£250m capital spending reallocations
Finance minister Simon Hamilton has reallocated £250m of public expenditure that cannot be spent as previously approved. This includes £80m of potential revenue underspends in the current financial year and £115m of capital spending freed-up by the delays on the construction of the new A5 Londonderry to Dublin road, which is currently blocked for legal reasons.
A £65m scheme to improve the A26 Coleraine to Ballymena route, including the Frosses Road, has now been given the go-ahead. Other schemes to be fast-tracked are the A31 Magherafelt by-pass and further work on the A8 Belfast to Larne corridor. The Department of Health has received additional capital allocations to build a new £15.5m children’s hospital in Belfast, plus £5m for health estate improvement work. In a further boost to the construction sector, education minister John O’Dowd separately gave approval to a £106m school estate improvement programme.
Hamilton approved funding for preparatory work for improvements to the A6, the Belfast to Derry road, at the Randalstown/Castledawson section. But he said the A6 upgrade for this and other sections could not be approved while the A5 remained an Executive commitment, given the high cost of the two projects. “Delivering both in parallel is unaffordable without there being a serious detrimental impact on all other departmental capital budgets,” said the minister.
Business leaders expressed disappointment at the lack of progress on the A6. Philip Gilliland, President of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, said: “we are extremely unhappy and disappointed” at the decision. The CBI called for the scheme to be made a major priority for Northern Ireland’s infrastructure.
Attention may now focus on whether there is a cheaper alternative option connecting Belfast and Derry. Transport expert Wesley Johnston, who compiles the Northern Ireland Roads website, said that some proponents of the A5 upgrade had suggested this would also serve as an improved link between Derry and Belfast, via Ballygawley. However, Johnston calculates this would add 32 miles onto the route and require 47 miles of road dualling. Assuming an average 70 mph on the new A5 compared to 50 mph on the existing A6, it would not cut journey times.
Back in the 1960s, a motorway was planned for Belfast to Derry via Limavady, close to the existing A2. Improving the A2 would provide an alternative route about 13 miles longer than the A6, but cut journey times by about 12 minutes. It would also avoid cutting across the Glenshane Pass, which can be difficult for the Road Service to keep open during severe snow.
An A2 based route should also be cheaper to upgrade, as most of the route is already dualled, or scheduled for it. Dualling the length of the A5 or A6 would each cost around £800m, says Johnston.