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Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury (Joan Ryan): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


IsItFair Campaign

4.15 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I beg leave to present a petition on behalf of a fair number of my constituents from Market Harborough and a number of surrounding villages that forms part of the IsItFair council tax protest campaign.

The petition declares:

To lie upon the Table.
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Rapid Transit Scheme (Belfast)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

4.16 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I am grateful to the House for the opportunity that this Adjournment debate provides me to raise the issue of a rapid transit system for Belfast. I am sure that the Minister is also glad that the debate is being held at quarter past 4, rather than 6 o'clock. I can see him working out his flight schedule in his mind already.

This scheme is not a new proposal for Belfast and Northern Ireland but one that was established as an integral part of the Northern Ireland transportation strategy document, yet very little progress seems to have been made on it in the past three years. Belfast, like virtually every other United Kingdom city, faces growing transport problems. Over the next years and decades, those problems are set to increase significantly. Given the relentless growth in traffic, our roads will become increasingly congested, with implications for economic growth and social mobility.

Of course, the motor car must be part of the solution, but we cannot allow it to be the sole one; public transport must play an increasingly important role in dealing with the anticipated problems. Unless we start to deal with those problems now, however, the cost to the economy will be significant. Solutions to transport problems are rarely short-term or cheap, but the cost of not tackling them in advance is even greater.

When I was Minister at the Department for Regional Development in Northern Ireland, we undertook work on developing a rapid transit system for Belfast. I received much support from the Assembly's Regional Development Committee, and later the Assembly unanimously supported me when I introduced the Province's regional transport strategy, which incorporated the piloting of a rapid transit scheme for Belfast. Yet, since devolution was suspended in Northern Ireland, no discernable progress has been made in accomplishing that objective—an objective that, I repeat, was unanimously supported by Northern Ireland's political parties. One might have thought that the Government would be keen to encourage Northern Ireland's political parties when they are able to agree unanimously.

I believe that a rapid transit system can be created in Belfast that will not need to carry the costs associated with light rail but can achieve the modal shift that is required if we are to avoid gridlock on some key traffic corridors in the Belfast area in the future. Historically, it has been difficult to persuade many people out of their cars and on to public transport, as the bus has not been an attractive alternative. Although I welcome the concept of "metro" in Belfast and although the provision of bus lanes and a more reliable service can play an important role in encouraging people to use public transport, for many people they will never be attractive enough to replace the car. Rapid transit has that potential.

The EWAY corridor presents Belfast with a tremendous opportunity to introduce a rapid transit system that can meet the particular circumstances of the
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city. It offers many benefits, including a potential solution to increasing traffic problems in the corridor, consistency with Government policy, the integration of transport and land use planning, private investment in public transport, the opportunity to encourage people out of their cars and a pilot scheme at reasonable cost that could be expanded right across the city.

In the past, the main objection to rapid transit in Belfast has been its potential cost, but a number of new developments offer a way through this difficulty. Rapid transit projects usually focus on some form of light rail or guided bus system that can, admittedly, be very expensive to create and maintain. Although such systems have been able to encourage people to make the shift from the private car—normal buses have been unable to achieve that—that result has been achieved only at significant financial cost.

There are, or at least there were, those in finance and personnel in Northern Ireland who argue that the cost would be disproportionate. I always contended that they had not placed sufficient weight on the consequences, not least to our economy, of congestion and gridlock around Belfast. Yet they argued that, although rapid transit can be justified in cities with high population densities, it is more difficult to justify in cities with a relatively low density such as Belfast. However, I remember arguing that cities such as Helsinki, even with a relatively low population, have often shown that effective public transport is possible.

The Assembly's endorsement of the rapid transit scheme swung the argument decisively in favour of proceeding with the scheme. Indeed, £100 million was, if not allocated, certainly earmarked for such a scheme to proceed. However, the return of direct rule Ministers left the doubting Thomases in finance and personnel in a strong position to apply the brakes—that they seem to have done. Today, with a relatively new incumbent in office, I appeal to the Government to look afresh at the potential that such a scheme could offer for Northern Ireland and particularly for Belfast.

Changing technology and other alternatives present opportunities to revisit the issue of rapid transit. It has been demonstrated in other parts of the world that, with the correct infrastructure, it is not necessary to have very expensive transport vehicles with very high ongoing costs. I believe that such an approach could be taken in Belfast. For example, the Wright Group from Ballymena in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)—I believe that the Secretary of State took the opportunity to visit the firm recently—has produced a "street car" that could deliver the same results as light rail at a much lower cost. This is being sold across Europe and in Great Britain, but there has been no opportunity to make use of it in Northern Ireland.

