Tuesday, 29 September 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla -Topical Issue Debates
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this matter this evening and the Minister for being here at this late hour to take the debate.
As the Minister will probably be aware, there is an urgent need to provide better road access to Great Island and the town of Cobh in Cork East. I doubt the Minister has been to Cobh recently but it is a most beautiful town and setting. On a fine day, it is like costa del Cobh. It is really lovely.
The population of the Great Island is 15,000. Cobh is one of the biggest towns in County Cork. Many people do not realise that. However, Great Island itself can only be reached by a cross-river crossing. There is a good rail link, which is fantastic, but the road access is deplorable. It really is extremely poor. The river ferry is weather dependent as well.
This R624 road includes the triple-arch humpback Belvelly Bridge, which was constructed in 1803. In the view of many people, including me, it is totally inadequate for the weight and volume of the traffic that is on it today, when one thinks of 15,000 people being obliged to use it.
Behind it there is the beautiful Belvelly Castle which was recently restored. In addition to the issue of Belvelly Bridge, the R624 network leading from Cobh Cross to the bridge and on to Cobh town in particular is extremely narrow and has many twists and turns. It is very dangerous for road users at peak commute times and lethal for cyclists and pedestrians who literally cannot use it. Local residents are very concerned because the volume of traffic has increased in recent years.
The overriding concern is that if anything happens to the almost 220-year-old stone bridge, 15,000 people would be cut off. Several times in recent years, unfortunate accidents on the R624 have curtailed access to the island, in some cases for hours, resulting in major delays and traffic chaos. One can imagine the impact this could have on emergency services.
Cobh is now a major international tourist destination. Prior to the Covid restrictions, the town had up to 100 cruise liners visiting annually. Visitors from those liners typically explored the immediate region in touring coaches which must navigate this very narrow, dangerous road, the Belvelly Bridge and the local road network. Cobh is also recognised as an attractive tourist destination for local visitors, with its world-famous, Pugin-designed St. Colman's Cathedral dominating the skyline, its fine promenade, restaurants, coffee shops and attractions such as the heritage centre, Titanic Experience Cobh and nearby Fota House and wildlife park. It is a very beautiful town which has been enhanced in recent years by the Tidy Towns committee and local authority workers.
The R624 is also the main access route for those who want to visit Spike Island which last year had in excess of 81,000 visitors. Spike Island was named Europe's leading attraction at the World Travel Awards in 2017 and came second in the global awards behind some place called Machu Picchu. While the road network is currently presenting problems, a master plan for the development of the former IFI site at Marino Point will further increase traffic volume on the R624 along with any further developments which might be planned in the Cork dockyard in Cobh. The dockyard may end up being a centre for wind energy development.
I am aware that the Department of Transport had an initial engagement with Cork County Council last year, including a meeting with the Department's strategic research and analysis division regarding the project proposal process. I understand the council is appointing consultants. This evening, I ask the Minister to add his weight to this. We know this is a major project, which is extremely sensitive. It is in a special area of conservation where there is a great deal of heritage, stonework and so on. Any works in the area will require a considerable work and effort and take many years to plan and develop. I ask the Minister to put his weight behind this project and to do all he can, with his hard-working officials, to support Cork County Council in advancing proposals to upgrade road access to Cobh.
I am pleased to be here to discuss this issue with Deputy Stanton. The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of the relevant local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from the council's own resources supplemented by State road grants. The extent of the cutbacks in grant funding during the post-2008 recession meant that grant funding for road improvement schemes had to be curtailed because expenditure on maintenance and renewal was falling well short of what was required to adequately maintain the regional and local road network.
The national development plan, NDP, provides for the gradual build-up in funding for the road network but funding is not yet at the level needed for the adequate maintenance and renewal of regional and local roads. For this reason, the primary focus for capital investment at present is the maintenance and renewal of the network and implementation of the 12 regional and local road projects identified for development, subject to necessary approvals, in the NDP.
Some limited provision is being made in the capital budget for the appraisal of a pipeline of upgrade projects. This is intended to cover the appraisal of projects for future development, if possible. The project assessment process can be expected to take time and all proposed projects must now comply with the revised public spending code published in December 2019. An important change to the public spending code is the introduction of a requirement for a strategic assessment report for all projects with an estimated expenditure of €10 million or more. The strategic assessment report is now a key deliverable at the first decision stage in the project appraisal process. The purpose of the strategic assessment report is to examine the rationale for a proposed project and to ensure the strategic alignment of projects with Government policy, including the national planning framework and national development plan. The strategic assessment report is also an important step in the project life cycle in that potential alternatives for an intervention are assessed and identified for further appraisal should the project progress to the preliminary business case phase of the appraisal process. Once completed, a report needs Departmental approval.
On access to Cobh and Great Island, there was some initial engagement between Cork County Council and my Department last year, including a meeting with the Department's strategic research and analysis division regarding the project appraisal process. My Department understands that Cork County Council is now proposing to appoint consultants to carry out a transport study which will look at all options in relation to access.
I thank the Minister for his response. I am aware of the strategic access report requirement at the first decision stage in the project appraisal work. I am also familiar with Government policy. A tier 1 port is being developed in Cobh, which is hugely important. I invite the Minister to visit the area and drive the road, or be driven along it, in order that he can have a look at it. It is frightening and the volume of traffic is very high. I hope the cruise liners return when the pandemic ends. This project will take time. I ask the Minister to personally look at the file and support and drive on the project. If it was started today, by the time there were shovels in the ground, the project could take four or five years to complete, by which time we will probably all be gone from this House. I ask the Minister to push this very hard. The council is very anxious that the project proceeds because it knows how badly needed it is. Local people have contacted me about it. They are very concerned about the safety of the road, which is really dangerous. I know cycling is close to the Minister's heart but it cannot be cycled as there is no place for bicycles at all. It is an extraordinarily narrow road and the volume of traffic on it is extreme.
I know that the project must go through a procedure. I ask that the Minister get behind it and support the local authority which is doing its best to progress it for the people in the area.
I am very familiar with the area. My grandfather grew up in Glounthaune where we had a family farm so I know the area well. I will look closely at the file.
There is a whole range of developments in the Cork harbour and city area. We need to develop Cork as a counterbalance to Dublin. We need infrastructure in Cork, which includes Cobh and Carrigtwohill, Ballincollig on the other side, and Blarney. The city has spread a great deal. We need to bring life back into Cork but we also need to look after the 15,000 people in Cobh and those living in Glounthaune and beyond.
There will be a variety of ways to invest in this infrastructure. One will be to invest in Cork harbour. Marino Point, a deep sea port with a rail connection and one of the best harbours in the world, is an underutilised asset. It also has a lot of energy infrastructure around it. We will have to invest in the rail line. One of my top priority projects is developing a second track from Midleton to Cork city. I would also develop a station at Tivoli. I spoke to Cork County Council about this recently. If we did that, we could have 10,000 people in Tivoli docks. The other side of the estuary on the old Dunlop site and the docklands would allow massive development of the east of the city.
We also need to develop and look after Cobh for tourism and many other purposes. I know the bridge and road in question and what the Deputy has said is not untrue. The project would not be cheap. One might think it is just one section of road but it would quickly amount to tens of millions of euro. It is about balance, and I expect that, as well as the road, the strategic review is looking at further Local Link bus services and increasing frequency on the Cobh train line. Traffic volume on the R624 is an issue. The road caters for around 5,000 vehicles per day and probably has a multiple of that now. The study will have to consider the various options to solve the needs of people in the community. Their needs must come first. We must look at every option for achieving that.