A4 Enniskillen Southern Bypass

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 20 February 2024.

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Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 4:45, 20 February 2024

In conjunction with the Business Committee, I have given leave to Deborah Erskine to raise the matter of immediate progression on the A4 Enniskillen southern bypass. Deborah, you have 15 minutes.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber for this debate on the A4 southern bypass, which is timely, given the announcement last night in a written ministerial statement from the Finance Minister on the provision of Executive funding to move forward that much-needed infrastructure project. That announcement is welcome, not least because of the soaring costs of the project. I thank the Finance Minister and, indeed, all Executive colleagues. My DUP Executive colleagues will be glad that I will not be torturing them any more about securing some funding for the project.

I will speak in the debate in my capacity as DUP MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone rather than as Chair of the Infrastructure Committee. I see some Infrastructure Committee members in the Chamber, and I am sure that they will join me in welcoming last night's announcement.

The A4 southern bypass is much needed for Fermanagh, as I said. It is a key infrastructure project that will stop congestion in the town and will, of course, create construction jobs, as a result of the announcement. As I said, I welcome the investment that has already been put into the project and the approval to provide £16·2 million of capital funding across 2024-25 and 2025-26. It has to be said, though, that, in the summer, I was dismayed that the £15 million that was previously committed to the project as part of the new deal funding was withdrawn and paused. However, I am glad that that now forms part of the financial package that accompanied the restoration of the Executive. What will also be great news for the local councils involved in the Mid South West growth deal is the commitment from the Executive that £12·5 million of the growth deal can be released early.

Since becoming an MLA in 2021, I have continued to raise the issue of the Enniskillen A4 southern bypass. The Infrastructure Minister will be aware that, in January 2022, site clearance and fencing works commenced. NIE diversionary works happened in summer 2022. I recognise that the Minister committed funding before he previously left office. As a local representative, I did not want to see public funds go to waste after work had already taken place, so it is important that the scheme progress without any further delay.

It is a project that everybody in my constituency wants to see delivered. I spoke to one man recently who said that he was told by a DFI Roads official that, believe it or not, 47 years ago, there were supposed to have been plans drawn up for a bypass in Enniskillen. I hope, Minister, that we will not see another project take 47 years to be delivered. It has certainly been a long-running issue in the constituency, and it is important that we see infrastructure projects progress as quickly as they possibly can.

The west can often feel like a poor relation when it comes to investment and commitments to seeing the economy grow and to creating better communities. I hope that the commitment to the A4 Enniskillen southern bypass shows that there is a seriousness to deliver in the west and level up our communities. I will use my voice to keep championing our beautiful, lovely, resilient Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I want to quash the myth that there is an attitude of forgetting about the constituency. I must admit that I am greedy when it comes to Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and I will not just stop now that funding has been delivered for this project in my constituency. We need more investment.

Another matter to raise is the need to ensure that Fermanagh is on the map in the all-island rail review . Right now, Fermanagh is the only county in Northern Ireland not included, and that is simply not good enough. With such strategic road investment, we must match up other key infrastructure projects.

Although I welcome last night's news of investment funding, the hard work starts now, and we must progress at pace. I noticed in the Finance Minister's statement that procurement can now go ahead. I therefore ask the Infrastructure Minister to detail the timescales for delivery and to ensure that there are no further delays to the project.

I thank other Members who will speak on the topic, which relates to Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and I thank the Infrastructure Minister for coming to the Chamber. I am sure that we can all agree that we look forward to the day that we are cutting the ribbon and driving on the A4 Enniskillen southern bypass.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Members, if they so wish, will have up to seven minutes in which to speak.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat

[Translation: Thank you]

to my constituency colleague Deborah Erskine for requesting the Adjournment debate and to you, Minister, for facilitating it.

This is a topic that my constituents and I feel very strongly about. The Enniskillen bypass is an extremely important project. I am like a child at Christmas at the news that the Executive have agreed to provide £16·2 million of capital funding across 2024-25 and 2025-26 to see it delivered. Since I first ran to become an MLA in 2017, this has been one of my priorities. Although the project long predates that, I am proud to say that, any time that Sinn Féin had the chance, we invested in progressing the issue. I therefore thank the Finance Minister, Dr Caoimhe Archibald, for making this next step possible. It highlights Sinn Féin's commitment to its priority of tackling regional inequalities and driving balanced and sustainable growth across the island.

