There are between 1,200 and 3,500 unadopted roads in Northern Ireland, meaning that there has been no progress on a 2012 enquiry which found a similar number of roads to be unadopted in the region.
According to the Department for Infrastructure: “An unadopted road is one where a street planning function has been exercised, a bond has been placed under the Private Streets (NI) Order 1980 and the Department is not satisfied that the street has been sewered, levelled, paved, channelled, made good and lighted.”
The process of adoption involves the Department for Infrastructure acquiring the road from its previous private owner, although in practice the Department has been reluctant to adopt roads owing to the cost implications of bringing the road to an acceptable standard, and in practice require roads to be of a certain standard and have a high enough level of existing infrastructure to minimise costs to the public purse prior to commencing adoption.
A further problem exists in that ownership records can be lost over the course of time, particularly with old roads, thus throwing into question who the DfI is purchasing the road from.
Owners of properties adjacent or attached to unadopted roads can find themselves vulnerable to a range of factors and, unlike those living on properties adjacent to adopted roads, are not able to get support from the Department for Infrastructure.
This scenario often results in difficulties selling such properties, as prospective purchasers cannot obtain a mortgage to buy the property. Lenders are reluctant to lend money for the purchase of a property in these circumstances which can result in property owners being unable to sell their property, potentially having to reduce the sale price and often limits them to selling to cash buyers.
In 2012, the Assembly’s Regional Development Committee carried out an inquiry on unadopted roads and sewage systems in Northern Ireland, reporting there are between 1,200 and 3,500 unadopted roads, and around 1,200 unadopted sewage systems in Northern Ireland. The inquiry further found that it would cost approximately £300 million to bring these roads up to a standard sufficient to allow for adoption.
The Committee for Infrastructure, in its 2017-2022 term report prior to the denoument of the Assembly for the 2022 election, stated that “the recommendations made in the 2012 report are yet to be fully considered”.
In response to a question from Alex Easton MLA in October 2022, then-Minister for Infrastructure John O’Dowd MLA explained the process for the adoption of roads.
“New roads are normally adopted by the Department for Infrastructure under Article 8 of the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980. This process involves the department first determining the street for adoption under Article 3, as part of the planning process.”
He continued: “Prior to development commencing, the developer is required under Article 32 to enter into an agreement with my department. Once the developer joins the street to a public road and constructs it to an adoptable standard in conformity with the determination, my department may issue a preliminary certificate.
“Following a one-year maintenance period, during which time the developer is responsible for making good any defects, my department may then issue a further certificate and the street is then adopted.”
The reasons for the lack of action following an inquiry which took place more than a decade ago are unclear, and cannot be fully explained by the lack of a functioning Executive, with the Executive having been active for six of the years between 2012 and 2023, and being functional for parts of the years 2017 and 2020. With no further action possible until a new Executive is formed, it is likely that the shortage of road adoption will continue.