Potholes: Additional Investment

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:45 pm on 12 February 2024.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 1:45, 12 February 2024

I have received notice from the Minister for Infrastructure that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that they need to be in the Chamber to hear the whole of the Minister's statement if they wish to be called to ask a question and must be concise in asking their question.

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

I understand that some Members may not have received the statement in due time. I apologise to the Speaker and the House for that error. In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement regarding the provision of additional funding to address potholes.

Having previously served as the Minister for Infrastructure, I am very aware of the long-term underfunding from which our road network has suffered due to over a decade of Tory cuts and austerity. As a result, my Department has been operating in a very difficult financial position that has been compounded by the recent two-year collapse of the Assembly. That has had a significant impact on the ability to deliver essential maintenance functions.

Whilst my officials and maintenance crews have worked very hard to maintain the road network, they have, nonetheless, been forced to concentrate only on the highest-priority repairs. To be clear, that is not a position that any of us want to be in and does not represent good maintenance practice. As a result, we have all seen continued deterioration in the infrastructure, with large numbers of potholes and other defects developing across the road network, especially after periods of particularly cold or wet weather. However, despite that challenging position, on average, approximately 7,000 road service defects are fixed each month.

As a driver and a constituency MLA, I am well aware of the frustrations and, at times, inconvenience that this has caused people and communities who rely on the road network to do business, go to work and school and connect to one another. I cannot overstate the value of our road network to our people, our communities and our economic well-being. Therefore, today, I am taking action to begin to address the issue.

Today, I am announcing the immediate investment of an additional £1 million in road maintenance to address the growing backlog of pothole repairs. That much-needed funding will be used between now and the end of the financial year to target areas of highest priority, with small resurfacing schemes designed to repair areas that have suffered the most and where localised repairs are less effective. However, that is only the beginning of much-needed investment in our road infrastructure, and my Executive colleagues and I will continue to work together to press the British Government for more funding to address the issues. There has been a growing backlog of work needed to bring our roads to an acceptable standard, and there is a pressing need to address that. That is something that I will be closely focusing on in the coming months.

This announcement is a positive one and reflects my commitment to do all that I can to repair our roads. It also reinforces the importance of having locally elected Ministers in place to make decisions such as this.

In closing, I reiterate my commitment to addressing the historical underinvestment in the road network caused by over a decade of Tory cuts and austerity, and the £1 million of funding demonstrates that. This is the first step in what I see as the priority of improving the daily lives of people, communities and businesses by providing to our citizens the services that they expect and deserve.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Comhghairdeas leis an Aire as a phost nua, agus guím ádh mór air fosta.

[Translation: I congratulate the Minister on his new job and wish him good luck as well.]

I welcome the statement and any additional investment in our crumbling network. A constituent remarked to me just last week that we used to drive on the left of the road, and now we drive on what's left of the road. Can the Minister estimate how many holes will be filled by the £1 million? Does he agree that the cumulative negative impact of not having an Executive has been particularly harsh on our roads, given the perennial reliance of his Department on monitoring rounds to boost the road maintenance budget?

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

There obviously has been an impact on road maintenance programmes, because, as the Member will be aware from his time in the Department for Regional Development (DRD) — I think it was DRD then —.

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

DOE, then: it has changed that many times. This Department relies on monitoring rounds to uplift its maintenance budget. I hope that we are now in a position to start that programme of work, and I can assure everyone in the House that I will look to those monitoring rounds to get further investment in our road maintenance programme.

On the number of schemes, I emphasise to Members that it is not a case of our coming along with a wheelbarrow of tarmac or asphalt and tipping it into a hole; they will be resurfacing schemes in many areas. I estimate that between 40 and 50 schemes will be carried out. It is only a small start, but it is a start, and, as I said, I will continue to look for further finance to carry out the work.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

I congratulate the Minister, who has been put in the infrastructure role, and, as the Committee's newly appointed Chairperson, I look forward to working with him. The Committee has not yet formally conducted its first meeting. I am sure, however, that potholes will be one of our priorities going forward and that there will be a lot of discussion about them.

I have no doubt that the constituencies of Members across the House are full of pothole issues. What is the extent of the growing backlog to which the Minister has referred? How much resource does the Department consider it needs to achieve and deliver good maintenance practices for the road network?

