Thursday, 21 November 2019

Ceisteanna (6)

Charlie McConalogue


6. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the status of progress on the A5 project; the funding that will be made available for this project; when the funding will be made available; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47795/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Transport)

I seek an update on progress on the A5 dual carriageway project from Derry to Aughnacloy. I ask the Minister to clarify the funding commitment from the Government. How much has been spent so far and what is the funding commitment going forward? As the Minister knows, in 2006, as part of the St. Andrew's Agreement, the Government agreed to co-fund this project to a significant extent, along with the British Exchequer. It is essential that we continue that partnership and ensure that the road is built as quickly as possible. The A5 is absolutely essential to opening up the north west, and Donegal in particular. It is very important for our economy and our population.

I thank the Deputy for his question. This is a project in which he is particularly interested and he has raised it on numerous occasions. I will try to update him on what is a moving target but one that is not moving fast enough.

The planning and implementation of the A5 upgrade project is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland authorities.

As is the case for all such capital projects, the A5 upgrade scheme is subject to the planning assessment and approval process in Northern Ireland. Since 2012 there have been a number of legal challenges to approvals related to the scheme and this has led to unavoidable delays in the implementation of the proposed scheme.

A challenge in November 2017 to the decision of the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure to proceed with the A5 scheme resulted in that decision being quashed by the High Court at the request of the Department in November 2018.

Following the conclusion of that legal action, the Department for Infrastructure updated project environmental assessments and undertook a public consultation on a number of environmental reports, including an environmental statement addendum in 2019. The Department announced in August that over 260 responses to the consultation had been received and that following on from consideration of the number and nature of the issues raised, the Department had concluded that a further public inquiry is required.

Earlier this month, the Department for Infrastructure announced that the planning appeals commission has been appointed to hold an inquiry into the A5 environmental statement addendum of 2019 and related environmental issues, along with the four updated draft reports, to inform an appropriate assessment under the habitats regulations prepared by the Department. It is understood that the inquiry will be held in February 2020.

The current funding arrangements relating to the A5 are governed by the Stormont House Agreement and implementation plan, A Fresh Start. Under this agreement, the Government is committed to providing funding of £75 million towards the cost of phase 1a of the A5 upgrade scheme once the statutory planning process in Northern Ireland is concluded.

Allowing for the time required for the conclusion of the public inquiry and for a new decision to be taken on whether to proceed with the scheme, together with the possibility of a further legal challenge, the timeframe for the start of construction of phase 1a of the A5 project is uncertain.

In addition, it is envisaged that, as was the case for previous contributions, payments from the South will be based on an agreed protocol linked to the achievement of construction stage milestones. This means that there would be a time lag between the start of construction of the scheme and an initial payment by the South.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In view of the current state of play regarding the A5 scheme and the timeframes involved, provision is not being made in the 2020 calendar year for funding for the scheme. The Government remains committed to the £75 million sterling contribution and the senior officials group established on foot of the Fresh Start agreement will continue to liaise in respect of the project with a view to delivering on that commitment.

When funding for this project was initially announced as part of the St. Andrew's Agreement in 2006, it included a commitment of £400 million from the Government towards the overall cost of the A5 project and the A8 project from Larne to Belfast. The plan at the time was that A5 dual carriageway from Derry to Aughnacloy would be completed by 2015. Unfortunately, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. It is now 2019 and the project has not even commenced. It has been plagued by planning difficulties and legal challenges which have given rise to delays. The project has also been delayed by the fact that there is no Government in place at Stormont. A legal workaround had to be found, which took some time. If there are no further delays or challenges, phase 1 could start in 2020.

I seek clarity on the Government's commitment to the project. In 2011, the Government withdrew its commitment to contribute £400 million. This resulted in the Derry to Aughnacloy section of the project being broken up into three phases. As the Minister has outlined, phase 1 from Newbuildings to Strabane is the only phase for which the Government has provided a clear funding commitment. Phases 2 and 3 are not progressing because no funding plan has been put in place for them. What are the Government's plans in respect of funding phases 2 and 3 in order that they can be progressed without any unnecessary delays?

The Deputy is correct in saying that the original Government commitment was £400 million. This commitment was intended to cover a road infrastructure package, including the A5 and A8, to support the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive. However, for administrative reasons, it was decided that the funding would be paid out in respect of the A5. The funding to which we are now committed is £25 million per year for three years. Originally, this funding was earmarked for 2015 to 2017 but now it will be paid in the first three years of the project's construction. I wish to make it clear that the Government's commitment to this project is total. The delays that have occurred are not of our making and while they may be legitimate, they are very frustrating. We have committed the aforementioned funds and will pay them. There is absolutely no pullback on that whatsoever. The fact that there have been delays means that we have not paid any funds over to date but we will pay them when construction commences.

There has been a significant pullback on the part of the Government vis-à-vis the overall funding commitment that was made 2006. As the Minister outlined, the only funding commitment that is in place is for £75 million for phase 1 of the A5 project from Newbuildings to Strabane. That funding will be provided in three lots of £25 million. The A5 project originally covered the full 58 miles from Derry to Aughnacloy but was broken up into three separate phases because of funding restrictions and, in particular, because the Government pulled back on its commitment in 2011. Phase 1 is the only element that is progressing. Construction will commence in the middle of next year if there are no further delays. The Government has committed funding to phase 1 but I have heard nothing from the Minister today about what funding the Government will commit in respect of phase 2, which runs from Strabane to Omagh, or phase 3, which runs from Omagh to Aughnacloy. An agreement needs to be reached by the Government and the authorities in Northern Ireland on the funding for the other two phases. In addition, there is a need for clarity on how much funding we are going to provide. Discussions need to take place now. We need a plan for phases 2 and 3 in order that the work can progress without undue delay. Given the delays to phase 1, we cannot wait for up to four years before committing to the remaining phases. A commitment needs to be provided now. I urge the Minister to engage with the Northern Ireland authorities and the British Government with a view to putting a plan in place for the latter phases of the project. Undoubtedly, there has been a pullback in terms of the financial commitment from the Government, if not in terms of the generic commitment. That commitment must be backed up by a clear plan which will see the entire project delivered in the best possible timeframe.

It would be very wrong if the funding changes which happened as a result of the financial crisis were taken as an indication of a lack of enthusiasm for this project on the part of the Government. That enthusiasm has not been diluted in any way. The Deputy knows that because of the financial crisis that hit this country, the Government decided in 2011 that its commitment to provide funding for the A5 road project would have to be deferred. However, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform indicated that a commitment would be made to provide £25 million per annum in 2015 and 2016. The Northern Ireland Executive decided to go ahead with the construction of two sections of the A5. It was envisaged at the time that the contribution of £50 million from the Republic of Ireland would go towards the construction of these sections. A legal challenge to the Minister for Regional Development's approval for the construction of the two sections was lodged in September 2012.

In 2015, the Fresh Start agreement reaffirmed the Government's commitment to provide funding of €50 million for the A5 project. It also committed an additional €25 million to ensure that phase 1 of the project, which includes new building to north of Strabane, could commence as soon as possible, once the necessary planning issues are resolved by the Northern Ireland authorities. Those commitments remain absolutely undiminished.

I know this is an important project but I cannot be seen to favour it. We have to move on.

I could go on.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.