I want to put Members at ease by assuring them that I do not intend to use the full 15 minutes that have been generously allocated to me by the Speaker. I want this to be a friendly conversation amongst Members who have shared policy goals and objectives on the issue.
At the outset, it is important to state that I support the Belfast Rapid Transit scheme, and I support its coming into my constituency. My chief concern with where things are at present is that, while an active debate is going on in north Belfast around the options — Shore Road or Antrim Road — we cannot have that debate in the south of the city because, thus far, only one option has been put forward by Translink. That is not necessarily the way in which we should do it. I am not suggesting that we go for the model that has been applied in the north of the city of comparing two options. I would like to see the Department engaging in a wider consultation that involves the communities that could benefit from the scheme. If we are talking about communities in which transportation infrastructure is poor, bus routes are insufficient or it is difficult for people to access public transport, we should involve those communities. I am sure that Members will agree that, oftentimes, the lack of bus services is raised as an issue in our constituencies; it is raised in my constituency in respect of the like of Belvoir and Milltown. The BRT can play a part in solving that problem, if we have the conversation with people and if it is a community-led conversation that can steer the development of the expansion of Belfast Rapid Transit into that part of the town.
A concern has been raised with me about the provision of the Glider on the Ormeau Road. Businesses on the Ormeau Road are concerned about deliveries. Take, for example, the Centra, which is up and across the road from Cooke Centenary Presbyterian Church. When the Centra is getting a big delivery, a lorry will be parked outside the store. The reason for that is simple: there is no rear access for delivery vehicles to almost any premises on that block, from the former Ormeau bakery up to the Orange hall. There is no rear vehicular access for deliveries. That is a major concern for many of the businesses. It has been raised with me as, I am sure, it has with lots of other representatives from the constituency.
In the context of COP26 and everything that has just happened, there has been a public focus, and the public has focused its imagination, on the real challenges that we face in producing cleaner, greener living spaces; tackling the threat of climate change; and making a contribution to reducing our reliance on private cars. I do not think that there is any dispute among us about that. One of the issues with, first, the route and, secondly, simply putting in a transit line, for want of a better expression, is that the contribution that it can make to those overall aims that I have mentioned will be limited. While everybody might be looking at the shiny thing — the route that Belfast Rapid Transit will take — there is a much wider policy context. I am sure that the Minister agrees with me on that. I am talking about improving walkways and the provision of spaces for people to cycle and developing greenways. My constituency has the biggest urban forest in Europe. Belvoir Forest is a massive facility that could be used to develop that wider policy context. Everyone recognises that we need to think globally and act locally. That is certainly the case when it comes to the provision of transport infrastructure in South Belfast.
As I said, I previously secured time to raise this issue, and that came out of conversations that I had had with local businesses and some of the community in and around Ballynafeigh. It is important that this is a friendly conversation amongst people who have shared policy objectives, including the Minister, and that we can kick-start that debate and that discussion. I have outlined just some of the small areas of concern that I have, and I hope that the Minister will take an assurance from me that I will be her friend on this.
Let us see whether all parties can come together in pursuing a shared objective. Let us learn the lessons from east and west Belfast, where Belfast Rapid Transit has been in place for some time. Let us identify areas for improvement and take on board the lessons that have been learned in the east and west about the rapid transit system that is operating there. I am sure that lessons can be learned. I am sure that there are ways in which the south and the north of the city can apply those lessons to deliver a rapid transit system that works for all our people. In doing so, we can achieve our goals of improving the environment and tackling the threat of global warming and climate change. We can see this in the much wider context of improving the overall transportation infrastructure in the constituency. It is quite funny that, when there is a discussion about infrastructure, SDLP MLAs ask when the Finance Minister will give the Infrastructure Minister more money; Sinn Féin MLAs ask when the Infrastructure Minister will concentrate on the savings that need to be made. I will not do that, and I am sure that we will not do that in this discussion. I hope that my remarks have kick-started the conversation and that other Members here can participate in it.
Hopefully, I will take less time than that. I am speaking in my capacity as an MLA for the area, and I am also speaking on behalf of Sinn Féin, which has had engagement with the community and local businesses on the proposals that have been laid out.
