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The Duke of Abercorn rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are considering a request to the European Union for additional funding to ensure that the Londonderry-Strabane-Ballygawley A.5 road is upgraded to the required modern standard.
The noble Duke said: My Lords, I should like to declare all interests that may, in any way, be connected with the Question. I am president of Strabane Chamber of Commerce; a consistent, indeed persistent, traveller along the A.5 route; chairman of Amey (Belfast), a subsidiary of Amey PLC; and my family owns a disused quarry in County Tyrone, where a local quarrymaster pays a modest rent in order to ensure that the quarry remains closed.
I am delighted that the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, is participating in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Eames, was hoping to be present in order to support the Question, but commitments on the other side of the Irish Sea have prevented his attendance this evening.
I am delighted to have the opportunity, not only to raise this Question, but also to highlight and emphasise the vital, indeed critical, importance of the A.5 road, not only to the counties of Londonderry, Tyrone and Fermanagh, but also to the neighbouring county of Donegal. Although there are some inherent advantages in the north west, such as a rapidly growing labour force and a good third-level education infrastructure, economic progress in the region has not matched the experience elsewhere, for the reasons that I shall raise in my Question.
The commercial, industrial and social lifeline of the west of the Province and Donegal depends directly on the A.5 road as the sole route to the eastern ports of Belfast, Larne and Dublin. This has resulted in it being designated with trans-European network status. That is imposing terminology. However, at present the current condition of the road in no way justifies that status.
Much of the road is characterised by its twisty, undulating alignments, with poor forward visibility and, for long stretches, a complete lack of overtaking opportunities. Average vehicle speeds during peak hours on the 12-mile stretch between Londonderry and Strabane are 35 miles an hour, and on the 34 mile stretch between Strabane and Ballygawley only 39 miles an hour. Those average speeds fall well below what is expected on one of Northern Ireland's major, strategic routes. Those factors also lead to long tailbacks of traffic, and the resultant driver frustration is one of the reasons for the high accident rates on several parts of the route. Yet all the products of industry, the raw materials for that industry, and all consumer goods have to travel along the A.5 route since there is no alternative method of transport.
Furthermore, I am convinced that the present condition of the road has a detrimental, psychological impact on those of us living in the west of the Province and Donegal because it accentuates the feeling of remoteness of those western counties from the
Again, the condition of the A.5 road deters potential mobile investment from locating in the west. For instance, the Industrial Development Board's advanced factory in Strabane remains vacant following completion some 24 months ago. Surely regional development policies are first and foremost directed towards removing the problems of consistent unemployment and low incomes and to improving the quality of life. To achieve those basic objectives it is necessary to arrest the contraction of the industrial and service sectors and then to restore and enhance the attractions of the region as a location for new investment and to realise fully the tourist potential of the area.
Therefore, it is widely accepted that development of industries and tourism is tied closely to the creation of infrastructure facilities, such as roads, railways, ports and airports. Again, it is widely recognised that there is a direct link between lack of economic activity and the lack of efficient transport.
In the case of Tyrone, Donegal and Fermanagh, there are no port facilities, no railways, no motorways and two modest, small airports. Thus the A.5 road remains the critical link with the rest of Ireland, both north and south, as well as the east coast gateway ports to Great Britain and Europe. The region's dependence upon this transport corridor is demonstrated by the high levels of heavy commercial vehicles (up to 19 per cent.) using the A.5 route. In other words, access to those counties is appalling.
Surely, if the region's transport is totally dependent upon road transport, then good modern roads are a fundamental requirement. During the past 20 years, due to budget restrictions, investment on major roads in Northern Ireland has been severely curtailed, and this is especially the case in the north west of the Province. Therefore, the May announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of £12 million expenditure in four key locations along the A.5 route was of real significance and a tremendous morale boost to the west of the Province and Donegal.
The proposed bypass extension of Strabane, Newtownstewart and Omagh, along with the scheduled works at Ballymagorry, without doubt, will improve the standard of this route, avoiding tailbacks, possible accidents and constant driver frustration in those four important locations.
It is accepted that a complete reconstruction of the route to modern standards is not presently an option. However, a recent survey by Coopers and Lybrand, commissioned by the north west region cross-border group consisting of Limavady, Strabane, Derry and Donegal councils, concluded that if a further £10 million were invested on this trans-European network, with emphasis on the establishment of climbing lanes where necessary, the route would be upgraded to modern required standards. It would thus provide the region, which has a population of 690,000, with a level playing field situation at long last, resulting in the north west no longer being in the rearguard in terms of economic development.
Therefore, at today's costs, a modest road investment of £10 million should have a major impact and lasting benefit on the daily lives and prospects of those living in this region. It is considered that these further improvements will be required to achieve noticeable change in traffic flow to allow efficient travel along this route. Again, the upgrading of the A.5 will significantly reduce transport costs to ports and airports, thus making the area more attractive to potential investors.
Although by nature a considerable optimist, I am really concerned that this region is far too dependent on a number of vulnerable sectors. For instance, the agriculture industry is in real and deep recession at present, while the manufacturing industry in the area has a high concentration of clothing and textile firms which will inevitably come under increasing pressure from imports in the future. Indeed, our economy in the west is already precarious. For example, the Strabane area is the highest unemployment blackspot in the European Union. In fact, successive generations of some families have failed to gain employment in the Strabane area.
The future of Fruit of the Loom, employing several thousand people in both Donegal and Derry, is causing deep concern in the north west. The Industrial Development Board of Northern Ireland is experiencing the same practical difficulties as the IDA Ireland.
Tourism is an important part of the Donegal economy, coming mostly from Belfast, the east of the Province or indeed from Dublin. Incoming tourists converge at the Ballygawley roundabout and then travel along the A.5 route. There is no alternative.
The rebuilding of Omagh, which must be regarded as a matter of the utmost urgency following that act of raw evil last August, will require every ounce of sensitivity, creativity, drive and determination and must in no way be hampered by poor transportation and communications. Again, if Northern Ireland is to achieve lasting and permanent peace there will be an inevitable increase in tourism, commerce and, it is to be hoped, industry.
This situation will obviously impose yet further pressure on this lifeline route. Increased economic activity in Belfast has resulted in long, early morning tailbacks on the M.1 motorway and, likewise, a huge increase in Dublin traffic has created severe traffic problems.
I remain totally convinced that the most effective monetary assistance from the European Union to those living in the west would be a £10 million grant in aid from the roads measure of the transport sub-programme. Therefore, I trust that the Government will make an urgent request to this authority, probably in conjunction
I am only too aware that transport infrastructure investment is expensive and public expenditure resources are not easily accessible. However, no one can deny or counter-argue that a further provision for an improved A.5 route would play a critical role in enhancing the economic development of the region.
Therefore, there really is a chance for a generation of the population living in the west of the Province and Donegal to realise at long, long last the real potential of the area. It would be nothing but tragic if this opportunity were not taken up by both governments and Brussels.
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