Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 18 December 2000 (continued)
The Deputy First Minister:
As part of the commitment in the Programme for Government to develop a race equality strategy for the Administration, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is committed to ensuring targeted support for ethnic minority voluntary organisations. In view of its important work in supporting people from ethnic minority backgrounds, the draft Budget statement includes £300,000 for funding for ethnic minority voluntary organisations in 2001-02. This is to include £250,000 for the core funding for organisations operating throughout Northern Ireland, and it will provide salaries and associated costs. The remaining £50,000 will be used for innovative, time-limited projects in line with our stated priorities. As with core funding, it will be provided as part of the new cross- departmental policy on race equality, which was announced in the draft Programme for Government.
I welcome the Deputy First Minister's comments, including the commitment in the Programme for Government to protect ethnic minorities. Will he expand on funding and where it will be distributed?
The Deputy First Minister:
The Programme for Government referred to the development of a race equality policy in a three-year strategic framework and to a linguistic diversity policy to include ethnic minority languages along with Irish, Ulster-Scots, and British and Irish sign languages.
We should ponder this point because, too often, we apply the term ethnicity to our problems when we should be examining the respect that we have for people across the entire community, regardless of their race, the colour of their skin, their language or their beliefs. We must attend to, as has been done in the Programme for Government, the needs of travellers, their children and the children of other ethnic minorities. The creation of a social inclusion community regeneration fund will cover initiatives to build community relations and cultural diversity. The Single Equality Bill, which is to be introduced in 2002, will bring together all the existing anti-discrimination laws and will take account of recent developments on racial discrimination in Europe.
I appreciate that it is primarily the duty of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to protect ethnic minorities, such as the large Chinese and Indian communities in my constituency of South Belfast, from race crime. Will the Deputy First Minister outline the actions that the Executive Committee are taking in their sphere of competence to rid society of this odious form of sectarian hatred?
The Deputy First Minister:
I shall not reiterate the elements included in the Programme for Government. Every attack on ethnic minorities here has revolted the entire community - there is no place in this society or in the society that we want to create for that type of racial hatred. Everybody in this community - police, laymen who are not involved in security, politicians and all leaders - should make it clear to those attackers that there is no place for them here. That is not the type of society that we want to create. It is therefore our duty in what we say and do to oppose intolerance. Intolerance leads to racism; we have all witnessed that, especially in the Assemblyman's constituency.
asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail the progress of the promoting social inclusion working group on Travellers.
The First Minister:
The promoting social inclusion (PSI) working group has provided a report containing detailed recommendations on Travellers' accommodation, health, education and training. The Executive have agreed that the report should be published. It is now being printed. It will be issued on 22 December and made available through libraries and on the Internet. There will be four months' consultation, ending on 30 April 2001. Ministers will consider all the recommendations of the working group carefully, together with the views expressed in the consultation process before making their proposals.
Why has there been such a delay in publishing the PSI working group's report on Travellers?
The First Minister:
The Department for Social Development sent the report to our office in September and asked us to publish it for consultation. The report's recommendations referred to various Departments, agencies and public bodies. After internal consideration on consultation, we sought Executive agreement. Through its report, the working group has voiced its suggestions for measures to improve the lives of travellers, and we have not changed the contents of the report in any way.
asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail what liaison has taken place or has been planned with representatives of Northern Ireland's Fire Service since 27 November 2000.
The Deputy First Minister:
As this is probably my last question for this year, for my part and on behalf of the First Minister I wish all Assembly personnel a very happy and peaceful Christmas.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety's statement in the Assembly on 27 November informed us that the Executive Committee have decided that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should investigate whether the state award for firefighters would be achievable or appropriate. Arrangements are being made for officials from our Departments to meet representatives of the Fire Service, the Fire Brigades Union and the Fire Services (Past Members) Northern Ireland Association to discuss this matter.
Following the Deputy First Minister's festive remarks there is no opportunity for a supplementary question to the Member's good question.
