Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

We're on road to nowhere blaming the civil servants

Today marks a return to school for Northern Ireland's pupils and for motorists the relatively trouble-free drive to work during the summer is well and truly over.

Personally, I'll be back on the train, gliding past the car park that is the M1 from Sprucefield during the morning rush.

Others will choose to stay in their vehicles and trickle into the city frustrated and late.

The state of the country's road infrastructure came into sharp focus recently when the new motorway from Dublin reached Newry. There was lamentable hand-wringing and undisguised angst as people here looked enviously south and wondered what had gone wrong. Didn't we used to make jokes about 'their' roads, people asked.

The targets of much of the vitriol were the civil servants in Roads Service as pundits wondered if we were up to planning anything in the way of a roads network let alone an integrated transport infrastructure.

At this point let's get a couple of things straight. Firstly, Northern Ireland needs an integrated transport infrastructure and, secondly, such an infrastructure is fundamentally about ensuring the economy can move products, services and people around in order to grow.

However, the notion given that our roads mandarins don't know this or have somehow been sleeping on the job as their counter- parts in the south lay tarmac is quite pathetic.

Now, I'm not given on many occasions to defending the lot of our civil servants but this time we've got to wise up.

One only has to talk to Roads Service to realise there are a lot of dedicated people there who only want to do their best and to ensure we have what is needed to compete in a global economy.

Indeed it's easy to talk about civil servants disparagingly, like they are an alien race unconnected to society.

No-one in Roads Service is suggesting we build a mediocre roads network or miles of highway not fit for purpose. No-one in there is sitting on their backside contemplating their navels.

And while they may covet the budget of their colleagues south of the border and watch with professional interest the arguments over the M3 and the Hill of Tara, there are men and women in our Roads Service who want the best for Northern Ireland within the budget they are given and want more money, too.

And here is where they deserve a little more respect because the budgets they have simply won't deliver all that we need.

So while I think it might be wonderful to continue the M1 to Enniskillen, dual the entire A26 or extend the M2 to Londonderry it isn't going to happen under present budgetary constraints.

The budget alone for keeping our roads in proper repair is massive. How much more do people honestly think we need to have the roads we believe we deserve when there are other priority spending needs?

You see, we can't have it all. Tough decisions have to be made. So there is no point looking jealously south and wondering where it all went wrong for us.

Let's focus on what we need to do here, decide on our priorities and get on with it.



Carlton Baxter is managing director of Carlton Baxter Communications and a former editor of Ulster Business magazine.

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