My constituency is one of the areas most deprived of modern, decent roads. To help drive regional balance, we need to invest in the right infrastructure. Enniskillen town centre can act as a bottleneck, where local traffic mixes with passing and strategically important traffic, resulting in delays for both. The bypass will be a huge economic driver for Enniskillen and crucial to helping unlock the area's full potential.

The proposed Enniskillen bypass would provide a new transport link to the southern side of the town, improving the connection between the A4 Dublin Road and the A4 Sligo Road and offering the following benefits: reduced traffic congestion in Enniskillen; provision of a transport link across the A4 from the Dublin Road to the Sligo Road; facilitation of more efficient movement of traffic in and around Enniskillen; and reduction in noise and air pollution in the town itself. That is to name but a few of the benefits.

Transport cannot resolve all of Fermanagh's economic difficulties. The Enniskillen bypass is not a magic bullet that will cure all the ills currently affecting the constituency, but it will be a massive help and a significant boost to the area, particularly in light of the recent shock announcement from BT that 300 people with responsibilities and aspirations may lose their jobs. Fermanagh has been neglected for too long, so this is hugely positive news. I look forward to continuing to work with the Executive and the Infrastructure Minister to see the timely completion of this vital scheme.

Photo of Patrick Brown Patrick Brown Alliance 5:15, 20 February 2024

I thank the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone for bringing this debate to the Chamber, the subject matter of which is important to the well-being of many in her constituency and to the sustainable development of Enniskillen town and the wider area. I welcomed the Minister of Finance's statement, yesterday, announcing the release of £16·2 million as part of the wider financial package, which will allow a further £12·5 million to be drawn down from the Mid South West growth deal and enable this project to move to the procurement stage.

Indeed, this is a very good day for roads across the North. As my party's infrastructure spokesperson, I take this opportunity to welcome the positive announcement from the Irish Government this afternoon regarding the A5 and Narrow Water bridge, amongst other important projects. That €800 million investment is a further positive step towards realising the huge potential of the €3·5 billion Shared Island Fund to build North/South connectivity, which will crucially also alleviate pressure on the already stretched capital budgets of the Executive.

It is worth noting that the Enniskillen southern bypass has been in the works for a significant time. It was first formally proposed in the 'Expanding the Strategic Road Improvement Programme 2015' in 2006, with planning starting two years after that in 2008 and the preferred route being announced in 2015. As the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone laid out, however, it was talked about well before her or I were around. To date, £2 million-worth of advance site works have taken place, so this funding to enable the procurement and construction phases to begin is the final positive step for this important roads project.

The proposed scheme has strong cross-party support. My colleague in the Enniskillen district electoral area (DEA), Councillor Eddie Roofe, has been working closely with other local parties and stakeholders to push the plans forward. At just 3 kilometres, this is a relatively minor works project, but it will have a huge impact on traffic flow and addressing congestion in Enniskillen town. That will pay considerable dividends in terms of air pollution, ease of access to the town centre and reducing traffic, which is particularly important for the safety of schoolchildren and pedestrians. The reduction of vehicular travel may also open up the opportunity for smaller-scale complementary infrastructure schemes in Enniskillen town, such as cycle lanes, one-way systems and pedestrian zones, which can promote active travel and enhance the vibrancy of a town centre.

Given the rural nature of the area, the continued reliance of the local population on cars and the absence of viable public transport options — I lament Fermanagh's exclusion from the all-island rail review — schemes such as this are vital for securing the growth and the well-being of rural communities. This road will also be vital, as upgrades to the A32 Omagh to Enniskillen road are, for ensuring that there is timely and safe access to emergency services at the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH).

