Regional Strategic Transport Network Transport Plan

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 14th December 2021.

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 2:00 pm, 14th December 2021

5. Mr Storey asked the Minister for Infrastructure when she will publish the regional strategic transport network transport plan. (AQO 2925/17-22)

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

My Department is currently developing the new regional strategic transport network transport plan (RSTNTP), which will set out priorities for investment in our road, rail and inter-urban limited stop bus network, including park and ride, through to 2035. Since coming into office, I have been clear that it is my priority to address regional imbalance, tackle the climate crisis and better connect communities across our island. It is essential that we get the new RSTNTP right, and I expect to publish a draft RSTNTP for public consultation when the work has been completed and I have had time and opportunity to consider it. Following that, I would welcome representations from Members, stakeholders and communities, and I will use the feedback received to inform any final decision on the content of the final plan.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

The difficulty, Minister, with the answer that you have given today is that it is a repeat of what we have heard for the past number of months. All we get is, "We are planning to do this", and, in fact, in one answer to another Member, you said that you intended to publish a draft plan for public consultation late in 2021. We are getting pretty late now. Can the Minister assure me that the delay is not to ensure that road networks that are priorities will be treated in a way that is unfavourable? For example, the A26 north of Glarryford in my constituency of North Antrim and junctions such as the Kirk Road and the Knock Road need to be seriously addressed to improve safety and improve the experience of road users.

Minister, I conclude by paying tribute to your staff —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I think the Minister has the point.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

— for the work that they do.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

To be fair, and for brevity's sake, the Minister has the point.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 14th December 2021

I thank the Member for the positive comments on staff. I will make sure that they are fed back along with those of Ms Kimmins. Our staff work in communities, and they want to do everything that they can to improve our road network and infrastructure. They operate under difficult financial circumstances, and, sometimes, when Members and members of the public are frustrated, the people who bear the brunt of that are, unfortunately, front-line staff, and that is not fair.

The regional strategic transport network transport plan is a considerable piece of work, and it is important that we get it right, because it will determine the capital projects that come forward for road and rail for a considerable number of years. Officials continue to work on it, and we will consult on it when the work is completed and I have had time to consider it.

The A26 was one of the roads that Mr Storey referred to. I am aware of the tragic accident and the death on Frosses Road, north of the Drones Road roundabout. I understand that the accident is still under investigation by the police, and I hope that the Member will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this time, but I want him to know that I am very conscious of it.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Previous regional road network plans have highlighted the York Street junction as a key failing. Will the Minister advise us of when we will learn of the new plans and concept for it? How will the congestion and pollution that occur there be addressed?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I reassure the Member — he will nod; he does not need me to rehearse it — that I want the scheme to work for those who will use it and those who live around it. I want to ensure, as we all do, that capital schemes of such significance are future-proofed. I accepted in full the six recommendations of an assurance review, and work is ongoing to maximise ambition on what can be delivered for communities, connectivity and the wider Living Places agenda. I expect to receive the report this month. That will allow me to quickly identify next steps.

I reassure Members that I recognise the strategic importance of the scheme, but I want to make sure that it is the right scheme, as I said, for those who use it and for the communities who live around it. They have been completely separated. I would argue that the Westlink in its current format has caused harm and detriment to the communities who live around it. I am keen to receive the report and to move the project forward, but I want to make sure that we move the right project forward.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

In light of the regional strategic transport network transport plan, Minister, will you provide an update on the major roadworks that are under construction? Off the back of that and regarding the Knockmore link, which is in my constituency, is it a good time to feed into the plan to get the railway open from Antrim to Lisburn?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I know that the Member has been a tireless campaigner for that stretch of our rail network, and those issues will be considered as part of the regional strategic transport plan, but he will also be aware of the all-island strategic rail review. The review will look at the existing rail network to see how it can be improved, at where new rail connections should be provided and, importantly, at rail connectivity to our international gateways — ports and airports — and at the potential of the rail network for freight. There will be a lot of new opportunities for people to engage in that process. I was pleased to announce, with Minister Eamon Ryan, the public consultation phase of the all-island strategic rail review, and I encourage Members to feed into that.

Ongoing major works include those that continue to progress on the A6, which has one of our largest ever construction projects on site. We are working on a number of flagship projects, because we are keen to continue to progress those and to keep pushing them forward. That is why I am pleased that we will, I hope, move to multi-year Budgets, because that will give greater certainty to the Minister for Infrastructure in driving forward capital projects. I just hope that we get sufficient resource allocation to ensure that we can deliver on those big capital ambitions.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

The plan is crucial, yet, just a few weeks after COP26, the Infrastructure Committee received a letter from the Finance Minister in which he shrugged his shoulders at the financial plight of Translink and the need to invest in public transport. He stated that steps must be taken by the Department for Infrastructure and Translink to put the latter's finances on a more sustainable footing. What will the Minister do if the Finance Minister continues to shrug his shoulders at the issue?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member raises a very important and concerning issue. The Finance Minister is very quick to point out, and rightly so, the financial support that was provided to our publicly owned public transport network in the face of COVID, given that passengers numbers, and therefore income, were decimated. However, I am becoming increasingly concerned at the Finance Minister's push for cuts to our public transport network, because Translink has delivered a number of efficiencies and it did so during COVID too.

I have heard very passionate calls from Members from across the House for the expansion of the public transport network, which means the expansion of our bus and rail networks. However, I have to be honest with people: I share that ambition, but I am battling to ensure the survival of our existing public transport network. That is not good for connecting communities, it is not good for tackling regional imbalance and it is certainly not good for tackling the climate crisis.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Minister, the Committee for Infrastructure carried out an inquiry into the decarbonisation of the transport network, and one of its recommendations was the development of a green transport policy. Given the important role that rail plays, is there an opportunity for new rail connections and extensions under the new transport plan? The Minister will be aware of the feasibility study into the Portadown to Armagh railway link. Are there any opportunities for links like that under the regional strategic transport network transport plan?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. As he rightly identified, I provided funding for a feasibility study into the Portadown to Armagh railway link. I am also getting phase 3 of the Derry line back on track and the all-island strategic rail review has gone out for public consultation. I was very heartened by the Committee's report on decarbonisation, and I agree with the Member that rail has a really important role to play in that.

I must go back to the point that I just made. We are battling to maintain existing transport links in our publicly owned public transport network. Those concerns will materialise if we do not receive a sufficient allocation in the January monitoring round. My focus is on making the case to the Finance Minister and others to ensure that we get sufficient funding to protect our existing public transport network. However, I will not apologise for being ambitious about the growth of the network, and so I will look to Members across the House to support the Minister for Infrastructure, put aside party politics and support bids to ensure that we not only maintain the public transport network on which so many of our citizens rely — including those who cannot afford cars — but grow it.