Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Why this road is taking us all in the wrong direction

MLA Steven Agnew believes public transport is the answer

So upgrading two sections of the A5 will create "as many as 800 jobs"? Maybe. Tuesday's announcement that the project had been given the go-ahead offered no indication of how the figure had been arrived at.

You don't need a gold medal in cynicism to suspect that officials at the Department of Regional Development had hit on 800 as the largest number they thought could be presented with any degree of plausibility.

Not that responsibility can be loaded onto the shoulders of civil servants. They have been under pressure for years to produce a rationale for a scheme that senior officials didn't believe in.

Much of the pressure has come from Sinn Fein, for whom the upgrade is a vanity project and a sop to supporters eager for evidence that the "all-Ireland agenda" remains, well, on the agenda.

The intention is to build two separate stretches of dual-carriageway, between Newbuildings and Strabane and Omagh and Ballygawley, at an estimated cost of £330m. This falls far short of the original £800m plan to link a new Derry-Aughnacloy road with an upgraded N2 from Dublin.

The all-Ireland plan emerged from the October 2006 St Andrews talks on the restoration of the Stormont institutions and devolution of policing and justice as a sweetener for nationalists who might be perturbed at the embrace of Six County law-and-order. Some in the DUP were less than enthusiastic, but the party chose not to make an issue out of it.

Party politicking apart, the road represents 'development', it is said. Any estimated 800 jobs is not to be sniffed at. But if economic development and jobs are at the heart of the matter, there are better ways to spend a third of a billion.

In a report in 2009 entitled Addressing the Economic Downturn: The Case For Increased Investment In Social Housing, University of Ulster economist Mike Smyth concluded that: building houses creates more jobs than other forms of capital investment - including investment in roads; that for every 10 jobs created by building social housing, seven additional jobs will be created, or sustained, in the wider economy; that investment in social housing counters deprivation and fuel poverty, taking pressure off budgets for health and education; and that more social housing automatically reduces housing stress and homelessness.

But that sort of fact-based, peer-reviewed argument counts for little when it comes to the Stormont divvy-up.

The assumption in many commentaries over the past couple of days that the planned road will make the North West, in particular, more accessible is, at best, only partially true.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's report Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion showed that a quarter (26%) of households in the north do not have access to a car.

In Derry, only 38% of households have access to a car. More than half of lone parent families and two-thirds of single pensioners do not have a car.

For this class of citizen, the effect of the proposed upgrade will be a relative decline in accessibility. These negative effects could be alleviated by an increased emphasis on public transport. But there's no sign of that.

Translink chief executive Catherine Mason took some stick from MLAs yesterday for fulfilling a family commitment when they wanted to question her about a proposed rise for train drivers which would bring their wages closer to the pay-rate of many people employed in less-skilled, onerous, or responsible positions - MLAs, for example.

The dust kicked up over this by DRD committee chairman Jimmy Spratt and others shouldn't be allowed to obscure the most relevant facts of the matter - that Translink receives the lowest level of Government subsidy for public transport of any region of the UK, or the Republic, and that public transport here faces further drastic cutbacks.

Commenting on the 3% fares increase just announced, Green Party MLA Steven Agnew said last week: "Responsibility lies with DRD minister Danny Kennedy and his Executive colleagues who have failed to make public transport a priority in either the Programme for Government, or the Budget. The balance is wrong - we currently spend less than 20% on public transport and over 80% on roads ... With the spiralling cost of petrol, people need an alternative to get around."

Of course, Agnew is part of neither the unionist nor the nationalist bloc. His views are not weighed in the Stormont balance.

The case for the A5 project consists of a series of mantras to do with 'development', endlessly repeated by MLAs. They will eventually run out of road.

Of course, they may have the country ruined by then. But neither community will be worse off amid the ruins than the other. So that will be all right, then.

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