Much as I appreciate the Deputy First Minister's Christmas greetings, they have denied me my supplementary question.
Order. With regard to those somewhat unfestive remarks, there would still have been no time for an answer.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Why, Mr Speaker, is that the practice here? In Westminster - to which you often refer us - a full answer is given once a question has been asked, even if it is after the time.
Dr Paisley will be aware that a full answer was given. It was the supplementary question that was not permitted. I did not bring the Deputy First Minister, the question or his answer to an untimely end; I did not permit a supplementary question.
The Deputy First Minister:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker - and I thank you for your indulgence. I apologise to the Assemblyman - indeed, to the entire Assembly - if wishing a happy and peaceful Christmas has caused offence.
Time for questions to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has truly passed.
Before calling the first questioner, I should inform the Assembly that question 2 in the name of Mr Edwin Poots has been transferred to the Department of the Environment. Mr Poots will receive a written response from that Department. Similarly, question 12 in the name of Ms Lewsley has been transferred to the Department of the Environment, from which the Member will receive a written response.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
Street Lighting Division: Location
asked the Minister for Regional Development what steps he is taking to ensure that Consultant and Design street lighting division will not be relocated from the Roads Service in Downpatrick to a section office at Benson Street, Lisburn; and if he will make a statement.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):
The Roads Service recently carried out a review of its street lighting function. The review's recommendations, which involve the relocation of a small number of posts, are being considered in consultation with the trades unions, and a decision is not expected before the new year.
I am constantly looking at ways of making the Department more efficient and of improving our service to the public, and in some cases this may involve moving staff between offices.
The Minister must be unaware of the decision communicated by his predecessor in a letter to me dated 29 March 1999. That letter said that Rathkeltair House in Downpatrick would become the headquarters of the Roads Service consultancy, which will have responsibility for engineering design and contract supervision throughout Northern Ireland.
This happened when disciplines in the Roads Service were restructured. Jobs had been taken out of Downpatrick Division at that time, and the panacea was the creation and maintenance of the consultancy and engineering works in Downpatrick. Are we now engaged - and I hope not - in the further centralising of Government services?
I take it that the Member was referring to a predecessor of mine who took the decision.
The Roads Service is committed to carrying out best- value reviews and to constantly improving its services so that it is effective and gives value for money. Such reviews and improvements may, from time to time, conclude that services could be organised to serve the public better. However, the thrust of the Member's response is in no way to be incorporated in the review that is under way, and the conclusions of which will be announced in the new year.
Former Newtownards-Belfast Railway Line
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail the state of repair of the trackbed of the former Newtownards to Belfast via Comber railway line and to confirm if there are plans to reinstate a rail link on it.
Close to Belfast city centre, the former railway line now has other uses, and at Comber it forms part of the Comber bypass. However, a railway line could be reinstated on much of the remaining alignment without major acquisition of property. With the exception of the section from the Holywood Arches to Dundonald, no details are available on the state of repair of the remaining trackbed.
Translink has plans to provide a guided busway, known as the E-way, along the section from the Holywood Arches to Dundonald, but it has no plans to reinstate a railway on any part of the route. The costs of doing so would be significant. The cost of relaying existing track on the Belfast to Bangor line is approximately £1 million per mile; the cost of reinstating a line could be several million pounds per mile.
The regional development strategy states that Ards Borough Council has volunteered for an additional 7,000 houses to be built in its area in the next 10 to 15 years. Given the congestion in traffic coming from Newtownards and Comber and the additional 7,000 houses, surely serious thought should be given to a proper commuter system for that area.
I accept the Member's comments about the possibility of an additional 7,000 houses in the area. That reinforces the need for the E-way or something similar. I am aware of the considerable increase in the volume of traffic on that route and I hope that the regional transportation strategy, which will be published next year, will tackle its problems and the problems of all the other commuter lines in Northern Ireland.
asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline his proposals to make street lighting available to rural settlements.
