‘Levelling up’ is the new buzz phrase in British politics, but what are the major projects in Northern Ireland that would truly make a difference to people’s lives? Garrett Hargan reports
Change in health and social care can often prove difficult and controversial and politicians have been criticised for being parochial by shirking tough decisions.
Yesterday a health budget was announced of £21bn over the next three years. Dr Tom Black, chair of BMA’s Northern Ireland Council, said he would urge that any agreed budget allocation for the Department of Health is used to prioritise the transformation of health and social care services.
That includes: a fully-financed workforce planning strategy to support the restart of elective care and drive down our appalling waiting lists; the extension of multi-disciplinary teams throughout the rest of the country which are vital to the survival of general practice, and reforming the current pension taxation system that imposes unfair financial penalties on doctors working extra shifts to cover staffing gaps and drive down waiting lists.
Recommendations in the Bengoa report have to be implemented. The three-year political vacuum here exacerbated chronic problems in taking difficult decisions.
Professor Rafael Bengoa has said that in the face of increased specialisation and ever rising demand, it is not practical or desirable to try to deliver specialist services everywhere.
Areas such as the Western Trust have faced long-term issues with filling vacancies for specialist staff. Bengoa says that for some specialist hospital treatments, it’s necessary to consolidate provision in regional centres of excellence.
At the same time, there are many services that will be decentralised — provided closer to people’s homes, in the likes of GP centres rather than in hospitals.
Northern Ireland has the highest prevalence of mental health problems in the UK, with a 25% higher overall prevalence of mental health problems than England. Mental health alone requires £1.2bn worth of funding and a 10-year strategy has recommended taking a regional approach to mental health services.
People in Londonderry have been campaigning for a full-sized university since the birth of the NI Civil Rights movement in 1968.
A renewed commitment was made to deliver 10,000 students in New Decade, New Approach. However, numbers at the Magee campus have dropped from 5,098 in 2015 to the latest available figures in 2020 of 4,237 — of which 3,456 are full-time places.
Civil Rights veteran, Eamonn McCann said if “levelling up” is to make a real difference in the North West it must mean “new money to fix age-old problems”.
He continued: “We don’t need vague promises about ‘development’, but concrete decisions, on rail and university expansion, for example.
“It’s far, far too long since the university and rail expansion were put on the agenda by grass-roots pressure. The target of 10,000 students is very far from being fulfilled. If that can be done through Magee, so be it. If not, a new North West university must be made a practical proposition.”
Garbhan Downey of the Derry University Group (DUG) said a new cross-border university would redress the “systemic neglect” of the region and would mitigate against the impact of Brexit. “It would also end the artificial separation between Derry and Donegal, which has damaged both economies. In real terms today, there should be no more division between our two neighbouring counties than there is between Antrim and Down.”
The DUG said that while Belfast’s economy has grown by 14% since the Good Friday Agreement, Derry’s has contracted by 7%.
He added: “In a comparison study, the research also showed the economy of Lincoln in the East Midlands of England has grown 25% since the creation of a university there in 2000.”
The most important projects — as stated by the Executive — are the A5 and A6 dualling schemes. The A6 is made up of two schemes, one of which, Randalstown to Castledawson, is done and one of which, Derry to Dungiven, will be finished in 2022.
Roads expert Wesley Johnston said: “Within the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) there is a strong ambition to upgrade York Street Interchange in Belfast, but it has no funding and in any case the Minister is lukewarm on the scheme and shifting public option may require the project to be reconsidered, or at least re-designed to be more sympathetic to the inner urban setting.
“There is also a plan to extend Glider to north and south Belfast.”
He added: “In terms of other road schemes, the focus needs to be on safety improvements and bypasses to bottlenecks. In terms of safety, the priority is the A1 from Hillsborough to Loughbrickland which will hopefully go ahead in the next few years.”
He also referenced the bridge at Narrow Water which is to be part-funded by Dublin and of which the Minister is a firm supporter.
Steve Bradley from rail lobby group Into The West believes the most impactful rail project that could be rolled out is expansion from Derry-Portadown. He says it is in areas such as Derry and Strabane where better infrastructure would improve outcomes.