As a party, Sinn Féin is committed to improved public transport, improved air quality, a reduction in emissions and a reduction in car dependency in the south of the city and, indeed, across society. We support phase 2 of the Belfast Rapid Transit system, and, indeed, the proposed route. That was in our response to the consultation. We welcome the enhanced access to Forestside shopping centre, Cairnshill car park and park-and-ride facilities and, of course, the extension to Queen's University because of the flow of people who go there.
We feel that the scheme needs to look at additional stops to take this scheme into Carryduff, which is an expanding neighbourhood. Over the past year or so, I have engaged with the Carryduff Regeneration Forum, many of the sporting organisations and, indeed, with residents. As officials said, there was some difficulty with the roundabout there, but stopping phase 2 at Cairnshill will cut off the opportunity and potential to connect with that expanding community. We see its definite growth in the number of people who now live there and the number of homes that are being built, and both will only increase in the time ahead. So, rather than waiting until, potentially, 2027, if there is an opportunity to add one or two stops to take Belfast Rapid Transit phase 2 into Carryduff, I ask the Minister to look favourably at the opportunities that that would present.
Off the back of the engagements that we have had with local communities and the business community — Christopher reflected on that — there are concerns about how phase 2 will operate and about its impact on businesses. Ensuring that there is a comprehensive traffic impact assessment to understand the impacts and bring in the appropriate mitigations is also a concern. As in phase 1, we argue for an appropriate financial mitigation package for those who would be affected by the proposed changes and for consideration of other ways of mitigating any negative impacts that may arise notwithstanding the positive impacts of a rapid transit system that we see playing out from phase 1.
It is also about making sure that there is improved and appropriate cycle infrastructure. Could that be done at the same time, in order to complement the expansion of Belfast Rapid Transit phase 2? I know that the Department works with the Department for Communities to look at the public realm and connectivity with the surrounding communities. It is fair to ask how we can use an investment of this scale, working across government with other Departments, to engage communities. Often, when you look at regeneration, particularly in Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s, you see that roads infrastructure was used to cut off, disconnect and sever communities from opportunities and, indeed, from each other. There is learning from that with which I know that the Minister is very in tune, as we have had conversations about it before.
With Belfast Rapid Transit phase 2, there is potential to look at how we can build on the cycle infrastructure and the public realm through greenways and by engaging neighbourhoods and communities on how we can reconnect and restitch them through the potential of the Belfast Rapid Transit system. Like others, I look forward to continued engagement on it with the Minister and her Department.
I am pleased that we can debate phase 2 of the Glider today. It is an important subject. It is, hopefully, the last thing that we will debate before Christmas and is a subject that will, as has been said, bring a degree of consensus and positivity to the Chamber.
It is important to acknowledge that a large measure of the work that the Minister has done in her time at the Department has been about putting in place the groundwork, if you will pardon the pun, to address the systemic underinvestment that we have seen over generations in our public transport network in this city, across Northern Ireland and, indeed, across the island of Ireland.
To put it bluntly, one of the things that people find most striking when they come to Belfast is how geared towards the car and roads it is. Frankly, whatever your view of individual road expansion projects, this city is in too many places a spaghetti junction of roads with vast numbers of lanes, where investment in public transport and the public realm has been deprioritised for decades, if not generations. It is too hard to walk and cycle around too many parts of this city.
That is the starting point. We also have the climate crisis to face. That is the burning platform that we all need to get off in the century to come. It is the big challenge that we need to face, so we have two interlinked challenges: the climate crisis and the fact that this city is far too geared towards the car. It is far too difficult to move around this city on public transport. You do not need to compare it only with big metropolises such as London and New York. Compare it with smaller cities. There is Dublin, of course, but there are also smaller cities dotted around Britain that have much more integrated commuter rail, for example, and rapid transit systems.
In a sense, the Glider system is a vital part of building a greener, more active transport system in our city, but, again to put it bluntly, it is also about us catching up with other cities because we did not make the investment in it in years and decades gone past. That is therefore the starting point for me. The Glider system, as people have acknowledged, has its flaws relative to other systems, but you start from a basis of what is practical and deliverable.
I echo a lot of what has already been said by Christopher Stalford and Deirdre Hargey about some of the specific questions and issues. I will raise a few myself, but I wanted to start by putting that on the record.
