the Ballyclare area and surrounding villages, numerous locations need further attention. A resurfacing scheme is badly needed on the main Hillhead Road into Ballyclare and on Rashee Road, both of which are main arterial routes, of course, and very heavily used by commuters. In the more rural areas, residents in places such as Grange Road in Parkgate, Ahoghill Road in Randalstown and Moyra Road in Burnside have regularly been in touch with my office to complain about the poor condition of the roads and some poor path and pothole repairs carried out by contractors.

In more residential streets, such as Sherwood and Fairview in Newtownabbey or very close to my home near the Dublin Road estate in Antrim, a number of locations have been the source of many pothole reports over recent years. Also, the state of footpaths and, indeed, disabled access are issues. The need for quality dropped kerbs and safe routes for mobility scooters is just one example. We have many regular complaints in many areas of South Antrim about all these issues. The list could go on, and I have raised many more issues with the Department in recent months.

Like my colleague, I put on record my thanks to staff on the ground in the Antrim and Newtownabbey district office, who do their best.

They are really good and are responsive in addressing all the issues that we, as elected representatives, raise with them. Again, those are issues such as potholes and emergency repairs to things that pose an immediate danger. The staff are dedicated to their roles and to delivering the best service possible with the resources given to them. However, I stress the need for greater financial resource to be made available.

I know that the Minister has priorities in Belfast and other major urban areas, but we need to see rural areas benefit too from our budget. Rural communities are long awaiting proper attention to their roads. Roads such as those in South Antrim should not be at the bottom of the priority list. We need to see proper resurfacing schemes instead of surface dressing or patching, more money for rural road recovery programmes and investment in improving pavements where surfaces are uneven and have become dangerous for certain users. Our constituents may note the debate and listen to plenty of talking, but what they want from the Minister is delivery, so I urge the Minister to deliver for my constituents in South Antrim.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for South Antrim for securing the debate on roads in his constituency. Members might wonder at me participating in it, but I live in south Antrim, although not in the constituency. Many of the roads in my constituency lead directly into the Member's area. They need repairs; there is no doubt about that.

Participating in the debate also gives me the opportunity to congratulate the ladies of Antrim Camogie for their outstanding win in Croke Park at the weekend. It has been a great weekend for women in sport. I congratulate all those who participated but particularly the winners and those who volunteer on their committees.

Many Members who have spoken thus far have shared their concerns about the cuts to the funding that is required to enhance and repair roads year after year and have acknowledged that that is unacceptable. I have no doubt that the Minister is here to outline the work that she has been doing in South Antrim and across the North to repair our road network. However, the absolute truth is that, in 2015, deep cuts were imposed on the then Department for Regional Development, and those cuts have never been repaired by the Executive. We all welcome increased capital funds, but we know that the reality is that, without the resource funding, the capacity is simply not there to get the work done.

I welcome the fact that Minister Nichola Mallon has consistently bid for additional funds, but I am pretty disgusted that full funding for those bids has not been awarded. Members across the Benches will, no doubt, have similar questions to ask. Why have the Executive not prioritised that funding? Why does the Sinn Féin Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, continue to short-change Minister Mallon's Department, ultimately, short-changing our constituents, for whom we want delivery? I know that a lot of work has been done in South Antrim — Members acknowledged that fact — and that, as is the case in my constituency, there is much to be welcomed, but the absence of the required funding, the impact of COVID and the bad winter we have just had mean that more and more roads are suffering decay.

We also have to acknowledge the fact that, in some constituencies, legal challenges have delayed work. That has been a huge concern for the representatives of the constituencies directly impacted by those challenges.

I hope that Members will agree that Minister Mallon is clearly doing all she can, but the decay will continue if roads are not prioritised by the Finance Minister and, ultimately, the Executive. If that continues, the rot will continue. Members across the Chamber have expressed their concerns about the impact that that might have on road safety.

We are debating the need to improve our roads and the need for more funding to help the Minister and her Department to deliver, but, at the same time, there are parties here that are threatening to collapse this place. They are threatening to walk away. Only a few months ago, Sinn Féin was threatening the same; it was doing just what the DUP is doing today. Let me be clear about this: we cannot fix the roads, increase our budgets or improve lives if politicians walk off the pitch. We had three years of decay and rot in our services and on our streets thanks to the stand-off and the stalemate between the DUP and Sinn Féin. People have had enough. Let us get on with the job and get back to work.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

No other Member has indicated that they wish to speak to me — speak in the debate. It is normal for no other Member to indicate that they wish to speak to me.

[Laughter.]

No other Member has indicated that they wish to speak in the debate. I call the Minister for Infrastructure, Ms Nichola Mallon, to respond.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mr Clarke for securing the debate on South Antrim roads. I join Mrs Kelly in congratulating the Antrim ladies' camogie team on its outstanding win. I know that that is replicated throughout the House.

I listened with interest to the comments and issues raised by Members, and it is clear that it is a topic relevant to not only South Antrim but, as Members rightly said, places across Northern Ireland. The truth is, as Mrs Kelly pointed out, that this is the damage that was caused by the deep cuts imposed on the Department's predecessor in 2015. As a result of those severe budget reductions, the Department was forced to reduce its level of service. That is the reality within which we operate. Certainly, since I took up the post of Minister, I have made bids, and we are trying to do what we can in the Department to restore funding to pre-2015 levels, but that is still proving to be hugely challenging.

Mr Clarke also mentioned staff vacancies. As a result of the voluntary exit scheme, there are staff shortages across the Civil Service. Ministers have raised that issue with the Civil Service. We need to address it, but, again, that is caveated by the fact that staff cost money, and we are in a challenging budgetary environment.