In areas of high deprivation, limited connectivity can worsen deprivation by reducing affordable access to employment, education and healthcare. Those lacking the resources and transport options required for mobility become deprived from interacting with the whole extent of opportunities offered by society, according to a UK Government connectivity review published this year.
Mr Bradley said: "Derry-Strabane, Derry-Letterkenny and Portadown-Armagh are three specific projects that should be the Minister’s rail opening priorities.
"Followed by continuing the line from Strabane through to Omagh, Dungannon and Portadown. That would give the West and Donegal a direct rail route to Dublin and end half a century of rail isolation for Tyrone.”
“What a Christmas gift it would be for the people of Northern Ireland to roll out an ambitious programme of railways, greenways and new urban cycle paths,” said James Orr from Friends of the Earth. “On my list would be a greenway all along the coast of Northern Ireland.”
He added: “New fossil fuel infrastructure is awful for the planet and in financial terms they will be stranded assets. Rolling out the gas network and the gas caverns at Larne is sheer lunacy in climate emergency. Lets insulate people’s homes, provide smart grids and heat pumps and turn every roof on a public building into a solar roof.
“A Green New Deal for Northern should start with a major programme of tackling fuel poverty with a mass home energy efficiency programme starting with those who are most in need.”
This week the Belfast Telegraph revealed that seven million tonnes of waste is dumped into NI’s rivers and seas every year. NI Water requires investment of around £2bn in water and wastewater services over a six year period which would go some way towards addressing those spillages.
Mr Orr suggested: “We can green these projects by using natural wetlands. Plants like reeds and trees such as willow look beautiful, create homes for wildlife and also treat sewage. By taking an ecological approach rather than a hard engineering approach we can save money in the long term as they are much cheaper to run.”
Casement Park is a long-running saga and a stadium which if completed would be a major boost for the GAA community. However, local residents have lodged a challenge to the 34,578-seat project which First Minister Paul Givan said could cost more than £140m.
Football stadia throughout the country is also in need of upgrading. In line with the Irish Football Association’s 2011 Facility Strategy, the Stormont Executive had committed £36.2m to the development of football stadia after the completion of Windsor Park.
The Oval was set to receive a £10m investment. A second strand of £17m was made available to other Irish Premiership clubs who were capable of hosting fixtures with a 5,000 capacity.
The DfC Minster is actively considering the outcomes of a re-engagement exercise undertaken in relation to the programme. No funding has been awarded to date.
Aaron Vennard, NI and Portadown supporter, set up a Twitter page focusing on NI football grounds years ago. In his view, the funding is insufficient but he believes Glentoran, Carrick and Coleraine’s grounds should be prioritised.
“If it’s going to be a ‘regional fund’ then we need to look immediately to the West and to South Down,” he said.
“Ideally the funding would be so large that we could develop an Iceland-esque plan for football that would tackle not just immediate stadium concerns but grassroots and youth training: regional stadia development, 20 indoor dome pitches, 100 outdoor pitches, 2,000 UEFA A coaches, 500 referees and a national football centre.
“Casement Park absolutely should be rebuilt. If the Assembly has to cover the cost, then so be it, but I’d hope that there would be a provision for the stadium to be used for non-GAA sports.”
The Covid pandemic has emphasised the need for improved broadband infrastructure as growing numbers of people work from home and businesses offer digital services.
Project Stratum, the £165m Department for the Economy (DfE) run project was celebrated as NI’s largest publicly funded investment in broadband infrastructure.
However, the roll-out has run in to problems including those in Enniskillen where residents whose internet connection is slow said they have been excluded.
Disconnected rural areas are supposed to benefit most. Over 15,000 premises now have access to gigabit capable full fibre broadband which means they can enjoy speeds of up to 1Gbps.
DfE plans to accelerate the roll out of the project to enable connectivity to 76,233 premises by March 2024.
Anyone who lives in an area where a broadband service with a speed of 30Mbps is already available or expected to become available soon is excluded from the scheme.