The frozen political situation in Northern Ireland is affecting many aspects of public life and cycling infrastructure development appears to be slowing too.
The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has been without a fully empowered Minister since the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive in January 2017. With uncertainty over budgets, and the Department running under the stewardship of a Permanent Secretary unable to make substantial changes to policy and spending, the roll out of the Bicycle Strategy has been drifting.
It’s not for the want of effort and focus from DfI, who have ensured active travel is central to its Corporate Plan 2017-2021 and Business Plan 2017-2018, released on Monday.
In the business plan to the end of this financial year, under the outcome to “increase the % of journeys that are made by walking, cycling and public transport”, there are three major cycling infrastructure actions:
- introduce a capital grant scheme for greenways
- publishing an agreed Belfast Bicycle Network Plan
- completing the High Street and Middlepath Street bicycle infrastructure schemes
Bikefast asked the Department if these three priorities would proceed regardless of whether or not there’s a Minister in post during the remainder of 2017-18:
“The Department is continuing to work on the development of a Capital Grants Programme for Greenways and the Belfast Bicycle Network plan. We hope to be in a position to publish them by 31st March 2018, subject to resolving issues raised in the consultation and Ministerial agreement.
Work is also continuing on the High Street and Middlepath Street schemes where we are still working through the consultation process.”
The cautious response is understandable in the circumstances. In practical terms it could be more than 17 months between the November 2016 launch of the Greenway Strategy and the launch of a Capital Grants Programme to fund construction if a Minister is in place by that time.
Similarly the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan could spend over 14 months in consultation and revision before being finalised if a Minister is in place by that time.
This is the first confirmation that the overall timescales for the Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland (August 2015) have begun to drift. Initial routes on the ‘spines’ of both the greenway network and the Belfast cycling network were pencilled in to have started halfway to 2020.
Continuing progress on the High Street and Middlepath schemes is welcome and with planning having been initiated before the collapse of the Executive, Bikefast expects these projects will be funded in 2017-18 without the need for Ministerial approval.
The vision for active travel within the Corporate Plan sounds encouraging:
“We compete economically, not just for markets and investment but also skills and talent. In developing our programmes and plans we recognise the need to focus on the wider impact, to ensure our infrastructure contributes to building attractive sustainable environments, communities and town centres that people want to live, work and socialise in. Vibrant urban areas where pedestrians and cyclists have priority are key to attracting the talent and skills we will need. Both Belfast and Derry will be our regional drivers and key to achieving this.”
And the language introduced by the last DfI Minister Chris Hazzard appears to have embedded itself into a strategic direction away from car travel:
“The road network is currently operating at capacity in some areas. Relying on the building of new roads alone will not be sufficient to address the demands placed on the road network and to reduce congestion. In parallel, we will continue to encourage more people to use public transport as an alternative to the car for longer journeys, and walking or cycling for shorter journeys. This will reduce demand on the road network allowing it to work more efficiently; assist in the better movement of freight; reduce emissions and improve health by increasing levels of physical activity.”