Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon discusses her priorities for infrastructure investment to underpin economic recovery and growth.
Setting out her belief that the experiences of the pandemic have underpinned the important role infrastructure plays in supporting citizens, the Minister says that while she does not seek to downplay the immediate difficulties facing families, businesses and government, it is important that the long-term vision for infrastructure is not lost.
“In the midst of Covid-19, the climate emergency and in the face of Brexit, we are in unprecedented and incredibly challenging times,” she states.
In January 2020, the New Decade, New Approach deal which facilitated the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive pledged to “turbocharge infrastructure delivery in Northern Ireland” and name checked a range of capital projects it hoped to progress.
While much of the agreements ambitions have been disrupted, not least a Programme for Government planned for April 2020, Mallon says of these challenging times: “It is exactly at this type of moment that we should be ambitious, creative and courageous. I believe infrastructure is the foundation to overcoming these challenges and taking us to a better place economically, socially and environmentally.”
Mallon states that modern and sustainable infrastructure is a “key building block of prosperity” and says that not only will it be an important part of recovery in the months ahead but it is essential to grow the economy, address regional imbalances, improve wellbeing and “support a thriving island where people want to live, work and invest”.
“Infrastructure is also essential in providing the physical connectivity to allow Northern Ireland to compete on the global stage. This critical role and the need for prioritised investment in infrastructure and public services, is rightly at the heart of New Decade, New Approach,” she states.
Mallon says that the agreed ambitions of New Decade, New Approach, alongside the recent funding announcement by Taoiseach Micheál Martin of €500 million, as part of his new Shared Island Unit, to build and enhance cross-border projects over the next five years as well as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recently launched independent review of transport connections across the UK, each offer opportunities that can deliver “real and positive change” for people, “especially those who have been left behind”.
As to how this will happen, Mallon says: “The Executive needs to put an end to the long history of short-sighted under-investment in infrastructure and we need, as an Executive, to recognise the simple fact that we cannot deliver the Executive’s wider commitments without the underpinning infrastructure in place.”
Offering a sense of where she identifies the most immediate need for investment, Mallon adds: “Capital investment in our water and sewerage infrastructure is the foundation for our economy’s revival, if we want to emerge from what is likely to be the most damaging recession in recent history.
“Our water and sewerage services are crucial to the continued health and wellbeing of our people and they are essential for the post-pandemic economic recovery. There are over 100 areas in Northern Ireland where new development simply cannot connect to the wastewater network due to capacity issues in the system and Belfast is also fast approaching this point.”
In mid-November 2020, Mallon opened a consultation on ‘Living with Water in Belfast’, a draft strategic plan for drainage and wastewater management, with the consultation process open until 29 January 2021. The plan proposes a £1.4 billion investment over 12 years, which Mallon believes is “a blueprint for future integrated water management, initially for Belfast which will then be rolled out to other areas across the North”.
“Significant investment is absolutely essential to support our recovery because without it economic growth here will be virtually impossible,” the Minister states. “And as we look at what we must do to correct wrongs that have gone before, we must also look to what we have learned during this crisis as we move forward.”
The Minister points to a number of positives which have emerged during the pandemic, which she says offered “a glimpse of how things could and can be” including quieter and safer roads, cleaner air and more active travel.
“I don’t want us to lose this. If we simply go back to what we did before, the huge sacrifices families and businesses have made will be in vain and we will have wasted a massive opportunity. The opportunity for all of us to enjoy a better quality of life and play our part in tackling the climate crisis.”
Mallon says that in order to do this, more opportunities need to be created for active travel and for safer infrastructure for those who want to walk, wheel and cycle.
“The Executive needs to put an end to the long history of short-sighted under investment in infrastructure and we need as an Executive to recognise the simple fact that we cannot deliver the Executive’s wider commitments without the underpinning infrastructure in place”.
The Minister points to the positives of recent initiatives that her department has announced including the piloting of pop-up cycle lanes, pavement widening and the Ormeau Parklet in south Belfast. Additionally, she highlights a £20 million allocation for blue/green infrastructure during her capital budget announcement in June, which she says will support the transformation of communities, promote active travel and shape places for a new normal.
However, Mallon admits: “The truth is, this is only a first step. There is so much more to do.
“As well as improving health outcomes, I want to ensure that we strengthen our resilience by putting, for example, a greater focus on our integrated drainage systems to protect homes and businesses from the increased risk of flooding and also ensure that we use our green spaces in a way that delivers multiple benefits for residents and the wider community.
“Greenways are, to my mind, a wonderful example of this type of positive place shaping. They can help provide a solution to localised flooding problems, while at the same time providing a positive space where communities can improve their physical and mental health and come together in a way that tackles social isolation, which so many of our citizens are increasingly suffering from.”
