Posted by: wesleyjohnston | June 15, 2016

New Roads Minister reveals priorities

Northern Ireland’s new “roads” minister Chris Hazzard (of Sinn Féin), who took the helm of the new Department for Infrastructure (DfI) on 25 May, has been spelling out his priorities for road infrastructure. Of particular note was a press release published today tellingly entitled “Hazzard determined to deliver infrastructure projects to connect people west of the Bann” strongly hinting that he favours upgrades to the A5 (Derry/Londonderry to Ballygawley via Omagh and Strabane) and A6 road (Randalstown to Derry/Londonderry). This is hardly a surprise, given that upgrades to these roads were manifesto pledges of both the DUP and Sinn Féin. However, there are a number of comments in the press release worth highlighting.

The A6 route between Derry and Belfast connects our two biggest cities. This is a vital link in making the north an attractive place for those choosing to live, visit, work or invest.  I am determined to drive this project forward and complete the scheme to Drumahoe in this mandate, so we can maximise our offering and develop the economic potential across the region.” (emphasis mine)

The DfI is currently progressing plans to upgrade two sections of the A6. Randalstown to Castledawson is very advanced with a contractor in place and construction due to get underway within weeks. However, Mr Hazzard is referring to the Dungiven to Derry section which is now in advanced planning. In the previous Assembly term the Executive gave enough cash to this latter scheme to build part of it, but not all of it, and I estimate work will commence around 2019. The previous Minister had said that the section to be built would begin at the Dungiven end and would go as far as it could towards Derry with the money available, but didn’t specify an end point. Mr Hazzard’s comment suggests that he wants to build the whole section from Dungiven to the eastern edge of Derry, leaving only the final bit unbuilt, i.e. the section that bypasses the Waterside to connect to the A2 near the Foyle Bridge. To build all this would probably need a further funding allocation over and above what has been committed, but if the Executive is behind it there is no reason why it could not be achieved during the term of this Assembly as he suggests.

“Construction of the first phase of the A5 Western Transport Corridor, from Newbuildings to north of Strabane, is due to begin in 2017 subject to the successful  completion of the statutory procedures.   However, I am currently looking at how funding could be increased to expedite delivery of the A5 scheme.”

The first part of this simply states what we know, which is that the first bit of the A5 (Phase 1A Newbuildings to north of Strabane) has been promised funding by the Executive and is likely to get underway in late 2017 subject to the outcome of the public inquiry, yet to be held. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (also Sinn Féin) is previously on record as saying that this scheme is of such importance to his party that they would not agree to a Programme for Government that did not include it. The Executive has also promised enough money to commence work on Phase 1B (south of Omagh to Ballygawley), probably around 2019. However there is currently insufficient cash to complete Phase 1B or build the longer and much more expensive Phase 2 (north of Strabane to south of Omagh and including bypasses of both). Mr Hazzard is saying that he is seeking additional funding to press ahead with these. Since the Executive has a fixed pot of cash, this money would have to come from something else, either by (a) persuading the Executive to give his department more money (b) to explore some kind of private funding initiative or (c) postponing other road upgrades.

Finally, the small print. Now, this press release was published during an event in Derry, so it’s not surprising that it highlights connections to the north-west. However, the notes below the press release suggest that this press release is also a reflection of the new Minister’s more general priorities. The final part notes:

In addition to these Executive flagship schemes, the Department for Infrastructure is progressing a number of other high priority projects including:
• Narrow Water Bridge

• the A4 Enniskillen Southern Bypass
• the Ballynahinch Bypass

This is a very interesting list both because of what’s there and what’s not. Firstly, the previous Minister (Danny Kennedy of the UUP) was never that enthusiastic about Narrow Water Bridge though he did cooperate with the statutory procedures. It has been controversial in the nationalist/unionist sense because of its symbolic cross-border nature, while the relatively low traffic levels it would attract compared to other competing schemes have caused others to doubt its value for money. The scheme collapsed at the tender stage three years ago due to (a) inaccurate cost estimates and then (b) a lack of additional funding to cover the shortfall, but there has since been a lot of political support for the scheme. The Department for Infrastructure is not, in fact, progressing this scheme as stated (it’s being progressed by Louth County Council) but the Executive has agreed to prepare a joint report on its future. So the fact that it’s in this list suggests that Mr Hazzard is very supportive of the scheme and it could even end up being jointly funded North-South, something that did not happen under Danny Kennedy’s tenure.