Frankly, no debate about public transport in Belfast could proceed without acknowledging how bad it has been and the current position, which is that public transport in the city is not and has not been good enough, and that is before we even get on to the climate crisis. I also do not need to mention the very serious issue with air pollution. Belfast is the third most-polluted city in the UK. Our air quality is terrible. I do not need to mention it because the previous Member who spoke will probably know much better than I do how bad the air quality is in Cromac Street. It is shameful that people who live in and around the Markets and the lower Ormeau have to breathe that air. Investing in public transport is something that we have to do.
Earlier this year, there was a detailed consultation on the specific route for BRT phase 2. As a party, the SDLP is obviously very broadly supportive of that consultation. As was said, and as the Minister will, no doubt, say, the whole purpose of a consultation is to deal with specific questions and issues. We have an advantage when delivering the Glider in South Belfast because, as mentioned, we have the example of the west to east route. We know the specific issues that were faced by some traders on the Falls or Newtownards roads, so the system can be built around building in solutions, engagement and consultation upfront to deal with those.
It is also true to say that that connection between two parts of the city that were not directly connected previously is terrific. It is genuinely wonderful that someone can get on a Glider in Andersonstown, the Falls or even the city centre and go for a bite to eat in Ballyhackamore. Someone can also get from the east of the city to the new Andersonstown leisure centre and its famous and amazing water slides. It is brilliant that that connectivity exists in the city in a way that it did not before. I want to see that from north to south.
As part of that, it will be important — it is one of the reasons why the recommended route is down the Ormeau Road — for it to go down a route where there are attractions and businesses that can benefit from it. For example, there are growing hospitality and independent retail sectors in and around Ballyhackamore. Hopefully, people have been out spending their Spend Local cards there. It is wonderful, and one of the things that facilitated that was the Glider. That is something that we need to consider including for the Ormeau Road.
As the previous Member who spoke did, I want to touch on the critical issue of Carryduff. I have engaged with the Carryduff Regeneration Forum. That part of the city is expanding, and the section of the A24 from Cairnshill to Carryduff is largely zoned for housing. Given that we know that the BRT phase 2 will not be fully implemented until 2027 at the very earliest, there is a strong argument for looking again at the Carryduff extension. Clearly, there are four lanes of traffic there already, and, as I said, we have examples of other outer parts of Belfast, such as Dundonald and out towards Andersonstown and Dunmurry, where the Glider has been implemented. I would be keen on exploring that for Carryduff as we go forward.
In general, it is a really important and positive development for the south of the city. The consultation is there. Local traders, including those in Ballynafeigh, who are right to have specific questions, need to be engaged with, and they will engage with it, as should others, indeed, in the north of the city. However, we are talking about the south of the city. I welcome the debate and thank my constituency colleague for securing it.
I thank Christopher Stalford for securing the debate. I start my contribution by saying that the Alliance Party is very supportive of the proposal. As others do, we have some concerns, but I will start with the positives, including the fact that the Ormeau Road has been chosen as the route for the BRT phase 2. Also, as the previous Member who spoke mentioned, the success and growing popularity of Ballyhackamore has been down to the fact that that regular service passes through there. The Ormeau Road is certainly one of the in places in the city now, which is great to see.
I share the concerns about the difficulties that will arise from the loading bays if the scheme proceeds. However, there is also the issue of people parking along the Ormeau Road. While we would all like to move towards a greener system, we cannot get away from the fact that people will use their cars. I would reflect very much on what has happened in west Belfast, primarily around the back of the Royal Victoria Hospital, where a lot of cars have been moved into neighbouring communities, causing residents difficulties in being able to park outside their doors. That is another issue that has not been touched upon today. We know that those roads are tight enough and that parking spaces outside houses are at a premium, so that would certainly have to be considered by looking, for example, at whether we need a residents-only parking scheme to run alongside this.
I will move on. I very much concur with others who indicated that the route should extend all the way to Carryduff. The fact that the planning permission for the new Lidl supermarket went through last week is wonderful and much-awaited news for local residents. It will be fantastic to put some heart back into that area. I also urge the Minister to do what she can to expedite the Carryduff greenway scheme. That has a lot of potential but has stalled, as a lot of capital projects did during COVID. A wee bit more energy could be brought back to that scheme.