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

The backlog is growing every day. Every time that there is a downfall of rain or a heavy frost, the road maintenance backlog for potholes grows. We are currently operating on a limited budget. We have around £21 million in this financial year for fixing potholes and surfaces. Ideally, we would like to operate with three times that, but we do not have it. I listened to the Minister of Education on the competing priorities that we have around our Executive table. I have to work as part of the collective around that table, but I can assure the Member that I will do everything in my power to secure in-year monitoring funds and to stabilise the Department for Infrastructure's budget so that we can plan our road maintenance for the long term.

I end by congratulating the Member on becoming the Chair of the Committee. I look forward to working with her and her colleagues.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire. I welcome the Minister's statement. I wish you well in your new role, Mr Speaker, and I welcome the Minister back to the Department.

Minister, no doubt, many elected reps will be inundated with phone calls after the announcement today, but can you give a clear time frame for how soon staff will be out fixing the potholes and pieces of road? I am sure that a lot of questions will be asked about today's announcement.

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

When I came into the Department and spoke to my officials, I was keen to see whether we could secure additional finance to address issues with potholes and road surfaces. We are up against a tight timescale, as it is about six weeks until the end of the financial year. The money has to be spent in that time frame, so we have to be able to mobilise the workforce to do that and be assured that we can spend the money. At this stage, my officials have told me that we can handle around £1 million's worth of work. I continue to engage with my officials to see whether, if other finance becomes available, we can mobilise more of the workforce to carry out further schemes in different areas. I have no doubt that your phone will be busy today.

Photo of Peter McReynolds Peter McReynolds Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement. I congratulate him on his new role, and I look forward to working with him over the mandate.

Some of the most vulnerable road users are pedestrians and cyclists, as is highlighted in the active travel strategy. Can you confirm how the investment will prioritise those vulnerable road users?

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

Yes. It is important that we improve the road network for all its users. You make a good point about cyclists. Cyclists are particularly vulnerable to potholes along our roads. I want to see our road network improved for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, particularly in rural areas where pedestrians have to use the road instead of the footpath. I am minded of all those issues when I make such decisions.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I wish the Minister well in his appointment. I also wish the new Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure well in that position. No doubt, like me, she dodges a lot of potholes when making her way to the House from the west.

As an MLA who, like many, represents a dispersed rural constituency, I know that potholes and the state of our rural roads are serious issues. Does the Minister's statement today highlight the need for additional investment in our rural roads network? Now that the Assembly is going again, will the Minister be able to make better use of monitoring rounds to get additional investment to address the crumbling state of our roads?

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

There is a particular argument in relation to rural roads. My predecessor, Chris Hazzard, brought forward a scheme that targeted rural roads in particular for resurfacing and improvement, and I hope to do something similar. It will take time to establish what finances are available for the time ahead and how we can best use monitoring rounds, but I am keen to invest in our rural road network.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

As Deputy Chair of the Infrastructure Committee, I formally congratulate the Minister on his new role and wish him all the best.

I welcome the Minister's statement. He is very aware of the staggering numbers: there were more than 110,000 potholes in Northern Ireland last year — there was an increase of 34% in my constituency of East Antrim — and the average time taken for repair is four to six weeks. Can the Minister explain how the £1 million will be divvied up? Can East Antrim have all of it, please?

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

I have already asked that question for Upper Bann, and I was turned down.

It will probably be divvied up so that each division receives a similar amount of this tranche of funding. It is worth noting that, despite the severe financial restrictions that my Department, like other Departments, is under, 7,000 repairs a month are carried out. That is quite impressive. I know that it is not enough, but 7,000 are carried out each month.

This funding will allow us to carry out proper resurfacing schemes, rather than the patchwork that we have seen over the last period of time. It will be in a limited number of areas, but, as I keep emphasising, this is historic; it is a statement of intent about how we want to move forward.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I congratulate the Minister on his new role. I was looking for mention of the A29 bypass in his statement. There are so many potholes around Cookstown that it would be cheaper to build a bypass.

My question relates to the wise spending of the money. We see some potholes being repaired with the blast effect or whatever. Is the Minister content that the £1 million will be spent wisely? Is he content that the method of repairing potholes is the best one and is the best value for money?

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

I thank the Member for his kind comments. I do not think that anybody would say that the current method of repairing potholes is the best way, but we are using the method that our budget allows. This process will be more about properly designed patchworking schemes, so I think that the money will be invested properly. As we move forward, stabilising the DFI budget, I think that we will see an improvement in our road network.

