Improving transport connections and building connectivity is vital, and I want to look at getting our infrastructure right: Chris Hazzard
Chris McCullough investigates plans for new roads and other department projects with the new Minister for Infrastructure, Chris Hazzard
Q. Can you introduce yourself and explain your route into politics and how you ended up as Minister for Infrastructure?
A. I've always had an interest in politics and enjoyed getting involved with my local community, and I remain an active member of the GAA locally. I joined Sinn Fein while at school and was completing my PhD at Queen's when the party asked me to take up the Assembly seat in South Down. I've been very proud to represent the region since 2012 and, at the time, I was the youngest MLA serving in the Assembly. To be part of the new Ministerial team as Infrastructure Minister is a further privilege and, while it came as a bit of a surprise, I believe the decisions I am making will benefit local people today and down the line.
Q. You were appointed as the first Minister for Infrastructure back in May this year. How have you settled into the role?
A. A few weeks back I marked my 100th day in the job. I hope in the last few months I've demonstrated my commitment to deliver infrastructure projects that make a very real difference to people across the north, whether that's improving the state of our rural roads or kick-starting work on a long overdue scheme like the A6 that will benefit 18,000 commuters every day. Of course, being a Minister isn't without its challenges and the Brexit vote will almost certainly have an impact on my infrastructure projects in particular, but I'm determined to meet those challenges and do what I can during the next five years to make a lasting difference for people here.
Q. The scope of the Department for Infrastructure is very wide and varied, covering everything from planning to flooding to the road network in Northern Ireland. What have your priorities been since you started the job?
A. The sustainability and growth of our economy means having in place infrastructure that meets the needs of our people and our economy whilst protecting the environment.
The economy here and indeed, across the whole island, cannot grow if the infrastructure is not in place to support it. Improving transport connections and building connectivity is vital and I want to look at getting our infrastructure right for the next 20-30 years.
To that end, I have prioritised areas where there has been a long standing imbalance. Projects like the A5 and A6 are critical to building connectivity and unlocking economic potential and are long overdue and I look forward to helping cut the first sod when work begins on the A6.
Of course, issues like grass cutting and street lighting are the things that affect us every day and as an MLA I'm very conscious of the issues that matter to both my constituents and everyone else as they go about their lives.
As Minister, I can now help to address those issues in a much more direct way. For example, I have secured additional funding for routine maintenance on the road network this year. I have stopped the installation of unnecessary water meters in new domestic properties and last month I announced a review of current taxi legislation.
I also oversee our public transport network. Projects like Belfast Rapid Transit, Translink's modernised ticketing system and the Derry Transport Hub, are the kinds of projects that make people think twice about leaving the car at home and travelling by bus or train. This is something I want to encourage and of course, the knock on effect could mean less congestion in our cities and a quicker journey time for those who are travelling by car.
Active travel is another area where I want to deliver lasting change. Cycling has really taken off in the last few years and I'm keen to build on that by providing a safe and enjoyable space for everyone to get on their bike and get active. Earlier this year I got involved in Bike to Work Week and I've also been out to see school children as they develop their proficiency in cycling. In the next few months I intend to launch a Greenways strategy for the region which could utilise miles of disused railway lines and help promote sustainable modes of transport. I hope this will allow even more people to get active.
Q. Several improvements to Northern Ireland's road network have been announced since you started. Can you outline the main ones and indicate where the money is coming from to fund these?
A. As I mentioned, I look forward to work beginning on the £160m A6 Randalstown to Castledawson scheme. The indicative allocation for the A6 route in the 2015 Budget Statement covering the period 2016/17 to 2020/21 is £258m. The 30km Derry to Dungiven scheme, which includes a bypass of Dungiven, is also well advanced in terms of development. Work is under way to determine the extent of this scheme that can be delivered within the 2015 Budget Statement allocations, with priority being given to commencing construction with a bypass of Dungiven and progressing westwards towards Drumahoe.
In June this year I earmarked £10m to the condition of rural roads. The programme will target around 1,000 rural roads, repairing many short lengths of road (20-50m) in particularly poor condition, together with a number of longer resurfacing schemes of around one kilometre.
Following June monitoring, I also allocated £5m to enhance routine maintenance services allowing for a second grass cut in all areas, the majority of potholes to be repaired, an additional gully clean in all urban areas and the repair of street lighting outages.
I have opened the new £35m Magherafelt Bypass scheme and next summer the £55m A26 Frosses Road dual carriageway should be complete.
The past year has also seen the completion of the £130m A8 Belfast to Larne and £50m A2 Shore Road dual carriageway schemes.
However, upkeep of our roads network is an ongoing issue and it is worth noting that every week £3m is invested on new and existing roads.
Q. Upgrading the road system from the Westlink onto the M2 has been talked about for a very long time. What is the current situation regarding these works and when are commuters likely to benefit from this upgrade?
A. Plans for the York Street Interchange scheme, where the Westlink, M2 and M3 converge, are well advanced; however, this was a project that could have attracted up to 40% EU funding.
Since the referendum vote and potential loss of this funding opportunity, there is a major challenge to find how this shortfall can be made up.
But these are the challenges we face as Ministers and I will be continuing my discussions with the Finance Minister and my other Executive colleagues to assess the full implications.
Q. Millions of pounds have already been spent on the proposed controversial A5 dual carriageway, but nothing has, as yet, been started there. Where are we on that one?
