Removal of Capital funding a crushing blow for NI road network

A slightly overlooked part of the Stormont House Agreement was that it removed, in effect, £450-564 million from the overall Capital budget over the next four year period. Thankfully, this is a total figure, not an annual one, but it nevertheless constitutes a significant chunk of spending.

To be clear, the Agreement actually sees the Executive borrow another £350 million for Capital. However, the Agreement also enables the Executive to pay for the Civil Service voluntary exit programme (£700 million) and repay this year’s loan (£100 million) from Capital funding. It also allows this year’s welfare reduction (for breaching “parity”, up to £114 million depending on how quickly Welfare Reform is implemented) to be paid out of Capital. The overall effective loss to actual Capital projects is, therefore, as above.

Capital is essentially infrastructure, although this includes non-transport infrastructure (from hospitals to water pipes). Typically Capital accounts for £1.2 billion of Executive spending (versus almost exactly £10 billion Current Resource spending; £5-£7 billion “Annually Managed Expenditure”, i.e. welfare including pensions; and around another £5 billion estimated to be spent by the UK Government in or for the benefit of Northern Ireland).

The Stormont House Agreement thus sees around 8-11% removed from actual Capital spending (and then another 8% or so spent but borrowed, to be subsequently repaid). The easiest place for that axe to fall is on road projects – it is hard to see those being prioritised over schools and health centres (and probably justifiably).

Nevertheless, in an era where cars are becoming ever cleaner, proper transport infrastructure is a prerequisite to a modern economy and Northern Ireland can no longer claim that its primary road network is in any way exceptional. It is perhaps briefly worth looking at the current priority projects and where they stand.

To be completed this year:

  • A8 Belfast (Mossley) – Larne (Antiville), expressway, under construction for completion May 2015 (c. £120m); and
  • A2 Belfast (Jordanstown) – Carrickfergus (Trooperslane), dual carriageway, under construction for completion June 2015 (c. £60m).

To be commenced this year:

  • A26 Glarryford – A44 (for Ballycastle), expressway, contractor appointed for completion April 2017 (c. £70m); and
  • A31 Magherafelt Bypass (eastern), 2×1 road, contractor to be appointed Spring 2015 for completion Winter 2016 (c. £40m).

This leaves a number of projects in the pipeline, many of which have drawn significant public interest.

  • A5 Derry (Newbuildings) – Aughnacloy, expressway, announced 2008 (c. £850m)
  • A6 Randalstown – Derry (Gransha), expressway, announced 2004 (Derry-Dungiven c. £400m; Randalstown-Castledawson c. £120m)
  • A12 Belfast (north/east), flyover (M2/M3/A12), route chosen 2013 (c. £110m)
  • A1 Hillsborough – Loughbrickland, junction upgrades, in preparation 2014 (c. £40m)
  • A4 Enniskillen Bypass (southern), road type and route announcement due 2015 (c. £30m)

Of these, the A5 and A6 could be considered to consist of several separate projects (although this is contested – some argue that it is all or nothing to gain maximum benefit).

In rough priority order, the A5 project would be split into six sections: Ballygawley-Omagh, Derry-Strabane, Strabane-Omagh, Strabane Bypass, Omagh Bypass, Ballygawley-Aughnacloy. The latter of these has already been all but dropped.

In rough priority order, the A6 project has formally been split into four sections: Randalstown-Castledawson, Dungiven Bypass, Dungiven-Derry, Castledawson-Dungiven. Again, no one seriously considers the latter of these priority and it is not a current proposal. Additionally, the first and third can be split in two (either side of Toome; and either side of Drumahoe).

Something immediately jumps out, of course. The A5 project costs more than all the other projects about to be under construction, and seriously proposed as priority put together!

We may usefully consider the current real priority list to be:

  • A5 Ballygawley – Omagh, expressway, perhaps £150m (but with potential £50m contribution from Republic)
  • A6 Randalstown – Castledawson, expressway, £120m
  • A12 Belfast (north/east), flyover (M2/M3/A12), £110m
  • A6 Dungiven Bypass, expressway, perhaps £70m
  • A1 Hillsborough – Loughbrickland, junction upgrades, £40m
  • A4 Enniskillen Bypass (southern), £30m

Even then, we can see how daft the prioritisation of any stretch of the A5 is, as the priority still comes out most expensive – more so than any other project under construction or envisaged as priority. However, with the potential finance from the Irish Government, it has to be on the list (it is unclear whether that finance would still be forthcoming for just one section).

After that, it seems to be that if you mix daily traffic slow, safety issues and pollution, the projects are in priority order (I personally would have Ballygawley-Omagh after the Dungiven Bypass). The point, however, is that with so much money removed from the Capital Budget, it may be that the cheapest projects go first – good news for those stuck in traffic in Enniskillen, not so good for those at York Street!

It is unfortunate, because completion of the above priority projects and a few more bypasses (notably in County Down) would see Northern Ireland’s primary network raised to perhaps the best in the UK, even if it remains somewhat behind the Republic’s (no shame in that, as the Republic’s is the best anywhere now). However, this is a consequence of the odd financial deal struck on 23 December.

Do visit Wesley Johnston’s excellent site.

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