Photo of Patrick Brown Patrick Brown Alliance

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, and I very much look forward to working with him on the Infrastructure Committee.

I very much welcome the statement. It is, of course, most appropriate that we are discussing potholes on the first full day of Assembly business, given the huge number of constituency queries that we all receive on the issue. My question is somewhat similar to Mr Buchanan's. What steps is the Minister taking to explore innovative solutions to more quickly and efficiently fill and patch potholes in order to maximise the impact of the investment? I believe that some ideas are being trialled in council areas.

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

I thank the Member. Even when I was previously in the Department, it was highlighted that new technologies and machinery for repairing potholes were coming on board. We will explore all those options to ensure that we use public finances most effectively.

We need money to invest in buying new equipment as well. There is limited opportunity for that for my Department. However, I am exploring all options to ensure that we are getting value for money and making the most impact that we can on the ground with the limit resources that we have.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, comhghairdeas agus ádh mór ort. I congratulate my colleague the Minister and wish him good luck.

Any announcement that will improve the road network will obviously be welcomed by all road users. My constituency office, like those of all MLAs, has been contacted about burst tyres and damaged wheels. To elaborate on a point that has already been touched on, I was contacted last week about an experience of a cyclist —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 2:00, 12 February 2024

This is the time for questions, not statements, Mr McGuigan.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

He hit a pothole, came down and broke nine ribs and his pelvis. Will the Minister elaborate on how his announcement will make the road safer for cyclists?

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

I thank the Member for his kind remarks. I am sorry to hear about his constituent's experience. It is worth emphasising again that our roads are used by many different users: the motorist, the pedestrian, the cyclist and others. The pothole situation makes cyclists and motorcyclists particularly vulnerable to serious injury. That is why I am keen to resolve the matter.

The scheme that we have announced today will start improving our road network. It is the start of a journey — pardon the pun — that we are on for the funding and improvement of our road network. Today's announcement shows what Ministers can do when they are in post. It is a small step, and I do not want to exaggerate it, but I assure the Member that I am looking for money elsewhere in my Department to see whether it can be spent on our road network.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. He has part-answered my question, which is on new technologies. I note that pothole machines have been devised by JCB and are in use extensively on the mainland. Has the Minister looked at that technology? It can be a bespoke lorry or an attachment for a JCB digger.

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

It is amazing how much information people feel free to send me on social media about new technology and how to fill potholes, but my officials are better qualified than I am to examine all the suggestions.

Why would we not invest in new technology that carries out the functions more effectively and efficiently? We could then do more, but all those things have to be examined and proven to be value for money. They have to prove what they can do. Some of that funding will come from my budget; I may have to bid for more funding. I have to have the finances to invest in that sort of equipment.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I welcome the Minister to his new post. I declare an interest: I will soon get in contact with his Department about fixing a windscreen that was cracked because of a pothole.

What will we do about the utility companies that seem to spend their entire time digging up the roads, digging them up again and not working with anybody to make things work properly? Many potholes across our South Antrim constituency are caused by utility companies digging things up, not repairing the roads properly and not doing the correct remedial work to make the roads passable.

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

My understanding is that utility companies are supposed to work in cooperation with DFI Roads on a planned programme of work that understands when my Department will be carrying out work on a major resurfacing scheme or whatever. Where poor work is carried out, I encourage the Member to report it to his local division. It is important that work on our roads is done to the highest standards, whoever carries it out.

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

There has been a lot of talk about monitoring rounds today. Will the Minister continue his prioritisation of road quality and seek further funding for addressing potholes and road surfacing in the June monitoring round?

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

Yes, I intend to target the June monitoring round for further maintenance on our roads and for other matters. Maintenance of the roads will certainly be a high priority. Again, I emphasise that our roads are used by many different users: the motorist, obviously, the cyclist and the walker. We want to make sure that our roads are in a fit and safe condition for all who use them.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Bobbing up and down today is like my normal journey down the Ards peninsula where you are up and down like a yo-yo. I welcome the Minister to his post.

I will follow on from Dr Aiken and ask the Minister to review the impact that utility companies have on our roads. Will he consider increasing from 10% the Department for Infrastructure's inspection rate of reinstated roads within the warranty period? Will he also consider extending the warranty period from two years to four years in order to give the utility companies enough time to repair the roads that they have dug up?