Secondly, it is interesting that both the Enniskillen and Ballynahinch Bypasses are in the list. These two bypasses have been in planning for many years, and design work has been actively progressing. But until now there hasn’t been any particular reason to think that they are a higher priority than any other schemes, e.g. the Cookstown Bypass, Armagh East Link or proposed upgrades to the A1 and Sydenham Bypass. The fact that these two schemes are specifically named and several others are not should give some hope to advocates of these two schemes.

Finally, there is one glaring omission from this list of “other high priority schemes” and that is York Street Interchange in Belfast. For the past couple of years I have got the distinct impression, backed up by the speed of activity, that the York Street Interchange scheme has been pretty much the highest priority scheme within TransportNI. It rapidly climbed the ladder of progress, with design work quickly overtaking that of other schemes, had its public inquiry last year, and is actually out to tender as I write (though note the tender does not commit DfI to construction) with construction due to begin in late 2017, subject to funding. Because it is on Euroroute E01 it could also attract up to 40% EU funding (referendum notwithstanding). So the fact that a scheme that has been the top priority within TransportNI for the past couple of years is not even mentioned in Mr Hazzard’s list of “other high priority schemes” is very notable. We shall have to wait and see what this means for the proposed commencement date of 2017.

The coming months should continue to clarify the priorities of the Minister.

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Responses

  1. Brexit would not mean an end to EU funding of infrastructure projects in the UK. The EU is paying for the mind boggling Base Tunnels in Switzerland. Should Dublin deem the A5 and/or YSI important enough to its economy they could use EU money to complete the projects.

  2. The A6 upgrade is highly unlikely to start within a few weeks, land and property owners have not yet received vesting notices. It is my understanding that on receiving the vesting notice, there is a 3 month period of “consultation” between LPS and land owners. Also, if you take a look at the question and answer section of the NI assembly website, you will see that the anticipated start date is now Autumn 2016, as answered today by the minister for infrastructure.

    • Hi there. By a “few weeks” I really meant 3 months – “a few weeks” as opposed to being “a few years” like the Dungiven scheme. In a document issued to Mid And East Antrim Council two days ago (https://www.infrastructure-ni.gov.uk/publications/annual-report-mid-and-east-antrim-council-2016) Infrastructure NI said “It is anticipated that Phase 1 will be complete in late summer 2016. With funding allocations in the Executive’s Budget Statement of December 2015 it is anticipated that Phase 2 (Construction) of the scheme will start in late summer 2016.” which is what my comment was based on. In practice these things have a tendency to slip slightly, but commencement in September seems quite plausible to me. The consultation with LPS is about deciding values of land – I don’t think this process necessarily has to be complete before the work can begin (as we saw on the A5).

      • Thanks Wesley. I have been following your website since this scheme was announced over 10 years ago and I find it a better source of info than anything that comes from government depts. and ministers. I never knew that roads could be so interesting!

  3. The vesting order for the affected land and property for the A6 upgrade is due to be published in the press this week with an operative date of 30th September.

  4. The Vesting orders come into operation today, 27th September. I wonder how long it’s going to be before we see any contractors on the ground. Incidentally, even though the vesting orders are operative today, some properties haven’t even had a valuation figure from LPS.

    • Legal challenge notwithstanding, contractor is due to go on site during October. Thanks for the update.

  5. The Randalstown to Toome section WILL be going ahead as planned. It won’t be affected by the legal challenge concerning the Toome to Castledawson side.

    • I had gathered as much but thanks for confirming. What is that based on?

  6. I had it confirmed today by someone directly involved in the project.


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