I assure all Members who have spoken that I am determined to improve the condition of our roads and to recover some of the large backlog of road maintenance that currently exists and that was referenced in the 2019 Barton report on the structural maintenance of our roads. Members will know that it has been independently established that £143 million at 2018 prices is needed to maintain the structural integrity of Northern Ireland's road network. However, for many years, the funding allocated to the Department has fallen well below the level required. I welcome the fact that Mr Clarke recognises that the issue predates me as Minister, and I acknowledge and appreciate the fact that he and other Members have put on record their appreciation of and gratitude to DFI officials on the ground. I will make sure that that is fed back to them.

While everyone is aware that the outlook for the capital budget is somewhat better, the resource budget for my Department still faces real pressures that affect capacity in particular. I assure Members that I will keep battling for the resources that we need, particularly for infrastructure, after the significant cuts that impacted the budgets as far back as 2015.

I reassure Mr Clarke and Mrs Cameron that I realise that life exists outside Belfast. Addressing regional imbalances and improving rural roads is a priority for me. That is why I set up the roads recovery fund, and, in 2020-21, I allocated £12 million of my capital budget to that fund, of which £10 million was specifically directed towards rural roads. Those improvements targeted many short lengths of rural road that were in particularly poor condition, with over 750 locations on the rural network benefiting from that initiative. Following that fund's successes last year, I have set up an enhanced fund in this financial year and have allocated £17 million of my capital budget to a roads recovery fund, of which £15 million is again specifically directed towards rural roads. As a result of that decision, rural roads will benefit from a 50% increase in funding in that initiative. That is the highest level of funding yet. It reflects my commitment to continue that important work to benefit rural communities.

I will continue to press for investment for infrastructure as part of the next spending review, the outcome of which will determine funding availability for 2022-23 and beyond. I absolutely agree with Dr Aiken: we must move with great urgency to multi-year budgets so that we can plan ahead, give forecasts to contractors and others and deliver the improved infrastructure that we need on the ground. I assure Members that, while I am Minister, I remain committed to establishing a further roads recovery fund in future years.

I turn specifically to South Antrim. My Department spent some £6·7 million last year in the Antrim and Newtownabbey area on contractor expenditure.

In addition to structural maintenance, which had an out-turn of £3·5 million, over £3 million was spent on other essential road functions, such as street lighting, structures, traffic management, winter service and routine maintenance activities. The past year was unprecedented due to the impact of the pandemic. However, we worked closely with our contractors to develop new ways of working to ensure that much-needed road maintenance and improvement works could proceed. As a result, most of our 2020-21 programme was successfully delivered, despite the absence of work over the first part of the year.

I want to assure Mrs Cameron that I am very focused on delivery. What is the point of seeking election or being a Minister if you are not focused and determined to deliver for citizens, wherever they live in Northern Ireland? During the year, a number of significant resurfacing schemes have been completed in the area, including O'Neill Road, Newtownabbey; Belfast Road; Steeple Road in Fountain Hill; Main Street in Crumlin; Staffordstown Road; Derrygowan Road; and Church Road in Ballynure. I am pleased to advise that there are further structural maintenance and road improvement activities planned this financial year in the Antrim and Newtownabbey area. I remain committed to pressing for investment in our infrastructure as part of the next spending review to ensure that all that work is realised.

In South Antrim, my Department is targeting the completion of the following activities up to the end of March 2022: asphalt resurfacing, at a cost of £2·4 million; 25 road recovery schemes, at a cost of £600,000; 56 kilometres of surface dressing, at a cost of £450,000; footway resurfacing, at a cost of £360,000; the commencement of two minor improvement schemes, totalling £1 million; and three local transport and safety schemes, at a cost of £140,000.

Dr Aiken mentioned the Ballycorr Road, the Ballyeaston Road and the Rashee Road, and I can confirm that they are due to be resurfaced this year. In addition, the A57 Templepatrick Road was resurfaced three years ago, but I can confirm that the Hillhead phase 1 will be done this year.

That is not all, however. Since I was appointed Minister, I have made it clear that my focus is on doing what I can to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland. An important part of that focus is on ensuring that I increase the proportion of everyday journeys made by walking and cycling across the whole region. Whilst I am fully committed to supporting the proper management and maintenance of the road network, we must also be mindful of the need to be forward-looking. Walking and cycling are key elements of liveable towns and cities, and more walking and cycling, especially for those shorter journeys that make up one third of all the journeys that we make every day, will help to create a cleaner environment and tackle the climate crisis, which is the biggest global challenge of our time. I very much appreciate Mr Blair's continuous support for our work in that area.

To that end, I was pleased to note the recent completion of the £100,000 footway and cycleway along O'Neill Road in Newtownabbey. I am very pleased to advise that, this year, the Antrim and Newtownabbey area has received just under £1 million of funding from my blue-green fund, and we will be progressing an additional five schemes in this financial year. Those schemes will further enhance the active travel provision in the area, improving air quality, the local environment and, of course, the health and well-being of the local population.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention the great progress that my Department is making on delivering the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dualling works. The flagship scheme, which runs through South Antrim, will provide a dual carriageway from the western end of the M22 near Randalstown to the Castledawson roundabout. This significant investment of £189 million will reduce journey times and improve road safety.

I recognise the need for proper, sustained investment in our roads. I have inherited a very difficult financial environment. I welcome the fact that that is recognised fairly by all Members. I am committed to doing what I can. I assure Members that I will continue to make representations around the Executive table to ensure that we can get the required funding in order to maintain our road network and have the right infrastructure in the right places going forward. I very much look forward to having the support of all Members and all parties as I make those representations to the Finance Minister.

Adjourned at 5.34 pm.