Belfast Telegraph

The A5 upgrade: more questions than answers

New roads should never come at the expense of our precious wetlands, says Chris Murphy

So far, more than 2,000 people have objected to the upgrading and re-routing of the A5. I know a few of them. They tell me they are only interested in sustainable living. What's so bad about that?

For my love of Lough Beg I, too, am now involved in a similarly controversial scheme, the re-routing of the A6 between Randalstown and Castledawson.

This scheme had already been approved at a public inquiry, where bodies such as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Friends of the Earth joined local residents in a bid to steer the A6's proposed new route away from the shores of Lough Beg - one of the finest wetlands in Europe.

Lough Beg is an unusually shallow lake, mostly less than two metres deep, situated in the upper reaches of the Lower Bann, north of Toome and east of Bellaghy.

I gather the objectors to the A5 - like those of us in the A6 camp - are not opposed to a key transport corridor being improved; rather, it is the scale of the improvement that is of concern.

I cannot speak for the A5 Alternative Alliance, but as chairman of the A6 camp, Lough Beg for Life, all we are seeking is a resolution that does no lasting harm to the environment, people's homes, or their communities

There's also the small matter of cost. Is upgrading the A5 really the best way to spend £850m, or the possibility of shaving a few minutes off the journey between Randalstown and Castledawson, £120-150m?

If the Executive and the Irish government want to tackle traffic congestion and reduce journey times, they need not look as far as Paris, Brussels or Mexico City. For a good snarl-up they should look at Enniskillen, Omagh, Strabane, Belfast and Dublin. This is where real congestion is, in our towns and cities - not along the A5, or the A6.

A better investment for all would be an improvement in public transport infrastructure, such as a modern rail network between Derry and Belfast and more buses to more villages.

Compared to 'A' roads in England, such as the incredibly busy, single-carriage A10 between Cambridge and King's Lynn, traffic along the A6 flows like a dream; in truth we don't have a problem.

There must be other ways to create employment than building roads.

The Ulster countryside is already more fragmented by roads than any other in the world.

As for the argument that roads lead to prosperity, the motorways that lead into the west are not proving much help to our nearest neighbours.

In spite of billions of pounds of investment in such new roads, Ireland presides over a broken economy, while Dublin remains the 6th most congested city in Europe.

Three decades ago, I was one of a handful of conservationists who tried to save the beautiful Blackwater Valley from becoming the last river in Europe to be subjected to a course of arterial drainage and canalisation.

There are similarities between the River Blackwater and the A5 and, to a lesser extent, the A6. Where the River Blackwater once meandered between Tyrone and Monaghan on its harmless way to Lough Neagh, it is now unnaturally deep and straight and the water runs so fast it has to have regular maintenance to minimise damage from downstream flooding.

Thirty years on, some of the more obvious results of the £30m that was spent draining the Blackwater and its tributaries is the loss of a fine, multi-arched bridge; majestic, overhanging trees, among whose roots otters made their holt; pristine spawning grounds, secluded kingfisher banks and rushy fields that were once home to Irish hares, lapwings, snipe and wild geese.

In the case of the A5, we hear the same old arguments about business and tourist routes, safety and journey time, that we have heard before from those who would have liked to have seen the M1 built through the middle of the Lagan Valley, or Belfast's southern approaches through the heart of Belvoir Park Forest. In these cases, public opinion was able to safeguard such precious assets. The Lagan Valley is now a seven-mile linear park and, together with Belvoir Park Forest, the very lungs of Belfast.

With an exploding world population and colossal demographic changes in Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe, this is not the time for irresponsible spending on roads.

The Executive, like every other government in Europe, is faced with making tough decisions on how to prioritise its spending. Members of the Executive must ask from where will come the billions more needed to pay for state pensions?

Who would put their name to building another road ahead of keeping open our hospitals? We should be planning for a carbon-free future and investing in environmental protection, along with our water, sewerage and electricity infrastructure. All of these essentials to life were badly neglected during the Troubles.

These are some of the areas in which, I think, a responsible government should target its spending - not the A5, or the A6 and certainly not at the expense of our heritage, our farmland or our communities.

Wetlands as globally important and as precious as Lough Beg, honoured by every environmental designation imaginable, should be out of sight and out of earshot of any new road.

It's that simple.

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