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

I thank the Member for her question and her comments. I am happy to review all those matters. It will not be one of the things that I look at in the next week or months, but it is certainly a programme of work that we should look at as I get my feet under the desk in the Department and move forward. As I said to Dr Aiken, if companies — utility companies or whoever — dig up our roads, they need to reinstate them in a fashion that lasts for the time that we would expect.

There is limited capacity in staff and resources in the Department, at this stage, to carry out the inspections that we would like. That is a matter for stabilising the budget and recruiting and retaining staff. The public-sector pay award, which we hope to resolve in the near future, will help me in that regard.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I welcome any money to help cure the pothole pandemic, so the announcement is welcome. This costs us huge amounts of money. In December, one pothole alone on the Northway in Portadown had 60 claims to its name. One thing that grinds the gears of motorists even more is the inefficient way in which potholes are sometimes dealt with, where one pothole beside the major pothole —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Question, Mr Buckley.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

— is left to further deteriorate. Will the Minister review that practice?

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

I thank the Member for his question. I am aware of the pothole that he refers to. Again, when you have limited resources and finances, you carry out emergency repairs. I have no doubt that even those who carry out those repairs will tell you that that is not the standard that they want to work to. We want to get to a position where we are able to equip our workforce to carry out the repairs properly and for those repairs to be long-lasting.

There is a balance to be struck. The Member is right: we pay out significant amounts of money on compensation claims. That money would be better used to make sure that the roads are in a proper state in the first place.

Photo of Danny Baker Danny Baker Sinn Féin

Does the Minister agree that the announcement reflects the importance of having locally elected Ministers in place?

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

Yes. Ministers can make those decisions. Departmental officials did a sterling job when the Assembly and Executive were down, but the reallocation of funds such as these at the end of this period can be made only by a Minister. That shows the importance of Ministers and of what they can do. Without overstating the amount that we are spending here, while £1 million is a lot of money, in global terms it is not a lot of money. However, it is a statement of intent.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

I welcome the announcement of £1 million for potholes. Some of the worst examples of potholes are in unfinished roads in private developments. We lobbied for phase 2 of Buttermilk Loney in Ballysillan for five years, and, finally this week, it is getting the top layer of tarmac. In another similar development off the Ballygomartin Road at Mount Gilbert, residents have been waiting for over three years, and departmental officials have said in replies to questions from me that they wish they had more resources to put pressure on the developers. Will the Minister also seek to highlight unfinished roads in private developments where residents have bought their houses and have been waiting for years for their roads to be finished?

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

I thank the Member for his question. It is a serious issue for people who have bought a new home and moved in but the streets have not been finished off properly. It is on my radar. I am aware of it, and I will engage with officials over the time ahead on how we can deal with it, including whether the contractor should deliver the percentage of the bond or the size of the bond. The current situation is that homeowners are on the wrong side of the balance of justice, and that has to be evened out.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I add to the good wishes that have been expressed to the Minister on taking up his role and to the Committee Chair, who takes her place today in the Chamber. I will keep in touch with the Minister individually on all the local needs and questions that I have, including the Ballycorr Road in Ballyclare, which has to be one of the worst roads that I have seen.

My question is more broad-based and relates to footways. They are not mentioned in the statement. The Minister will be aware, like the rest of us, that many footways have fallen into a state of disrepair that makes them either dilapidated or dangerous. Are they included? If not, will there be a future bid for funding for those that might also include cycle paths where they are on or shared with footways?

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

This is for carriageways at the moment, but I am acutely aware of my Department's responsibility to promote active travel. When I look towards future funding rounds and stabilising my Department's budget, I assure the Member that active travel will be a priority. Improving footpath works and cycle pathways makes a significant difference. I can think of one area in my constituency around Craigavon lakes, which was years ahead of its time in developing a proper footpath and cycle network. In the past two years, it has been improved, and that has made a significant difference.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

I pass on my best wishes to my colleague on taking up his new position and to the new Chair of the Committee, who is also here.

I very much welcome the money that has become available. I would like to ensure that the western division gets its fair share, as you mentioned. It would be remiss of me if I did not mention the Northland Road in the constituency of Foyle, in the city of Derry. Local residents and neighbourhoods alert people on a daily basis to the dangers due to huge potholes on that road. Just on Saturday, once again, it was for the whole day, and it went viral on social media. I want to highlight the Northland Road and ensure that you, as Minister, ensure that the western division prioritises it for resurfacing.

