"Unfortunately, the last few weeks have shown us all that Covid is a threat still very much with us. As such, our immediate priority must be dealing with the public health emergency. The weeks and months ahead will be challenging for us all. However, my Department and I are committed to doing all we can as part of an Executive wide effort to slow the spread of the virus and protect lives. I believe that the experiences of the past few months have underlined the important role that infrastructure plays in supporting our citizens at this very difficult time.
"While I won’t in any way, down play the immediate difficulties families, businesses and government will need to overcome, it is important that we do not lose sight of our longer term vision.
"In the midst of Covid, in the midst of the climate emergency and in the face of Brexit, we are in unprecedented times, we are in incredibly challenging times but it is exactly at this moment that we should be ambitious, that we need to be creative and be courageous. So I want to share with you all today my vision for infrastructure in Northern Ireland and how I believe it is the foundation to overcoming these challenges and taking us to a better place, economically, socially and environmentally.
"Infrastructure is vitally important to our daily lives, our communities, our environment and our economy. We all know that modern and sustainable infrastructure is a key building block of prosperity. Not only will it be an important part of our recovery in the months ahead, but it is also essential if we are to grow our economy, address regional imbalance, improve wellbeing and support a thriving island where people want to live, work, visit and invest.
"Infrastructure is also essential in providing the physical connectivity to allow Northern Ireland to compete on the global stage. This critical role and the need for prioritised investment in infrastructure and public services is rightly, at the heart of ‘New Decade, New Approach’. All island infrastructure, as we have seen in the recent funding announcement, is also at the heart of the Taoiseach’s new Shared Island unit, and turbo- charging infrastructure is, we understand, the focus of Boris’ Johnson’s recently announced Connectivity Review.
"There are new opportunities aligning that can deliver real and positive change for people, especially those who have been left behind and I am excited by that even in the darkness of Covid and the dangers from Brexit.
"So what do we need to do to make that change happen?
"We need as an Executive to put an end to the long history of short sighted under investment in infrastructure. We need as an Executive, to recognise the simple fact that we cannot deliver the Executive’s wider commitments without the underpinning infrastructure in place.
"Capital investment in our water and sewerage infrastructure is the foundation for our economy’s revival if we want to emerge from what is likely to be the most damaging recession in recent history. The statement – No Drains No Cranes is a factual one. And this investment is also critical in terms of our public health. In short - Our water and sewerage services are crucial to the continued health and wellbeing of our people, and they are essential for the post pandemic economic recovery. There are over 100 areas here where new development simply cannot connect to the wastewater network due to capacity issues in the system and Belfast is also fast approaching this point.
"Significant investment is absolutely essential to support our recovery because, without it, economic growth here will be virtually impossible.
"And as we look to what we must do to correct wrongs that have gone before, we must also look to what we have learned during this crisis as we move forward. Let’s just take a moment to talk about some of the positives that have emerged during this time.
"In the early days of darkness during this pandemic we were given a glimpse of how things could and can be. Quieter roads, safer roads, cleaner air, more families out walking and cycling. I don’t want us to lose this. If we simply go back to exactly what we did before, then the huge sacrifices people and families made will have been in vain and we will have wasted a massive opportunity – the opportunity for all of us to enjoy a better quality of life and play our part in tackling the climate crisis.
"Yet to do this, we need to create more opportunities for active travel, as well as safer infrastructure for those who want to walk, wheel and cycle. And as the Infrastructure Minister I need to deliver in this area. I am pleased that we have piloted pop up cycle lanes and pavement widening and have supported innovative solutions such as the Ormeau Road’s parklet. I was also keen to establish a new £20 million capital blue/green infrastructure fund to support the transformation of our communities, promote active travel and shape our places for our new ‘normal’. But the truth is – it is only a first step. There is so much more to do.
"As well as improving health outcomes, I want to ensure that we strengthen our resilience by putting for example, a greater focus on integrated and sustainable drainage systems to protect homes and businesses from the increasing risk of flooding and also ensure we use our green spaces in a way that delivers multiple benefits for residents and the wider community.
"Greenways are to my mind, a wonderful example of this type of positive place shaping. They can help provide a solution to localised flooding problems, while at the same time providing a really popular space where communities can improve their physical and mental health and come together socially distanced, under present circumstances, but still in a way that tackles social isolation which so many of our citizens increasingly suffer from. This is why, as part of my drive to deliver more sustainable infrastructure, I want to develop more green projects that can drive lasting change, enhance our economy and improve lives.
"Public transport provides another means of sustainable transport.