There was great concern across the local area when funding for this project was put on hold as a result of these institutions being suspended for two years. This announcement by the Minister is a welcome statement of what this place can deliver when it is functioning. I only hope that the Minister for Infrastructure and the Minister of Finance are paying similar attention to the need to finally deliver the long-awaited Ballynahinch bypass, which is right on the edge of my constituency. I also wish to put on record the long-term aspiration and need for an eastern bypass around the county town of Downpatrick.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you. I gave you some latitude there.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I welcome the discussion this evening and thank Deborah Erskine for securing the Adjournment debate. I will not talk about Downpatrick or Ballynahinch, but it is good to see the Minister for Infrastructure in the Chamber and to have heard the announcement, yesterday evening, of this long-awaited scheme in Enniskillen.

I remember being on site on a number of occasions many years ago with, as it was then, the Department for Regional Development's Roads Service — it was not called the Department for Infrastructure — to talk about the project. It goes quite close to the old, iconic Weir's bridge that goes across the River Erne. If Members want to see a photograph or a painting of that, they should visit Fermanagh unionist hall, where there is still a big mural of the old Weir's bridge on the wall. It looks really well.

The project is a welcome boost. It will certainly be a welcome boost for someone who has sat in traffic queues on the Belfast Road or the Irvinestown Road on a Friday evening behind scores of caravans, caravanettes and camper vans waiting to get into the town.

Some caveats need to be in place. We should not forget about the town centre. I hope that having less traffic going through the town centre will mean more availability for parking and encourage more people to stop in the town of Enniskillen to do some shopping or go for a coffee or some food when they are travelling through. The second issue concerns landowners. I am sure that we will hear from the Minister that they have all been sorted at this stage, but a few issues may still have to be resolved. I ask that that is done in a fair and reasonable manner and that landowners are given the accommodation works that they require. The third issue is visibility. Lough Erne is a key tourist area — you are going into the upper lough there — and I want to be assured that any enhancement works will look reasonably aesthetically pleasing to general visitors to the area and locals alike. Finally, I want to be assured that any local people who need accommodation works and noise barriers will get them, because that is important. The works will create a lot more noise and traffic, and there are a number of residents in that area. I hope that they will be accommodated.

I suppose that I am marking the Minister's cards. I hope that he takes recognition of the issues. In general, however, this is a welcome development, and I thank the Executive for bringing it forward.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Deborah Erskine for securing this Adjournment debate. My constituency is a bit further from Fermanagh than that of most of the other contributors, but I echo the sentiments that they have expressed and welcome the Finance Minister's eleventh-hour announcement last night of £16·2 million of capital funding to secure this vital transport link for Enniskillen and Fermanagh. The provision will help to reduce pollution and congestion, revitalise the town centre, enhance journey times and improve safety for all road users. For too long, Fermanagh has been very much the forgotten county — well, one of the forgotten counties — for transport infrastructure. The project has been in the pipeline for decades due to the lack not so much of available funding but, in our view, of political will, which failed to launch it.

Recognising the transformational opportunity that the Enniskillen southern bypass offered, my former colleague, the former Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, demonstrated her determination to deliver fairness for Fermanagh. In 2021, she announced her intention to proceed with the project, allocating £2 million to kick-start it and advance site works. She made it clear, however, that the progression of the project would depend on future funding. That funding did not materialise. The caretaker Minister, whoever that was, was not able to provide it, but, fortunately, the Minister whom we have now has been able to source it, so credit where it is due. He said that it remained a priority and has demonstrated that it was and is. I am sure that any Minister would rather cut ribbons on roads than cut spending on them. I welcome the agreement to release the funding, which will enable works to proceed and prevent increased associated costs should works be delayed any longer.

The most recent Stormont stalemate — I cannot get through any speech without mentioning it — also denied us progress on the Enniskillen bypass, not to mention so many other flagship projects, leaving us at the mercy of the Tory Government. The anger in the community, which my DUP colleague has expressed, over the decision to reallocate the previous multimillion-pound funding commitment to account for the overspend in the 2022-23 Budget is still palpable. I hope that news that the project has now been steered back on course will help to alleviate that frustration.

The community in Enniskillen and wider Fermanagh has been deprived of the modern, sustainable and suitable road infrastructure that is integral to driving regional balance and future prosperity. By improving the connection between the A4 Dublin Road and the A4 Sligo Road, the Enniskillen bypass is the first building block of the many required to enhance travel links in that rural and, in parts, socially isolated county. The SDLP will ensure that focus remains on providing a long-term plan for the infrastructural future of Fermanagh and on ensuring that it does not miss out on the once in a lifetime opportunity afforded by the all-island strategic rail plans. I have tabled a motion for debate on that in the near future.

The focus on active travel and inclusion of a cycle path alongside the bypass is of particular note, and it will prove vital in tackling the climate emergency by encouraging people to leave their car at home and opt for a greener means of travel where possible and practical.

I look forward to seeing the project progress at pace, and I hope that the stop-start approach to it that we have seen for so long has been put behind us once and for all.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Mr Deputy Speaker, I take this opportunity to welcome you to your role.

I am absolutely delighted at the announcement on the bypass. It is much-needed, long fought for and will be of tremendous benefit to the town of Enniskillen and the whole surrounding area in our constituency. Tackling the bottleneck at that section of the road will allow business to benefit from improved opportunities and improved access to our shops; allow people to enjoy improved journey times; and, hopefully, attract people into the town of Enniskillen as well as facilitate their journey through it.

It has been estimated that the scheme will improve average journey times by approximately 50% and take 40% of the traffic out of Enniskillen town centre, which is hugely welcome. I agree with Mark that the cycleway and footpath are a key element. It is crucial that we make sure that the infrastructure is there for people to travel and walk safely in our towns and, indeed, between our towns and villages.

On Patrick's remarks, I know that we have had boundary reviews recently, but I did not know that it stretched as far as Downpatrick.

[Laughter.]

Having battled my way through Ballynahinch on many an occasion in a past life, I have to say that I recognise his concern about that issue.

It is also clear that this vital scheme will cut air pollution and congestion in the town of Enniskillen. It is important to say that Enniskillen is a unique town. It is one of very few island towns, and that creates its own difficulties, but it also creates opportunities. However, air quality is a key issue that the scheme will certainly help with. It has been estimated that up to 800 deaths in the Six Counties can be attributed to air pollution, so it is a significant issue, and it is hugely welcome that the scheme will help with that.

One of Sinn Féin's key priorities is to tackle regional inequalities and drive balanced and sustainable growth across the island. In order to do that, we need the right type of infrastructure that allows us to achieve that regional balance and connectivity and that allows local hubs to flourish and areas to maximise their potential, and there is huge potential there. That balance involves equal access to opportunities and services, including vital services such as health, broadband and, of course, investment in our road network. Enniskillen town and the people and businesses that make that town deserve to benefit from the type of investment that would allow their local community and economy to truly thrive.

I could not let the debate pass without mentioning the vexed and vital issue of the A5, which also affects our constituency. That is another key piece of infrastructure, and all the additional pieces will drive us forward into what I believe will be a very bright future. Those are vital parts of that jigsaw.

The Enniskillen bypass will certainly contribute to the goal of allowing all our local communities to thrive, and, therefore, I welcome that. I also welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 5:30, 20 February 2024

I call the Minister. Minister, you have 10 minutes.

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

Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also congratulate you on your appointment to your role.

I thank Deborah Erskine MLA for initiating the debate on the Enniskillen southern bypass scheme. I add my thanks to my Executive colleagues and will take this opportunity to recognise their commitment to the project, as demonstrated by yesterday's announcement to provide the necessary funding. It is also important to note that that was one of the first decisions of the newly reformed Executive, so it shows an intent to tackle regional inequality.

The £16·2 million capital funding that the Executive agreed, alongside the approved early release of £12·5 million from the Mid South West city and growth deal, provides security for the delivery of this critical infrastructure project. That is welcome news for the Department as well as for local businesses and communities in Enniskillen, which are supportive of this much-needed project.