The Roads Service is carrying out a review of its policy for providing rural lighting. The review is scheduled for completion in April 2001. Street lighting in rural areas is provided where there is a minimum density of 10 properties on 200 metres of road or when night-time accident statistics have shown that lighting would help to reduce the number of accidents.
Does the Minister agree - indeed I know he agrees - that rural settlements often fall marginally short of the criteria? Does he encourage his Department to be more flexible with the criteria so that those rural settlements can have street lighting?
The Member suggests that I agree, and I do. Looking through the briefing notes, I see that a Member for East Londonderry, Mr Gregory Campbell, asked a question on rural lighting of a former Minister. I do agree and I eagerly await the outcome of the review. A recent study of the Road Service's policy evaluation programme accepted that the present policy for providing street lighting in rural areas helped to reduce adverse impact on the rural environment. However, the study did recommend a policy review to look at consistency of approach and customer dissatisfaction. Until that review is completed, I cannot comment further, but as soon as it is completed the House will be informed.
I thank the Minister for his answer and for his sympathy on the matter. He will be aware that the qualifying number of properties rose before the Assembly was established. Is the Minister considering lowering the number of properties required on 200 metres of road to what it was before?
My instinctive answer is an unequivocal "Yes". However, that could pre-empt the outcome of the review. I prefer to answer that when the review has been completed and is available to Members. Then I, like Mr Hussey, will have several points to raise, and the number of dwellings required on a road shall certainly be one of them.
Railway Task Force/Westlink
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail the cost to his Department of (a) the railway task force and (b) the assessment of proposals to widen the Westlink.
The cost of the secretariat for the railways task force was £88,657; a further £115,391 was incurred in consultants' fees to facilitate the consultation exercise. In assessing proposals for the M1 Westlink scheme, the Roads Service incurred consultants' costs of £294,000 for preparing environmental statements and preliminary design, et cetera, and consultants' costs of £344,000 for preparing for and holding public inquiries.
I am sure that if the Minister consults his notes he will not mind being reminded of the efforts made when the northern rail corridor group met the former Minister for Regional Development. The group was ably represented by, among others, a Derry city councillor called Gregory Campbell. Why therefore has his Department spent so much money on a rail report that has examined in detail proposals for closure or massive cutbacks but which has failed to look in any detail at options for enhancement? These include increased freight use and retaining the Antrim to Lisburn line with its service to the international airport; they are particularly important given that at least one rail line is threatened with closure. Will he tell us what he can do to ensure that we build on that report and do not waste the money?
I thank the Member for his comments about previous representations. I have noted them. The railways task force was established under direct rule by Adam Ingram. The task force report presented me with several options. There has been a generally supportive response to building on the consolidation option described in the report. I hope and expect that we build on that option in future.
We shall not stop at merely retaining existing railway lines in Northern Ireland. It is worth repeating that six months ago we were facing the potential closure of Northern Ireland Railways; now we are contemplating consolidation and enhancement. That is a vast improvement.
The Minister said that he has spent £344,000 on a public inquiry into the widening of the Westlink and the slip roads at Blacks Road. I ask the Minister to assure us that his decision will not be cost-driven now that the public inquiry has been completed. I ask him to consider the damage to the health of young children at St Anne's Primary School if option one on the slip roads to Blacks Road is implemented.
I do not want to make any detailed comment until I receive the inspector's report from the public inquiry. I am committed to having a modern, sustainable and safe transport system that benefits society, the economy and the environment and that actively contributes to social inclusion and to the quality of life of everyone in Northern Ireland.
Mr K Robinson:
Will the Minister assure the House that when he is assessing the cost of the railways task force and the proposal to widen the Westlink, he will seek to avoid a fiasco like that surrounding the attempt to open Mossley West station, which involves his Department, the roads and planning services and Northern Ireland Railways?
Although I was happy to answer the original question I should point out that a comparison between the cost of the railways task force and the assessment of proposals to widen the Westlink ought not to be made. They cannot be compared, as one can see from the costings. Nonetheless, the issue raised by Mr Ken Robinson is important and must be accepted. We are examining it and we hope to reach a speedy conclusion so that more people can use that commuter line.