"Before the pandemic, we saw record increases in the use of our public transport network. The introduction of the Glider service saw passenger numbers on the route increase by 30% in its first year of operation. In 2019, NI Railways also recorded its highest ever number of passenger journeys. These results show that investment in infrastructure can change travel behaviour, reduce the reliance on private cars and better connect our communities across this island, helping to advance tourism and economic opportunities.
"To ensure that we continue to grow public transport patronage over the longer term, my Department has released funding to purchase 21 new train carriages,is investing in new zero emission buses, as well as the Multi-modal transport hub in Derry and the Belfast Transport Hub project..
"Rail is, I believe, another area with significant untapped opportunities in helping to deliver greener, cleaner and more sustainable transport and improving connectivity and opportunities for communities. Investing in rail will help address regional imbalance and improve economic and employment opportunities. I have allocated funding for the feasibility study for the Phase 3 upgrade of the Derry to Belfast railway line and am committed to seeing this project delivered as soon as possible. My officials are also working with their counterparts in the South to finalise the terms of reference for the new high speed rail feasibility study that now includes Belfast, Derry, Dublin, Limerick and Cork to form a spine of connectivity and tackle regional imbalance on the island
"And talking of regional and socio-economic imbalance, this is an injustice that needs corrected.
"Too many parts of Northern Ireland are still not realising their potential and there are very significant socio-economic differentials across the North, particularly in urban areas of Belfast, the North West and across a number of our rural areas. I am keen to continue to work to ensure that we start delivering balanced regional growth and no longer leave some of our citizens behind.
"While part of that will be assisted through the development of the Belfast and North West Transport Hubs, and the improvement and expansion of our rail network, my Department is also progressing two Executive Flagship road projects, the A5 and A6.
"The A5 project will greatly enhance the connectivity of the North West, connect communities, address regional imbalance and support our island wide connections, opening up opportunities for citizens and communities.
"There are two schemes on the A6 route currently under construction; the 15 km Randalstown to Castledawson and the 25.5 km Dungiven to Drumahoe schemes which together represent an investment of over £400m.
"My Department also continues to progress other key infrastructure projects including the A1 Junctions safety programme, the iconic Narrow Water Bridge, York Street Interchange and a range of bypass projects. All of these major road improvement schemes will have economic multiplier effects.
"Work also continues with partners to deliver City and Growth Deals across the region to harness additional investment, create new jobs and accelerate inclusive economic growth. These will invest £563m of capital funding from the Executive with equivalent match funding being provided by the UK Government. Much of this investment will be focused on capital infrastructure projects over the next ten to fifteen years. This investment will help to progress many important infrastructure projects like Belfast Rapid Transit Phase 2, the Newry Southern Relief Road and the Lagan Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge. This investment is welcome and can be a real game changer in promoting balanced growth.
"It must be recognised that infrastructure projects have a long lead in time and so we must continue to plan for the long term.
"My officials are continuing to prepare Draft Transport Plans for consultation which are intended to set out the framework for transport policy and investment decisions up until 2035. A key element of these is to ensure new development is planned to make use of sustainable and inclusive modes of transport.
"I also recently set up a Ministerial Advisory Panel on Infrastructure, made up of a small group of independent experts and key stakeholders with a passion and interest in infrastructure. They were tasked with presenting to me recommendations on how an Infrastructure Commission for Northern Ireland might more effectively support the long term planning and development of our infrastructure. The Panel has undertaken a short, sharp, focused exercise, and I am currently considering their final report and engaging with my Executive colleagues on its findings. I believe this presents an exciting opportunity to do things better and I am keen to see this work develop.
"Whilst the constraints on public finances cannot be ignored and many services are under pressure, not least from the impact of Covid, this should not limit our ambitions. We need to plan now for the long-term, investing to create opportunities for our people and tackle head-on the challenges facing our economy, society and environment.
"In closing, having modern and sustainable water, drainage and transport networks is essential if we are to grow our economy and improve the lives of everyone. As part of the COVID-19 recovery work, and as longer term plans develop in our Programme for Government, our infrastructure has a critical role to play in addressing the key barriers to economic growth across all parts of Northern Ireland is recognised.
"Without investment in infrastructure, particularly water and sewerage services, new developments whether they are private or social housing, hotels, schools or hospitals will simply not be able to happen.
"Continued investment in our transport infrastructure is needed to ensure we play our part in meeting our climate change commitments for the future whilst also ensuring we provide a fast, efficient and safe transport networks to help with our COVID-19 recovery.
"Finally, as we move towards a new future, a new normal, we must be bold and work together to bring about the change needed to build a better future that delivers more for our citizens, socially and economically, delivering cleaner, greener and healthier communities.
"Thank you for the opportunity to speak today, I welcome any questions from the floor."