Tuesday, 17 December 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Deputies for raising these two very important subjects, which are absolutely related to each other. The current funding arrangements in relation to the A5 are also governed by the Fresh Start agreement. Under this agreement, the Government is committed to providing funding of £75 million towards the cost of phase 1A of the A5 upgrade scheme once the statutory planning process in Northern Ireland is concluded. The implementation of the A5 upgrade project is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland authorities. As is the case for the all such capital projects, the A5 upgrade scheme is subject to the planning assessment and approval process in Northern Ireland, and since 2012 there have been a number of legal challenges to approvals related to the scheme, leading to unavoidable delays to implementing the proposed scheme.
Following the conclusion of legal action in 2018, the Department for Infrastructure updated project environmental assessments and undertook a public consultation on a number of environmental reports, including the environmental statement addendum 2019. Having reviewed the responses, the Department concluded that a further public inquiry is required. It is understood that the inquiry will be held in February 2020. Allowing for the time required for the conclusion of the public inquiry and for a new decision to be taken on whether to proceed with the scheme together with the possibility of a further legal challenge, the timeframe for the start of construction of phase 1A of the A5 project is uncertain. In view of the current state of play regarding the A5 scheme and the timeframes involved, provision is not being made in the calendar year 2020 for funding for the scheme. The Government remains committed to the £75 million contribution and the senior officials group established on foot of the Fresh Start agreement will continue to liaise regarding the project with a view to delivering on that commitment.
A Fresh Start - the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan, includes a commitment that the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government would undertake a review of the Narrow Water bridge project with a view to identifying options for future development for consideration by the North-South Ministerial Council, the NSMC. A progress report regarding consideration of options for a Narrow Water bridge was considered by the NSMC in July 2016 and the Council decided that work should continue on the development of options. While the NSMC has not been sitting for a number of years, the senior officials group, comprising officials from Northern Ireland and the South, which is responsible for liaison in respect of the Fresh Start agreement, has been meeting. Senior officials have continued to review of options around the Narrow Water Bridge proposal, which has included meetings with relevant stakeholders. In engaging with stakeholders, officials have highlighted the need to assess all potential options objectively to ensure the best outcome for the area and the best use of public funds. In this context the criteria identified for assessing options were: linking the two communities on both sides of the Border; encouraging and enhancing overall tourism in the cross-Border region; and protecting the natural environment on both sides of the Border. Following on from that, the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure started work on preparing an business case for a Narrow Water bridge scheme. The purpose of the business case is to consider the need to construct a bridge over the Newry river and appraise options to ensure any proposal put forward is likely to represent value for money. My Department has provided input into this work.
It is the case that the proposal for the Narrow Water bridge must be considered in light of welcome developments relating to the Newry southern relief road, NSRR, since 2016. The NSRR, which is included in the Belfast city deal, would provide an alternative route for strategic traffic that avoids Newry city centre and links to the eastern seaboard, the A1-N1 Belfast to Dublin key transport corridor, which includes road and rail links between Larne and the border at Newry, facilitating onward travel to Dublin and improving access to other regional gateways. The Department for Infrastructure has conducted a community consultation on the NSRR this year to help identify clearly the advantages and disadvantages in environmental, engineering, economic and traffic terms of the preferred route.
The current proposal for the NSRR is likely to include pedestrian and cycling provision as well as connectivity to the B79-RI73 Fathom Line leading to Omeath and Carlingford. The overall assessment of the case for a Narrow Water bridge, including in the context of developing a wider tourism initiative for the region, is not at a stage where there is a clearly defined and costed scheme. It is not possible, therefore, to ring-fence funding for a Narrow Water bridge scheme in advance of future decisions on the scheme, including consideration by a reconvened NSMC.