Ministers urged to spend £250m infrastructure money on motorway project
Stormont ministers have been urged to use the Chancellor's £250 million infrastructure boost to deliver an under-threat motorway link across the region's busiest traffic bottleneck.
Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard has warned that a question mark hangs over the long awaited £130 million York Street interchange project in Belfast due to a potential loss of key European funding as a consequence of Brexit.
The interchange would allow for the non-stop flow of traffic between the Westlink, M2 and M3 with the construction of a new bridge and associated underpasses.
In the autumn statement, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced extra capital funds for the devolved administrations, with Northern Ireland to receive an additional £250 million over four years.
With the Stormont Executive able to decide where to spend the cash, the announcement was met by calls from business organisations to proceed with the York Street build.
It was originally envisaged that around 40% of the construction costs would be sourced from the European Union. However, Mr Hazzard has claimed the UK's vote to leave the EU has cast serious doubt over that money.
While the Treasury has vowed to cover any EU funding shortfalls for projects signed off before Brexit, the next round of funding applications relevant to the York Street project does not open until 2018, so there is uncertainty whether it would be rubber-stamped before the UK exits the Union.
Ann McGregor, chief executive of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the Autumn Statement money should be used to deliver the project.
"One of the key infrastructure projects in which investment must be made is the York Street Interchange," she said.
"Road schemes such as this will do much to ease congestion on heavily trafficked roads in the region which will help businesses to move products and goods more efficiently and in the process reduce costs."
The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) echoed the call.
Chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "NIIRTA welcomes the additional £250 million for investment in our infrastructure and would urge the Executive to make the York Street Interchange a top priority for funding."
Stormont's budget for next year is set to be announced in December.
Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir said the Chancellor had responded to demands from the devolved administrations for a capital stimulus.
However, he said the statement also represented the UK Government's continuing commitment to a "self-defeating austerity agenda".
"I am glad that the Chancellor has listened to calls from the Devolved Administration Finance Ministers, who together represent 10 million people, to provide a capital stimulus," said Mr O Muilleoir.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire said: "I strongly welcome the Chancellor's Autumn Statement today which takes forward this Government's commitment to build an economy that works for everyone, in Northern Ireland and the whole of our United Kingdom.
"Northern Ireland will benefit from over £250 million infrastructure capital funding which will enable the Executive to invest in key infrastructure projects to support future growth."
Mr Hammond also confirmed the UK-wide rate of corporation tax will fall to 17% by 2020.
That move will have implications for the Stormont Executive's economic flagship policy of reducing its devolved tax rate on business profits to 12.5% by 2018.
Mr O Muilleoir said: "The Executive supports a corporation tax rate of 12.5% to encourage business growth and create tens of thousands of jobs.
"Now we have clarity on the British Government's plans, we can move into intensive negotiations on the practical outworkings of this derogation."