Like Christopher Stalford, I have concerns that parts of South Belfast are not properly and adequately served by public transport. He mentioned Belvoir estate, as I am about to. That is a huge area. Opportunities could be looked at for linking this scheme into Belvoir estate in some way. However, I will not repeat what others have said. I welcome the debate and thank the MLA for securing it tonight.
I thank my colleague Christopher Stalford for bringing this debate to the House. Listening to the comments, we know that one bus will not solve the climate crisis, nor will it solve air pollution. Of course, most people are supportive of upgrading public transport in South Belfast. Like others, I have heard concerns about phase 2 of the Glider scheme that are a direct result of the Department's failure to prioritise and commit to active travel and sustainable transport measures over the years.
While there is much to be welcomed about the introduction of a service that seeks to connect north and south Belfast and that promotes better transport, the question of why we have to choose remains. Why do we have to choose between the Ormeau Road and the Ravenhill Road or between the Shore Road and the Antrim Road? Why do we have to choose between extending the service out to Carryduff or Glengormley or the other way? Of course, businesses on the route will have the same concerns, no matter where it goes. We hear about Carryduff being zoned for housing but, as constituency MLAs, we are very aware that the infrastructure in the area cannot sustain the level of development that is already happening.
It is 2021, and we are in code red for humanity, but we are still being told that we have to wait until 2027 for one bus route. That is the extent of our ambition. I truly fail to comprehend how it is beyond the Department, along with Translink — our sole public transport operator — to come up with a comprehensive bus and rail network across every part of the city and, indeed, across Northern Ireland as a whole. Bus-lane priority could be implemented swiftly across the entire city. That could be done now. Off-board ticketing systems could be implemented now.
I do not need to be convinced of the benefits of a Glider: it is just a more modern bus, for goodness' sake. It is currently, however, still a fossil-fuelled bus. I just do not understand how two routes in about 15 years is in any way adequate or sufficient. Residents and businesses have concerns about the routes that have been suggested so far. I have spent time discussing their issues with them. No one is opposed to better public transport; it is the Department's approach of working away in a silo and then opening up a consultation on what people feel is a predetermined route that understandably puts people's backs up.
I thank the Member for giving way. I largely agree on lots of that stuff, but I gently ask the Member to acknowledge that she called for a comprehensive public transport system in Belfast. Does she acknowledge that, by definition, that would also involve residents and businesses having questions and concerns? Any massive improvement to a public transport system will, by definition, involve people having concerns, if you see what I mean. This is a relatively discrete one when compared to a comprehensive one, but I hope that the Member sees the point that I am making.
I will just address the concerns that were raised. I have already said that, no matter where the bus goes and what the route is, businesses and residents on that route will have concerns. That is a given.
The whole point is that their concerns are linked to not being engaged. Things are done in silos. They feel that the consultation that was put out was a tick-box exercise and that there were predetermined outcomes without their engagement.
I am happy to give way.
Thank you. Ms Bailey has touched on exactly the point that I was going to make. The key point is co-design. If schools, businesses, local communities and groups feel that they are actively involved in the design of the project, they will take a sense of ownership to an extent that would not have been the case otherwise.
Thank you for that. Co-design is where I was going.
Of course, the residents and businesses along the arterial routes want to see their areas thrive. They also know and understand their areas. They understand their problems. They see and understand the opportunities better than engineers or departmental officials ever could, so they should be actively involved in designing such schemes. As Christopher said, we hear a lot about the need for co-design and co-production, but we have yet to see any evidence of that taking place at ground level.
I heard about a lot of the fears in the run-up to the launch of phase 1 of the Glider. I think that we are all thankful that there is very little evidence of very much materialising from that, and that, largely, the whole development scheme has been very positive. However, we need the Department and Translink to communicate better in the early stages with those who will be directly affected in order to allay their fears, to explain to people what the thinking is and to get their buy-in, and to make sure that everybody is heading in the same direction. We have to take communities with us. We cannot keep doing things to communities and expect them to get on board. That is the nub of the feedback that has come back to me. It is not opposition; it is about inclusion. It is about listening to what the communities want and identifying potential opportunities.