The Minister outlines her ambition to deliver “more green projects that drive lasting change, enhance our economy and improve lives” in partnership with councils and local communities, as part of her drive to deliver more sustainable infrastructure.
Turning to the role of public transport, Mallon recognises the challenges associated with the pandemic that reduced 2020 usage to 40 per cent of 2019 levels. Prior to the pandemic, Northern Ireland experienced record increases in the use of its public transport network, including a 30 per cent increase in passenger numbers on the route of the new Glider service in its first year and in 2019, Northern Ireland Railways recorded its highest ever number of passenger journeys.
“These results show how investment in infrastructure can change travel behaviour, reduce the reliance on private cars and better connect our communities across the island, helping to advance tourism and economic opportunities.
“To ensure that we continue to grow public transport patronage over the longer-term, my department has released funding to purchase 21 new train carriages, is investing in new zero emission buses, as well as the
multi-modal transport hub in Derry and the Belfast Transport Hub project.”
Mallon identifies rail as an area of “significant untapped opportunities”, stating that investment in rail will help address regional imbalance and improve economic and employment opportunities. In response, the Minister has allocated funding for the feasibility study for the Phase 3 upgrade of the Derry to Belfast railway line, stating that she is committed to “seeing this project delivered as soon as possible”.
The Department for Infrastructure is currently working with counterparts in the Irish Government to finalise the terms of reference for a new high speed feasibility study which includes Belfast, Derry Dublin, Limerick and Cork, which Mallon says will “form a spine of connectivity and tackle regional imbalance on the island”.
Tackling regional and socio economic imbalance through infrastructure is a focus for the Minister, who describe it as an “injustice that needs corrected”.
“Too many parts of Northern Ireland are still not realising their potential and there are very significant socio-economic differentials across the North, particularly in urban areas of Belfast, the North West and across a number of our rural areas. I am keen to continue to work to ensure that we start delivering balanced regional growth and no longer leave some of our citizens behind.
“While part of that will be assisted through the development of the Belfast and North West Transport hubs, and the improvement and expansion of our rail network, my department is also progressing two Executive flagship road projects, the A5 and A6.”
Mallon points to her department’s work in progressing other key infrastructure projects which she says will have an economic multiplier effect, including the A1 Junctions safety programme, the Narrow Water Bridge, York Street Interchange and a range of bypass projects.
The Minister states that work also continues with partners to deliver city and growth deals across the region. The deals represent a £563 million investment of capital funding from the Executive, funding which is being matched by the UK Government. Mallon says that much of this investment will be focused on capital infrastructure projects over the next 10 to 15 years.
“This investment will help to progress many important infrastructure projects like Belfast Rapid Transit Phase 2, the Newry Southern Relief Road and the Lagan Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge. This investment is welcome and can be a real game changer in promoting balanced growth.”
However, the Minister is aware of the need to deliver a long-term strategic framework for infrastructure investment and delivery and of the constraints on public finances.
“It must be recognised that infrastructure projects have a long lead-in time and so we must continue to plan for the
long-term. My officials are continuing to prepare draft transport plans for consultation which are intended to set out the framework for transport policy and investment decisions up until 2035. A key element of these is to ensure new development is planned to make use of sustainable and inclusive modes of transport.”
With long-term planning in mind, the Minister recently set up a ministerial advisory panel of independent experts and key stakeholders, tasked with presenting recommendations on how an Infrastructure Commission for Northern Ireland “might more effectively support the long-term planning and development of our infrastructure”. Mallon states that she is currently considering the group’s final report and engaging with Executive colleagues, adding: “I believe this presents an exciting opportunity to do things better and I am keen to see this work develop.”
Highlighting that the public finance constraints cannot be ignored, the Minister says that pressure on services should not limit ambitions. “We need to plan now for the long-term, investing to create opportunities for our people and tackle head-on the challenges facing our economy, society and environment.”
Concluding, the Minister says: “Having modern and sustainable water, drainage and transport networks is essential if we are to grow our economy and improve the lives of everyone. As part of the Covid-19 recovery work, and as longer term plans develop in our Programme for Government, our infrastructure has a critical role to play in addressing the key barriers to economic growth across all parts of Northern Ireland is recognised.
“Without investment in infrastructure, particularly water and sewerage services, new developments, whether they are private or social housing, hotels, schools or hospitals, will simply not be able to happen.
“Continued investment in our transport infrastructure is needed to ensure we play our part in meeting our climate change commitments for the future whilst also ensuring we provide a fast, efficient and safe transport networks to help with our Covid-19 recovery.
“As we move towards a new future, a new normal, we must be bold and work together to bring about the change needed to build a better future that delivers more for our citizens, socially and economically, delivering cleaner, greener and healthier communities.”