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

I thank the Member for her kind comments and her question.

Which road network each division highlights will be a matter for the divisional manager. I encourage the Member to engage with the divisional manager on that. It is worth noting and reminding ourselves that our road network has fallen into disrepair over several years and been underinvested in for over a decade. Climate change and significant downpours of rain cause significant damage to our road network. If that is followed by frost, you are in for significant problems. I have taken a new interest in the weather forecast in my role as Infrastructure Minister. I hope that we are now heading into spring but there is still potential for heavy showers and frost, which cause significant damage to our road network.

Photo of Danny Donnelly Danny Donnelly Alliance

My question has already been answered. Thank you.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

Like others, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I worked with him previously, and, hopefully, we will have the same relationship going forward.

Minister, you responded to two Members about checking on the utilities. Of course, when your Department allocates jobs, some of those jobs turn out to be substandard and fail quite quickly after the repair. Will any work be done on that to ensure that the money is spent wisely?

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

I thank the Member for his kind comments.

Where we have the resources for long-term repair work to be carried out, it should be carried out properly. Unfortunately, some of our maintenance crews have to go out and literally pour a bucket of asphalt or tar into a hole, because that is all that they can do with the resources and the money that they have. Those repairs do not last. The scheme is about ensuring that we have a resurfacing programme whereby it is done properly, roads are sealed and the weather is kept out for a long time. There will always be financial pressures on all Departments, but I am of the view that, when you use public money, it should be used properly and efficiently and provide value for money.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the £1 million. However, up to just last month, there were 11,000 potholes across Londonderry and Strabane. Does the Minister agree that it is more important that we invest in our roads than pay compensation? Can the Minister give any indication of the expenditure on compensation in 2023?

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

I do not have the figures available, but I am happy to share them with the Member and lodge them in the Assembly Library so that other Members have access to them. We all know that the roads are in such a state of disrepair that vehicles are being damaged and compensation claims are being paid out. I need to rebalance that to ensure that our roads are being fixed and compensation claims are minimised. That makes economic sense.

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

Last year, in the Ards and North Down Borough Council area in my constituency, 3,800 potholes were reported, while the council received the lowest funding allocation across all councils. That left many roads across Bangor, Holywood, Donaghadee and Millisle in a truly shocking, disgraceful and dangerous condition. Will the Minister commit to reviewing the intervention level for DFI to repair potholes and changing it from 50 millimetres back to 20 millimetres, to truly start getting on top of the pothole crisis?

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

It would require the stabilisation of the DFI budget for me to make that commitment. The reason that we are in this scenario is as I set out earlier. The original starting point for carrying out emergency repairs was around £60 million; that is what we hoped we would have. We have £21 million to carry out the same repairs. If we are to get to a point where we look at lesser defects on the roads, we will have to have a significant increase in the Department's finances. When I look at the challenges around the Executive table, I see that I will have to work in a collective nature with my Executive colleagues. There are priorities upon priorities upon priorities, but I can assure you that I will fight DFI's corner.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton Independent 2:15, 12 February 2024

I thank the Minister for his statement. Will he assure me that my constituency, North Down, will get its fair share of the £1 million?

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

I assure the Member that the four divisions will each receive around £250,000. It will be up to the divisional managers to ensure that that is used to best effect. How it is used will be their decision; I will not interfere in any way. We have to look to the future, in medium- to long-term planning, and ensure that divisions get their finances on the basis of need and that the areas with most challenges get the most money, but, at this moment, for this short-term intervention, it is a simple division by four.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I congratulate the Minister on his reappointment. A notorious road in the Riverside retail park in Coleraine has fallen into serious disrepair. Thousands of cars use that road daily. The issue is that it is not owned by anyone and redress for the individuals affected therefore cannot happen. There is legislation that enables the road to be adopted, but it requires the road to be brought up to standard first. Is the Minister willing to look at that, so that the burden does not fall on the general public but lies with his Department?

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

I thank the Member for her question and her kind comments. In reality, it will fall on the general public. If I adopt the road without it being repaired, the general public will have to pay for its upgrade. One way or another, the residents of that area and of a broader area will pay for it. I never make policy on the hoof. I am happy to look at issues when they are brought to my attention, but I do not think that there is an easy solution to that one.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That concludes the Minister's statement and questions. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment.