A5 Public Inquiry: Recommendations

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 16 April 2024.

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Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15, 16 April 2024

6. Mr McCrossan asked the Minister for Infrastructure to outline when he will publish the recommendations of the report from the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) on the public inquiry on the A5 western transport corridor. (AQO 284/22-27)

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

Since coming into office, I have made several statements on the A5 and, quite rightly, have been questioned about progress on the A5. My Department received a final advisory report from the Planning Appeals Commission on 31 October 2023 on the latest public inquiry on the project. I am fully briefed on current progress and the advisory recommendations from the PAC. My officials are working at pace on detailed consideration of the recommendations, and I hope to make an announcement on the project in the coming months. When I make the announcement, I will do so in accordance with all the relevant statutory procedures on the basis of all the evidence, representations and advice that I have received from officials and statutory agencies North and South, from members of the public and all other bodies that have participated in the process to date. I intend to release the content of the PAC report in full, together with my Department's response to each of the PAC recommendations, at the time of my announcement.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for that answer. Minister, I know that you will join me in offering your condolences to the family of Oonagh Burns from Strabane, who died last week on the A5. Fifty people have died on that road since 2007. I know that you agree that delays are leading to further deaths. Will the Minister update the House on what is delaying the publication of the report, given that it has been six months since it was handed to the Department?

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

I share the Member's condolences to the family of the latest victim on the A5. My responsibility in the matter bears heavily on me, I assure the Member.

The report, as I have said many times, is complex and detailed. Every line of that report will be scrutinised against my decision and my recommendation. I want to be assured beyond reasonable doubt that my officials and I, along with legal advice, have gone through it line by line and that I am living up to my statutory obligations before making any further announcement. The worst thing that we can do for those who have lost their life on the A5, their families and the communities that use it is make an announcement that is then overturned in the courts. I know that it is taking time and is frustrating — I understand that — but I want to get this one right.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

The Minister will be more than aware that the project has been delayed by legal challenges and that, sadly, legal challenges have resulted in delays that have cost lives, no longer ago than last week. Are the Minister and his Department expecting further legal challenges to the project?

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

I expect so, but, if legal challenges are being brought against me, I want a robust defence to be in place against them. Everyone has a right to access the courts to present their case. I understand the concerns of some in the farming community. As I have said in the House before, I am from a rural community, and I understand that grá

[Translation: love]

that the farmer has for their land.

I will use the example of the A4. I spoke to a farmer who lost a significant amount of land, and he said, "At the time I was opposed to it, but now I am proud that I did it". Since the A4 opened, two lives have been lost — that is too many — but we think of the death toll on that road beforehand, and that farmer said, "I am proud that I helped save those lives."

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Given the Minister's effusive endorsement of the project since coming into office, has he not prejudiced his ability to bring objectivity and independence to the ministerial decisions that he will be required to make?

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

The A5 has been a long-standing commitment of the Executive as part of previous Programmes for Government and under its flagship project. My decision-making process has to be about whether the current plan for the A5 meets all my statutory obligations. That is what I am studying. I cannot simply make a decision and say, "Because it is a flagship project, I can go ahead". It has to meet all the statutory obligations under which I operate, and that is why I am taking my time and being careful, going through it line by line to ensure that when I make my announcement, I do so on a sound basis.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 2:30, 16 April 2024

We move to topical questions.