A. Like all major road schemes there is a process to follow and sometimes that can take longer than we would like. At present, a public inquiry is programmed for early October and the Planning Appeals Commission decides when the hearings close. Only after that finishes, can progress on the scheme continue. However, in infrastructure terms, there has long been a regional imbalance, so this is a scheme I am determined to progress and, like the A6, one I believe can unlock benefits for investment, trade and tourism, as well improving the commute for thousands of local people who have long awaited an improved road network.
Q. Just recently you announced the vesting order for the A6 dual carriageway between Randalstown and Castledawson would now go ahead. Have there been many objections to this?
A. The £160m investment to proceed with the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson Dualling Scheme is an announcement I was delighted to make. This section of the A6 currently carries around 18,000 vehicles per day and suffers congestion at peak times. The work is long overdue and local people will see a tangible benefit for their daily commute. I'm sure your readers are aware of recent media coverage about the scheme and the department has recently been notified of a potential legal challenge. What I would say is that any scheme of this size will inevitably have an impact on the landscape, but time is taken to consider the route and its impact, so the outcome for local people is minimised.
Q. Do you not consider the Westlink to M2 improvement as a higher priority than the A5 or the A6?
A. Addressing a long running infrastructure imbalance west of the Bann is an issue I have been clear I am determined to address. However, I do believe we have a balanced programme of schemes that will address the needs of all our people. Projects such as York Street Interchange, Belfast Rapid Transit and the Belfast Transport Hub could of course bring huge benefits, but the impact of Brexit cannot be set aside and to not take the time to consider properly how we move forward would be remiss of me.
Q. Your remit also includes road safety, flooding and our sea ports. Do you have any specific plans for increasing road safety awareness in the future, considering the high number of road fatalities on our roads, which is now at 50 so far this year?
A. Reducing deaths and serious injuries on our roads is of course a priority. A total of 50 people have lost their lives on our roads this year. This compares to 54 at the same time last year and 59 for 2014. My department uses a wide range of measures to improve road safety and in the coming weeks I will be announcing a number of successful Road Safety Grant Scheme projects which address key road safety issues at a local level. I am also taking steps to implement the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act (NI) 2016, which makes provision for a new drink driving regime and a new Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) Scheme.
Road safety is an area of the department I keep under keen review and will continue to do so. I would urge everyone to make road safety a priority - by slowing down, by always paying attention, reading the road and anticipating the actions of other road users, never driving having consumed drink or drugs, ignoring the mobile phone and always wearing your seatbelt, no matter how short the journey.
Q. Are there any major planning decisions on hold or in processing stage currently?
A. My department is responsible for the processing of regionally significant planning applications, which include applications for energy and transport infrastructure, mineral extraction, and major mixed-use regeneration projects. The projects, if approved, have the capacity to enhance and protect the environment and unlock further economic activity. There are a number of applications at various stages in the planning process, several of which are nearing conclusion. In order to respect the integrity of the planning process it would be inappropriate for me, as the final decision maker, to comment on the merits of any individual case in advance of the decision.
Q. Woodburn Forest has been featured in the media quite heavily in recent months regarding fracking by Infrastrata. The company was supposed to vacate the site by August 22 and leave it as it was prior to the works. Have you visited Woodburn Forest to see for yourself how the site looks?
A. Any breach of the deadline for remediation of the site under permitted development rights would be for Mid and East Antrim Council to investigate. However, I am responsible for planning policy and legislation and this case has raised issues around the sort of activity that can be undertaken under permitted development rights. I am, therefore, intending to consult on legislative change which will include the removal of permitted development rights for oil and gas exploration. My intention is to issue the public consultation by the end of this year.
Q. Has your department approved any other similar explorations for gas and oil in Northern Ireland?
A. My Department has not approved anything similar, and it is likely that any future such projects would be dealt with at the local council level.
Q. What is the current situation regarding the construction of car parking facilities within the Belfast Harbour area?
A. There are a number of new developments under construction or planned for the Belfast Harbour lands. My Department is a statutory consultee to the planning authority, which is Belfast City Council, and so the council will have the final say on the levels of parking to be provided by these developments.
What I can say is that my officials in Transport NI have been consulted on both these development proposals and their responses have indicated that parking provision should be in accordance with the prevailing development plan policies in the BMAP.
In addition, The Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan proposes a policy of managing parking demand to encourage a shift towards more environmentally friendly forms of transport.
It is therefore important that any planned development involving parking provision is appropriate for the extent of the development that it will serve and there is no over-provision that could encourage greater car use.
Q. Have you familiarised yourself with a flood risk plan for Northern Ireland, and a plan of action should heavy flooding affect householders and farmers?
A. Coming from a rural community, this was an area of the department I was keen to understand, and since taking up the post I am familiar with the Flood Risk Management Plans.
Work has been ongoing to learn lessons from any previous flooding incidents.
Plans are continually updated and practice exercises are carried out across the year, so if an incident does occur we are in a position to offer support to those who need it most as quickly as possible.
Q. Have you any major changes you wish to make to any policy within the grasp of your department, to make your own stamp on them, so to speak?
A. It is widely recognised that good infrastructure is critical for balanced economic growth, and this is why addressing the infrastructure deficit, particularly in the west, is a priority for me. Alongside that we need a focus on public transport and active travel.
While both of these will help to improve congestion on our roads, there are other benefits too.
Cycling and walking have a really positive impact on health and well-being. I am keen to develop the greenway network, providing more opportunities for people to get and stay active.
There is an all-Ireland aspect to Greenways, and similarly I hope to make progress on the Narrow Bridge project.