The natural place to have a rapid transit pilot in Belfast is along the eastern approach into the city, an area that has become known as the EWAY. Given that much of the EWAY corridor is already in place and in public ownership, with the old disused Comber railway line, this could be transformed at a relatively limited expense compared with the costs that would be associated with the compulsory purchase of a route. There would also be the advantage of vehicles such as the street cars being able to travel across the designated area previously used by the old Comber railway and
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then travel on normal streets—albeit in designated bus lanes—thus reducing the costs even further and allowing for greater flexibility.

The development of the EWAY is, strictly speaking, Government policy. In 2002, the Northern Ireland Assembly unanimously endorsed the regional transport strategy, which included proposals for a rapid transit system. The strategy provided for a total cost of £100 million to commence a rapid transit network. On suspension, the then Secretary of State announced that his Ministers would operate within the policies set down during devolution. That is all that I am asking the Minister and the Government to do.

The proposal is also consistent with PPS13 on transportation and land planning, which sets out its main objectives as promoting sustainable transport choices and accessibility for all, and reducing the need to travel, especially by private car. The EWAY satisfies all those objectives. Since devolution was suspended, the project seems to have been put on hold. It will require a long lead-in time. Years are being wasted without any action appearing to have been taken. With direct rule, the project has not been seriously taken forward but there is now an opportunity for the new Minister—if I may call him that—to take it up and carry it forward.

During devolution, I took the opportunity, while in the Department, to examine various forms of rapid transit, ranging from light rail through guided bus to a more conventional bus with high-quality infrastructure and dedicated separate lanes. Brisbane in Australia, in particular, appeared to offer a high-quality service without the need for high expenditure. There are already many cities in the UK that operate rapid transit systems with varying levels of success. The beauty of the EWAY scheme is that it could meet our traffic needs in a way tailored to our own circumstances. Belfast has a tremendous opportunity through the EWAY to tailor a transport solution that will suit its own needs.

Self-evidently, one of the most significant considerations concerning the proposal will be cost. Despite the involvement of the private sector, public investment will obviously be required. However, that could be limited through a number of factors. By using a form of bus-type transport, the need for huge investment would be reduced. Using the old Comber rail line as a significant element of the route would also limit the need for huge investment.

There is also the potential to exploit the planning gain of the scheme by creating a zone at the terminus in which development would be encouraged, but phased, to help to finance the scheme. In planning terms, it is better to control the development that will unquestionably and inevitably take place given that, over the years, it will be attracted to be near to the scheme. The Government should make a virtue out of the necessity and ensure that piecemeal development does not take place at the early stage and that the growth around the EWAY is controlled and in order.

The Government have an opportunity to plan land use and development carefully. Indeed, the promoters of the project will be able to identify development opportunities even along the route. To maximise the benefit from the project, I suggest that we try to make developers pay for a significant portion of the EWAY's cost. Such development payments on targeted
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development would not only reduce the cost to the public purse, but strengthen the viability of the project by enlarging the pool of patrons who would use the service. Moreover, it could also provide significant resources to interest the private sector in the project. That approach has already won considerable local support from Castlereagh borough council, which has put such a proposition to the Government.

In those new circumstances, and with an innovative approach being taken, the EWAY could not only provide a solution to the traffic problems down the eastern corridor into Belfast, but prove to be a model for the future. Rather than waiting another 10 years until congestion forces the Government to act, or alternatively for the return of devolution, the opportunity should be taken to press ahead with the project now.

The project in the east of the city is a pilot, but the plan worked up during devolution was for the whole city, with an east-west route and a north-south route. It was suggested that it was possible to grasp the public's imagination with such a project. I put it to the Minister that there are examples of places throughout the United Kingdom where people have not been prepared to get out of their cars to travel on buses, but have been prepared to do so to travel on trams, light rail and guided buses. There is, however, a need for ministerial commitment to drive the scheme forward. I hope that we shall see something of that commitment this afternoon.

I suggest that the Minister consider the appointment of an EWAY project group that is tasked to take the project forward, subject at appropriate stages to ministerial approval. The group could comprise representatives from Translink, business the construction industry, financial services and transport-related academia. The extent of local political involvement may also be an issue, and such involvement may come from those elected to the Assembly or representatives from Belfast city council and Castlereagh borough council.

The project group could be expected to provide recommendations on the detail of the scheme, including costings and proposals for raising the funds to offset the costs and options to finance any shortfall. The remit of the group would also include making recommendations on the operation of the EWAY.

This exciting and challenging project is capable of firing the imagination of the public and making a positive contribution to improving transportation and life in Belfast, but it will not happen without political leadership. I hope that the Minister and the Government will take this opportunity to look again at its potential.

4.31 pm

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