Safeway Development (Bangor)
asked the Minister for Regional Development if he will outline the Roads Service assessment of the proposed Safeway development in Bangor town centre.
The assessment of this proposed development by my Department's Roads Service has included evaluations of the potential impact on the local road network, the adequacy of the proposed parking provision and servicing arrangements and the site's accessibility to public transport.
The Roads Service has not yet been able to recommend approval of this planning application to the Department of the Environment's Planning Service, as several traffic- related issues have not been adequately dealt with by the applicant. Further information on these issues was received by the Roads Service on 11 December from consultants acting on behalf of the applicant, and this is being assessed.
Will the Department jeopardise a major town centre regeneration project over a dispute about the number of parking spaces, especially as some out-of-town centres have fewer spaces than are being asked of Safeway in Bangor? Does he agree that, with so much controversy about out-of-town shopping centres, it is incumbent on the Roads Service to do all that it can to help town centre shopping developments?
The outstanding issues that the applicant must deal with are the effect that development traffic will have on the Castle Street/Castle Park Avenue signalised junction and the Abbey Street/Dufferin Avenue roundabout, and the provision of adequate parking and public transport measures. The provision of the latter would mitigate the effects of inadequate parking and enhance the site's accessibility.
In summary, the Roads Service has been pressing the applicant to provide necessary information on several matters, including the provision of adequate parking, before it responds formally to the Department of the Environment's Planning Service about the application. As I said in my initial reply, we received further information on 11 December. When it has been assessed, we shall respond to the applicant.
Pedestrian and Cycleways
asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline his Department's policy on adopting pedestrian and cycleways paid for by public money.
The funding available to my Department's Roads Service for road maintenance is limited. Resources must be prioritised to maintain the important road, transport and pedestrian routes in Northern Ireland. For this reason the Roads Service will adopt pedestrian and cycleways where they offer considerable transport benefits - for example, where they are useful additions to the public road network or where they encourage commuters to use alternative means of transport to the private car.
Does the Minister agree that the Department for Regional Development's narrow interpretation of the benefits and its failure formally to adopt publicly funded pedestrian and cycleways demonstrate serious flaws in efficient and effective government? Does he acknowledge that by refusing to co-operate formally in scheme implementation, the Department undermines these special projects designed to bring about a better environment and benefit all our people? The Lough Neagh cycleway is a prime example.
As I said earlier, the budget is not sufficient to maintain all pedestrian and cycle routes in Northern Ireland - we must prioritise. That has meant looking at the routes which will be most heavily used. However, I understand the hon Member's concern about the money being spent on the route in his area. I undertake to re-examine the route that he has brought to my attention.
I return to a topic that I have often raised - the under- resourcing of a part of my Department. It is impossible for money to be spent on every avenue of every district of every constituency. My resources are finite.
"Home Zones" (Residential Streets)
asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline his plans to implement "home zones" in residential streets.
"Home zones" are an extension of traffic calming. They seek to reduce vehicle speeds to below 10 miles per hour and in effect to extend community living space to encompass part of the road.
My Department acknowledges "home zones" as an innovative approach to tackling social and road safety issues in residential streets. There is, however, a need to pilot the concept, and a scheme promoted by the Belfast Regeneration Office is proposed for the New Lodge area of Belfast. An evaluation of its outcome, and a small number of pilot schemes in Great Britain, will be used to inform future decisions on the implementation of other projects.
I want to accelerate action to increase traffic calming in residential areas. I propose to initiate up to 10 pilot schemes across Northern Ireland that will give local communities a greater role in agreeing what measures are appropriate in their areas. The outcome of these pilot schemes will inform our long-term approach to this very important matter.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply and welcome that news. How were the 10 pilot schemes arrived at? Was an appraisal done to identify the areas involved?