I am really glad that the last item of business in the Chamber before Christmas is a South Belfast-focused discussion. I wish everyone — Members and Assembly staff — a very happy holiday, however you choose to spend it, and a very peaceful and productive 2022.
The Minister is as well, of course. I thank her for coming here.
Agreement has, to a great extent, burst out from all the things that have been said, so I will say just a couple of wee things, although they may be repetitious.
Consultation and co-design are crucial. We have to learn lessons. There are lessons to be learned from phase 1. I live on the route. I ended up having to dig up my garden to try to find somewhere to park my car, so I know about some of the problems. A consultation was done in North Belfast, and I presume, from what Members have said, that one was done in South Belfast. Consultation with all the stakeholders is very important. That includes businesses. There are over 100 businesses along the Antrim Road. I am sure that there are as many, or even more, along the Ormeau Road.
We know about the problems, one of which is parking. Paula mentioned the Falls Road and the RVH. If we had free parking for those who work in the hospital, a lot of the problems with cars in Beechmount and all those areas would be alleviated. The biggest problem is that the people who work all day in the hospital do not want to pay those amounts.
I support the Carryduff proposal. It is about thinking big. As Clare said, it will not sort out all the problems, but we should think big and go to Carryduff on one side and Glengormley on the other. There are 20,000 people in Glengormley. I do not know how many people there are in Carryduff, but the service would provide connectivity right into the city centre and back out again. For that reason, we need to look at extending it. I know that that becomes more and more difficult and that there is an issue of resources. Cycling lanes, greenways and footpaths need to be included. There is congestion around schools and businesses.
There are loads of schools on the Antrim Road, but if becomes something that the schools can all use, it could take away a lot of the traffic caused by parents etc.
It has been mentioned that we can look at whether there are alternatives in an area, especially by way of public transport. For instance, on the Shore Road, you have the railway and the motorway. The argument that I make is that the Antrim Road has neither of those things and is a very congested area.
Tourism also comes into it. You have the zoo, the castle, Cavehill Country Park and the jail. I recommend that you go to the jail now that it is closed: as an ex-tenant, I know that it is much more comfortable now. There is also the Waterworks.
The connectivity with health should also be taken into consideration. There are mental health and anti-suicide facilities at the Mater Hospital, the Carlisle Wellbeing and Treatment Centre, the Old See House, PIPS, AWARE, Lighthouse and the Bridge of Hope all within a reasonable distance.
Parking is a very important issue, despite what I said about the Falls Road. The issue is finding areas where you can decide to have parking. If we do not have the road any more, we need to look at how we can set up parking in areas that are free now.
The biggest issue is the pre-planning, which has been mentioned before. We need a plan well beforehand for co-design so that it can be looked at. That way decisions can be made, because you might end up saying, "That might have been a good idea on paper, but, practically, it is not a good idea because it will cause massive disruption". Someone — I think that it was Chris — mentioned loading: you have to have a facility so that people can still load, otherwise you will have more congestion. That means setting out different areas where those people can cross to do that. We have done a lot of consultation with commuters and residents on that, and when you talk to residents and people who are affected, you find out more than you think you know.
There is a general acceptance that, despite the problems, phase 1 was a good thing. That is why phase 2 is getting the type of backing that it is getting, but, as a number of people have said, there are problems. If we can sort them out before we start, we will be well ahead.
Cycling was mentioned. Let me argue very forcefully for that. There is a dearth of facilities for cycling. Cycling would be good for people's health, never mind anything else, so it would be massive if we could have that as part of the plan.
I thank the Deputy Speaker for allowing me that leeway because he knows that I am from North Belfast; I tried my best to connect things up. My last effort is that the Antrim Road would be the most effective, sustainable and logical area for the scheme in North Belfast.
First, I thank the Member for South Belfast Mr Stalford for securing the debate. This is an opportune time for the House to debate the introduction of BRT2, given the essential need to focus on promoting and providing more active and sustainable travel opportunities, and it is a key element of our climate action. Members will recognise that one of my key priorities as Minister for Infrastructure is to develop sustainable transport projects, green our infrastructure and encourage more people to use our public transport.
