Posted by: wesleyjohnston | July 9, 2014

Narrow Water Bridge – an example of Stormont dysfunction?

Today Justice Minister and Alliance Party leader David Ford hit out at what he called the “dysfunction” of the Stormont government. He went on to justify this viewpoint by giving some examples of this dysfunction. This included the comment that “we have handed money back to Europe over the Maze peace and reconciliation centre and the Narrow Water Bridge.” The latter is a reference to the failed project to construct a bridge between Louth and south Down at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint.

Now, far be it from me to disagree with Mr Ford’s analysis of the functionality of the Stormont government, a view that is likely to be shared by many among the public. However in the interests of accuracy I must take issue with the inclusion of Narrow Water as an example of this dysfunction. Vladimir Lenin once said “A lie told often enough becomes the truth”. There are numerous examples of ‘facts’ being quoted and re-quoted to the point that nobody questions them, and then repeat them earnestly believing that they are true, despite them being false. This phenomenon was captured beautifully in a more modern xkcd cartoon.

So here is a summary of the actual sequence of events that led eventually to the collapse of the Narrow Water bridge project in November 2013. You can see a fuller account of the project over on my web site here.

  • January 2007. The Irish government publishes its National Development Plan, which includes money for a number of schemes in Northern Ireland or along the border. Approximately €14 was pledged to build a bridge between Louth and south Down at Narrow Water. Louth County Council was appointed to take forward the scheme on the Irish government’s behalf.
  • May 2008. Louth County Council completes a feasibility study which shows that it is technically feasible to build the bridge. They announce the chosen route during October of the same year and work on an economic appraisal – an assessment of the economic benefits versus its costs.
  • July 2011. Fast forward three years, and the Republic of Ireland is in a different financial state than it was in 2007. The Irish government looks at the completed economic appraisal and decides that the economic case for the construction of the bridge is weak, and that it is too expensive for the state to afford. The Irish government withdraws its support for Narrow Water bridge.
  • December 2011. Louth County Council asks the Irish government if it can proceed with the plan by itself. The Irish government basically says that it can do so if it wishes, but it must find the bulk of the money itself, because the National Roads Authority (NRA) will not fund it. However there is a suggestion that the NRA may be willing to provide €1.5m if Louth County Council succeeds in finding the rest of the cash.
  • March 2012. Louth County Council are actively seeking for funding. There is an approach to the Department of Regional Development in Northern Ireland, but they reply that they cannot justify spending the money ahead of other more urgent schemes as it does not “improve or extend Northern Ireland’s Strategic Road Network”. (The “strategic” road network is a defined set of roads in Northern Ireland where transport investment is focused. Since 1995 it has been very hard to get funding for major road schemes that are not on the strategic road network.) Louth Council also approaches the EU for funding under the Interreg IVa fund. The total cost of the scheme is now being given as around €18m-€20m. Louth County Council apply for planning permission in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to build the bridge.
  • 12 October 2012. The authorities in Northern Ireland grant planning permission for the bridge. The Republic of Ireland also does so.
  • 24 October 2012. The EU agrees to fund the project with a grant of €17.4m. It will also require approx €0.9m from Louth County Council, and £2.8m from Northern Ireland, due to the cross-border element of the scheme. This was despite Northern Ireland having already turning down a request for money, a condition which is likely to have created some resentment within Stormont.
  • February 2013. Roads Service say they are content for the bridge to be built, but it will not become part of the publicly-owned road network (i.e. it won’t be “adopted”) and will instead remain the responsibility of Louth County Council (with Newry & Mourne District Council acting as agent for maintaining the northern half).
  • March 2013. Louth County Council asks the DRD in Northern Ireland for a Bridge Order, which is a piece of legislation needed in the UK to allow a bridge to built over any watercourse that is used by boats. The DRD compiles the necessary legislation and puts this out to a 6 week consultation during April, as required by law. Meanwhile, the Stormont Department of Finance has not yet approved the £2.8m funding.
  • May 2013. Northern Ireland Department of Finance finally approves funding of £2.8m towards the scheme. The scheme has now been put out to tender by Louth County Council.
  • June 2013. Consultation on the Bridge Order ends. Objections have been received from boat owners and negotiations are taking place to avoid the need for a time-consuming Public Inquiry.
  • 9 July 2013. The DRD approves the Bridge Order for the bridge after objectors are apparently satisfied with the proposals after negotiations. There are no longer any obstacles in Northern Ireland to the bridge being built.
  • 9 July 2013. Louth County Council reveals that the tenders received for construction of the bridge are significantly higher than their estimated construction cost of €18m. In fact, the tenders ranged from €26m to €40m, meaning that the EU funding plus the Northern Ireland contribution of £2.8m is inadequate to complete the project. This appears to have been the result of incorrect estimates in the project planning work undertaken for Louth County Council.
  • September 2013. By now Louth County Council have spent two months trying to find alternative sources for the extra cash they now need. Newry and Mourne District Council (NI) pledges £1.8m, Down District Council (also NI) pledges £0.5m and Louth County Council pledges a €2m. These are important decisions given that none of these councils were expecting to have to stump up such large volumes of cash at short notice. This is still insufficient to the tune of about £5m. No further money is pledged by either Stormont or the Dublin government.
  • 4 November 2013. The position of both the DUP and Sinn Fein is that it is the Irish government who hold the key to the remaining funding. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness says “I think it would be wrong to identify our [DUP] Finance Minister as the problem with regard to Narrow Water. There is, effectively, a responsibility on the Irish Government, ourselves, the Special EU Programmes Body and the councils on both sides of Narrow Water to come up with a solution. I do not know whether that solution can be found. I would like to hear the Irish Government say more about it. In my discussions with the Taoiseach in Rostrevor a number of weeks ago, it was indicated to me that he intended to say something about it but, thus far, there has been silence.
  • 15 November 2013. No further sources of funding are identified and the EU withdraw their Interreg IVa funding. The project effectively collapses.

Ultimately the project collapsed because the project planning carried out for Louth County Council produced cost estimates that proved to be highly inaccurate. As a result, the funding that had been carefully put into place proved to be insufficient and this led to an unseemly scrabble as Louth County Council looked for extra cash at the last minute. Naturally both jurisdictions resented being asked to unexpectedly stump up extra cash due to an error that was entirely of the project planner’s own making, especially as the Irish government had explicitly put it on record in July 2011 that they were not prepared to fund the project in any significant way.

The scheme required a number of steps to be taken in Northern Ireland but, although the pace was painfully slow, and there were disagreements, all the procedural steps required of the Northern Ireland authorities (planning permission, part-funding and legal orders) did eventually fall into place in time to allow the project to proceed. In addition, there appears to have been a general consensus amongst Stormont parties of both sides that the onus was on Dublin to come up the remaining cash after the district councils in Northern Ireland agreed to come up with a further £2.3m to help rescue the scheme. Whether or not they were correct is not the point – the point is that there was consensus on the matter.

Therefore the Narrow Water Bridge scheme collapsed primarily due to poor project planning, namely inaccurate cost estimations, and to a lesser extent the Irish government’s lack of enthusiasm for the project. Yet David Ford has attempted today to present it in a very different light. He has given the impression that the project collapsed because of the inability of the parties at Stormont to get on with each other. This version of the story is quite wrong and not supported by the facts, and this needs to be put on the record.

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Responses

  1. This project foundered because it fell over its own inherent contradictions. Building this bridge – which incidently wsnt going to be connected directly to the motorway – was a purely political project. It had no sound economic analysis behind it. There are numerous much more worthy and beneficial projects


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