The £2·1 million bypass will provide a new transport link to the southern side of the town, improving connectivity between the A4 Dublin Road and the A4 Sligo Road. As a number of Members mentioned, the transport link will also provide 3·5 kilometres of active travel for walking and cycling, extending along the Dublin and Derrylin roads to connect the existing non-motorised user infrastructure. The scheme will also alleviate traffic congestion in Enniskillen town centre, which will reduce delays and improve average journey times by approximately 50%, and it will bring much-needed improvement to road safety. It will also bring benefits to the town centre environment by improving air quality and reducing noise levels. That will create a unique opportunity to enhance active travel and placemaking measures in the town centre, with reduced levels of through traffic. That is an exciting opportunity for Enniskillen, which is a very picturesque town in a beautiful setting that is ideally set for active travel. That measure will involve consultation with local businesses, communities and elected representatives on the best way to bring it forward, but Enniskillen is ideally placed for such a scheme.

While the construction of major roads projects can significantly impact on the climate, I am pleased to advise that this scheme will show an overall reduction in carbon emissions in the long term and will have a beneficial impact on the climate. In fact, the environmental impact assessment shows that the combined emissions for the proposed scheme after opening, including the adjacent road network, will lead to an overall reduction in emissions of -4·7% when compared with not having the scheme. Consequently, the scheme has a carbon payback period of 28·8 years for the carbon emissions in construction.

My Department has considered ways in which the building of this important infrastructure can be mitigated through landscaping opportunities throughout the site, as mentioned by Tom Elliott, who has just come back. A landscaping plan has been developed, and we have already been working proactively alongside Ulster Wildlife to ensure that a significant amount of native tree planting, hedgerow and wildflower planting has been incorporated into the design. As an example, look at the A6. That is a longer stretch of road, but 1·2 million trees are planted along it, which will have huge beneficial impacts on biodiversity in that area. It is amazing that, even though we are building a road — roads bring not only opportunities but challenges for the environment — we can do things to improve the local environment. That is a really exciting part of the project.

Funding for the scheme will now allow procurement to commence — Deborah asked about this — in April 2024, and the ability for the Department to meet that timescale means that the seasonal windows for earthworks, as well as works over and in the water, can be progressed to the most advantageous time frames. Again, environmental concerns have been raised about the time frame for constructing the road. If procurement goes ahead in April 2024, we hope that construction will start in spring/summer 2025, with around a two-year time frame for building. Thankfully, to date, there have been no legal challenges to the project. As far as I am aware, it is overwhelmingly supported in the local community. I hope that, at this stage, we do not run into any legal difficulties. If we do not, construction can start within that time frame and be delivered quite quickly.

As I have said, this is a significant milestone for an important project. As Mark Durkan said, Ministers would much prefer to be cutting ribbons than cutting budgets, so this is an easy one for me. I doubt that I will have very many easy debates in the Chamber, but this is certainly one.

I will turn to Members' comments. I have already covered some of the issues that they raised. I note that a Chamber debate on the all-Ireland rail review is upcoming. I also note Fermanagh's absence from that review. I will pursue that matter and engage on it in the time ahead.

Jemma Dolan mentioned the disparity in the treatment of rural roads. I hope to be able to announce a dedicated funding programme for rural roads. Rural communities are often left behind when it comes to infrastructure, and I would like to see rural roads being treated in a more equitable manner.

Patrick Brown chanced his arm greatly by mentioning Ballynahinch and Downpatrick. I am sure that he can bring forward a debate on those measures, or, if he writes to me, I will be more than happy to engage with him.

Photo of Patrick Brown Patrick Brown Alliance

I have a question in already.

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

He has a question in already.

We now know where we will have the tea and coffee after we cut the ribbon on the bridge. We will have it in the Fermanagh unionist hall so that we can look at Weir's bridge.

[Laughter.]

In all seriousness, this project has taken into consideration the town centre. We worked in collaboration with the local council. There is an opportunity now for the local council, ourselves and other agencies to see how the town centre can benefit from this project commercially, business-wise and even through the living environment. I believe that it will make a positive change, but we cannot just take that for granted: it has to be moved forward. On the land ownership issue, all the land that we require has been vested. I believe that I am correct in saying that. The land issues have been resolved.

I think that I have covered everybody's general comments. It is a good start that I am able to stand here and, as a result of a collective decision by the Executive, announce that funding is available for a project. All lights are green, and construction work will start in early summer 2025.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you very much indeed, Minister, and thank you, Deborah, for bringing this Adjournment debate to the Assembly.

Adjourned at 5.37 pm.