The 10 areas have not yet been selected, but they are in the process of being so. They will be selected from the schemes that have already been prioritised. I have raised the matter in my Department because there has been a huge increase in the number of applications for traffic-calming measures in Northern Ireland, as the hon Member and others will know. In the Eastern Board area alone there are about 200 applications a year. To expedite matters, I have asked my Department to select the 10 pilot schemes from the schemes that have already been prioritised. There will be no question of queue-jumping. They will be taken from the top of the list of prioritised schemes. They will be undertaken across Northern Ireland to see if there are measures that can be implemented more quickly and more appropriately to meet local needs.
Traffic Congestion (East Antrim):
asked the Minister for Regional Development if he is aware of the traffic congestion in East Antrim and of the growing demand from communities for park-and-ride facilities and if he plans to develop further park-and-ride facilities at Whitehead, Trooperslane or Greenisland stations.
I propose to tackle this growing problem in East Antrim, and elsewhere, by pursuing an integrated transportation strategy that will make the best use of the existing road network and that will develop and encourage the use of alternative modes of transport.
I expect that park-and-ride facilities will play an increasingly important role in future transportation strategy. Translink plans to expand the number of park-and-ride spaces at Whitehead from 20 to 29. As the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company and Translink will not have enough money to proceed with all worthwhile projects, they will have to decide whether an expansion of parking facilities at Whitehead is important enough to justify the necessary expenditure.
At present, Translink has no plans to develop park-and- ride facilities at Trooperslane or Greenisland. However, it is well aware of the value of such facilities in encouraging car drivers to switch to rail. When the track has been refurbished and new rolling stock provided, I am sure that it will wish to give serious consideration to more parking facilities at stations.
Does the Minister accept that there has been considerable success in developing park-and-ride facilities at Carrickfergus central station, which is operating virtually at full capacity? In developing future park-and-ride facilities at Trooperslane, will he ensure that roads, culverts and footpaths are upgraded so that those working on the IDB sites will have an alternative means of using public transport when going to work?
Part of the problem is finding suitable land. Land is available for park-and-ride at Trooperslane but not at Greenisland. I shall write to Mr Beggs as soon as possible.
Will the Minister ensure that developing park-and-ride facilities and making the Carrickfergus- Belfast line more attractive and more profitable does not take away from necessary work on the line at Larne? Some of the track is in a very poor condition.
Has EU grant assistance been sought for this track, which has been designated part of the Trans-European Network (TEN)? The South has managed to attract 85% funding from the cohesion fund to extend the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) network to Malahide. Does the Minister plan to consider that in the future?
The hon Member raises several questions. He can rest assured with regard to the Larne rail connection, as it is constantly to the fore in the Department for Regional Development's thinking. I met the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company only last week to discuss developing stretches of that line. It is under constant discussion.
I have no information on whether grant applications have been made to the EU for the line but I shall find out and inform the Member.
Railway Station (Global Point)
asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline his plans for a new railway station to serve Global Point (Ballyhenry business park).
Translink has no plans for an additional halt to service Global Point, the proposed business park at Ballyhenry, Newtownabbey. However, Translink hopes to provide a new halt at Mossley West on the corner of the business park site as part of the Antrim to Bleach Green line reinstatement. Translink has asked the business park developer to take the planned Mossley West halt into consideration when the park's internal road network is being planned.
The business park is not in my constituency, but it will directly affect my constituents. Does the Minister recognise that this is a major economic investment opportunity? If it is to reach its full potential, good infrastructure is essential.
I accept that. The Mossley West halt is due to be completed in February. Its cost is estimated at £916,000, on which Translink is due a 75% grant of £687,000. I am aware of the contribution that it will make to transport links and to the underlying economic links between that part of Northern Ireland and the greater Belfast area.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Question 3 in the name of Mr John Fee has been transferred to the Department for Regional Development, which will respond in writing. Similarly, question 13 in the name of Mr Seamus Close has been transferred to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It too will receive a written response. If that is clear we shall proceed.