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Column 961Minister. If I am wrong, I know that the Minister will correct me and, if I am right, I ask him to correct the policy.
A large proportion of the budget for street lighting in the North of Ireland goes towards lighting in privately developed housing estates, where a builder will make huge amounts of money from building and selling houses. He must lay down the roads and sewers at his own expense and provide the electricity, but the Department of the Environment puts in street lighting for him. I find that remarkable. I do not see any circumstances that justify that continuing. If people are building a development from which they will make a profit--as is their right--let them provide all the amenities and let them pay for providing the street lighting. That is reasonable. If it is not done, the very people to whom I am referring-- those who live in isolated areas--who need lighting more than anyone else, will not receive it. One of the reasons why they are not receiving lighting now is the iniquitous policy I have mentioned.
I hope that the Minister will bear in mind that many of us have been pushing for an integrated rural policy for the North of Ireland. Such a policy has been formulated by the EEC and proposals have been set out. We must try to implement an integrated policy so that we can talk about the lives of those who live in isolated areas, not merely about roads, street lighting, infrastructure, water, sewerage or whatever. We must never lose the integrity of rural life in Northern Ireland.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Richard Needham) : I can assure the hon. Member for Newry and Amagh (Mr. Mallon) that I was cross only on his behalf. I realised that, having been in his place since 8 o'clock, mainly because I sent out messages to find him, he might have been looking forward to his dinner. After the kind words that he used towards me, I can say with even more force that I am certainly not cross.
In 1986, my Department, following many criticisms that it had received and following the many problems that it had faced, appointed Professor Snaith-- he is not a snake in the grass in Newry and Armagh but an eminent consultant on transport matters and an authority on highway engineering--to examine road conditions in Northern Ireland and all aspects of the Department's road maintenance policy. We have decided, for good and sensible reasons, to keep confidential some of the findings which he brought to our attention, but most of his suggestions which involved improvements to engineering practice my Department is implementing. Professor Snaith recommended that we should develop a system that would give priority to the most important routes in an economic sense, the roads which would have A and B classification, and achieve the best value for money. I have accepted his advice, and we shall give priority to the most heavily trafficked roads. These are the major inter-town routes and the accesses to the ports. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that that does not imply that other roads will be neglected. Professor Snaith suggested that the Department should take a hard look at the entire road network. We have
Column 96214,500 miles of public roads in Northern Ireland, which, per head of population, results in the highest ratio for any comparable area in the United Kingdom.
We have the puzzling and bureaucratic phrase "policy for abandonment", which I let slip through the net instead of using my usual, fairly simple English. The issue is that we should concentrate on improving the maintenance of the existing road network and investigate the possibility of abandoning roads which have exceptionally low usage. I use the more elegant phrase that was adopted by the hon. Gentleman, which I am sure would be used by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), the Under- Secretary of State for Industry, who I am pleased to see in the Chamber. As the hon. Gentleman knows, many of these roads are in sparsely populated areas.
I would hate to accuse the hon. Member for Newry and Amagh of gilding the lily in any way. To test the practical implications of giving up responsibility for these roads--perhaps that is a better term than "abandoning" the Department decided to undertake a pilot study. It was decided that the study should take place in a country district, and the district selected was the one with the greatest concentration of roads that have exceptionally low usage. Unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, the district happened to be in the area which he represents. It was for that reason only that the study took place in the Craigavon division of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. My officials did not go round threatening abandonment. They tried to find out what people actually thought about the proposals. Many of the roads do not have people living in them. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman said, they lead to farm buildings that are in use and that is why the pilot study was undertaken. The results of the local consultations clearly showed that even the lightly trafficked roads serve a distinct need. Following the findings, I decided that the limited savings which might be forthcoming did not justify any change in our present policy. I hope that that will considerably reassure the hon. Gentleman. His constituents need not worry, as any proposal to abandon such a road would require consultation and general agreement. My Department has no intention of adopting a programme of withdrawal from the public road network in any part of Northern Ireland. Of course there will be some circumstances where it is perfectly sensible to give up a piece of road for example, when a loop is taken out following some kind of realignment.
In the hon. Gentleman's constituency over the past five years nearly £5 million has been spent on major road works and a further £8.5 million worth of schemes are planned for the constituency in the current five-year programme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that represents a very large investment in the Newry area and underlines my determination to ensure that there is an improvement in the quality of life of all its citizens through the road network that we shall support and maintain.
We spend about £750,000 each year on minor works in Armagh and Newry and Mourne district council areas. That is fully comparable to any other constituency in the Province. In addition, we spend approximately £5.5 million each year on maintaining the roads, street lighting and car parks in the Armagh and Newry and Mourne districts. Of course I will bear in mind the important points that the hon. Gentleman made about street lighting. I thought that he perhaps slightly undermined his case when
Column 963he reminded the House about horses and carts and the fact that farmers have tractors and harvesters. Horses and carts did not often have headlights, while tractors and harvesters do. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that we are talking about a balance between people living in urban areas and those living in the countryside. It is not very nice for kids to have to walk up dark lanes in the winter. I hope that I have succeeded in allaying any doubts that the hon. Gentleman may have had about my determination to maintain to the highest standard the splendid asset of Northern Ireland's road network. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is also aware that we announced yesterday substantial additions to the funds that we shall spend--following Professor Snaith's report for which I give him credit--on the maintenance of roads in the Province over the next three years. Most of that money will be used for the upkeep of the main roads, but other parts of the network will obviously benefit as well. I am sure that
Column 964we would all regard that as a sensible investment and a token of my Department's commitment to maintaining the efficient road system in Northern Ireland.
Of course I am happy to make available to the hon. Gentleman a summary of the principal recommendations by Professor Snaith and together with that tell him the action that my Department is taking to implement those recommendations. I will do that now.
I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman about the position for his constituents. He is always meticulous in raising with me any matters that affect his constituents and I will always do my best in those circumstances to assist him and them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me at this late stage in the evening, considering the possibility of our dinners, if I do not consider integrated policy but leave that for another day.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Ten o'clock .
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