As Members from across the House have rightly identified, phase 1 of the Belfast Rapid Transit Glider service has been a hugely transformative project for Belfast, providing a modern, improved public transport experience for people who live, work, socialise and, importantly, visit our city. It has also improved connectivity across the east-west corridor in the city and, most importantly, increased the numbers of people using public transport. It is my hope that, when delivered, BRT2 will add to the opportunities and transport choices for people living on the north/south corridor and beyond.
The past 18 months have undoubtedly been very tough for public transport as a result of the pandemic.
However, it is vital that we continue to build and plan for future enhanced public transport provision. As Members will know, I launched a public consultation on 26 July, and it closed on 4 October. The purpose of that was to seek the views of the public, businesses and elected representatives on a number of potential routes for BRT2. I am pleased to say that the consultation attracted a significant response, with 1,200 responses being received. My officials are considering the feedback.
I assure Members that I am listening, and a final route has yet to be determined. I am aware of the case that is being made for extending BRT2 into Glengormley in north Belfast and for the extension into Carryduff as part of the southern route. I am also conscious of the cases that are being made for the Shore Road in north Belfast and the Antrim Road, as Mr Kelly highlighted, and of Mr Stalford's views. I reassure Members that I am happy to consider those matters further, and I will be informed by the comments and views of local residents, businesses and elected representatives in North Belfast and South Belfast as final consideration is given to the BRT2 routes and, of course, its design.
I also reassure Members that we have carefully considered the lessons to be learned from the roll-out of BRT1. Mr Stalford and Mr Kelly raised that issue. I want to give you that reassurance. From our experience of BRT1 it was clear that good communication and engagement were vital, as Ms Bailey highlighted. Officials are open to meeting elected representatives, local businesses and residents and, indeed, have done so as part of the consultation process. We also recognise the importance of working with local businesses and residents to ensure that we look at the mitigations that can be put in place to address concerns and reduce the disruption. Ms Bailey captured the tensions that exist in trying to do that. I can understand her frustrations around the lack of a radical approach to transforming public transport. She also rightly identified the need to take communities with us. That is why I agree with Members about the need for consultation and working with local communities as we shape their communities and the opportunities that are before them.
I want to address the important point that Mr Stalford made about recognising that it is not just about the Glider. When we are identifying preferred routes, we also want to look at what we can do to enhance the public transport offering in areas. We will look at it in a much wider field and see whether we should give consideration to feeder services. I assure Members that we are not just looking at having a single Glider route and forgetting about everyone else who lives in the north and south of our city.
I agree strongly with the point that was made by Ms Hargey and a number of Members about seeing this as part of a catalyst for regeneration. This is about improving the active and sustainable travel options for communities in north and south Belfast and about connecting the wider city. It is also about ensuring that it is complemented by public realm schemes. I am conscious of A Bolder Vision for Belfast, which the Department for Communities, the Department for Infrastructure and Belfast City Council are working on. Councils have their local development plans. There are a lot of opportunities to take a more strategic and cohesive approach to all that. We should be excited by that.
I will touch on one or two points that Members raised. I take the points that were made by Mr O'Toole, Ms Hargey, I think, and, certainly, Ms Bradshaw about the Carryduff element. I acknowledge that it is a growing and expanding neighbourhood. It is the same for Glengormley. One of the lessons that we learned from BRT1 was about the importance of weighting the non-monetary benefits of a scheme, such as access to opportunity and looking at issues around deprivation. We will give careful consideration to those things. Ms Bradshaw made the point about the Carryduff greenway. The Member will know that I have rolled on the blue-green fund for a second year. That is a capital fund. However, I am keen to work with councils. We are investing in greenways again this year.
I am keen to work with the council to advance that project. There are multiple benefits to be had from it.
I will draw my remarks to a close. Given that the consultation has just closed, I am very much in listening mode. The next steps will be our consideration of all the responses received and, after that, the publication of a public consultation report containing details of the deliberations and responses to the suggestions received. I look forward to working with the elected representatives of North Belfast and South Belfast as we work together to advance the project.
I join Clare Bailey in wishing all Members, Assembly staff and the staff in my Department a very happy and, hopefully, peaceful Christmas.