Official Report (Hansard)
Date: 24 April 2008
Presentation from the Blackwater Regional Partnership on the Ulster Canal
24 April 2008
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Ian Frazer ) Dungannon and South Tyrone Council
Councillor Sean Conlon ) Blackwater Regional Partnership
Mr Phelim Gildernew )
Mrs Julie McClean ) PricewaterhouseCoopers
Mr Neil McCullough )
Members, we move on to the next item on the agenda. I do not see the witnesses from the Blackwater Regional Partnership (BRP), but I am sure that they are about to join us.
Perhaps their barge is stuck in the Ulster Canal.
Members, I refer you to the letter from Monaghan County Council, dated 7 June 2007, on the reopening of the Ulster Canal, and the economic and tourism potential thereof. You also have the executive summary from the Ulster Canal socio-economic study, the report by PricewaterhouseCoopers on that study and a copy of the PowerPoint presentation from BRP.
I welcome the strong team from the Blackwater Regional Partnership. Will you introduce your team, Sean?
Councillor Sean Conlon (Blackwater Regional Partnership):
As you said, Chair, this morning’s presentation follows on from correspondence forwarded to the Committee in May 2007 and June 2007 from the elected members of Monaghan County Council. The aim of that correspondence was to seek support from the Northern Ireland Assembly for the reopening of the Ulster Canal. On behalf of the council, of which I am a member, and the Blackwater Regional Partnership, I thank you, Chairman, for the opportunity to address the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure.
BRP commissioned the feasibility study, and it was agreed that we join consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers at this morning’s meeting. I am delighted to be here in my role as chairman of BRP to assist with any queries that members may have, and other BRP members may also be asked for their comments.
I introduce Ian Frazer, who is sitting to my immediate left. He is one of the executive staff of BRP. He is also acting chief executive officer of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council. Also present is Councillor Noel Donnelly from Armagh City and District Council, and Phelim Gildernew from Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council. In addition, staff members from the Blackwater Regional Partnership are present — Emma McCabe, Julie Ann Spence and Catherine Fox. To my right are Julie McClean and Neil McCullough from PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In 1994, the counties of Armagh, Monaghan and Tyrone came together to form a strategic local authority alliance. The aim was to advance an integrated rural development strategy that encouraged cross-border co-operation among councils, the private sector, and — most importantly — the community sector.
Through a wide and varied series of rural-based programmes — funded through local authorities and EU finance — BRP is acknowledged as a key delivery mechanism for community building and support initiatives, particularly in assisting with village regeneration, outdoor pursuits, tourism, environmental management and enterprise training.
From that overview of our work — and I offer total credit and praise to the staff and officers based at Caledon — it is an obvious and natural progression that the Ulster Canal figures highly on our to-do list. On behalf of BRP and all elected voices throughout the three-county area — and especially the tens of thousands who live along the canal corridor — I hope that this project will also be on the to-do list of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) in the very near future.
Before handing over to Julie McClean from PricewaterhouseCoopers, I will make a brief comment on the cost of this project. The work will obviously come at a high price. However, when spread over a 10-year period, with finance from the British and Irish Governments, the EU, the United States, the International Fund for Ireland (IFI), private investment and more, the potential becomes entirely credible, and within grasp.
The tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was celebrated recently. Goodwill towards our collective efforts is at an all-time high. Many people agree that opportunities for overseas investment for peace and cross-community initiatives, such as the regeneration of the Ulster Canal, are likely to prevail for a limited time only. That in itself is a call for action.
The Irish Government recently gave their total ministerial commitment to a scheduled commencement, and I will briefly elaborate on that after the presentation. With that, I ask Julie to give a 10-minute summary of the findings from the socio-economic feasibility study that PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted in August 2006.
Mrs Julie McClean (PricewaterhouseCoopers):
Thanks, Sean. I will outline the structure of the presentation that I will go through today. It will take somewhere between five and 10 minutes. I will spend some time explaining the terms of reference that PricewaterhouseCoopers followed.
We conducted this study in conjunction with Tourism Development International, which is based in Dublin, and Ferguson & McIlveen. I will explain the remit for the study. It is useful to briefly outline the economic profile of the area, in order to set the scene and to give a context to the potential benefits that the restoration would bring.
The consultation was a widespread process, with input from various stakeholders, including the public, businesses and representatives from the various North/South statutory agencies. As a result of that rigorous economic analysis, we concluded that the regeneration would provide significant economic benefit.
The map outlines the position of the Ulster Canal, which is a 93 km stretch, connecting Lough Neagh with the Erne waterway system. It flows through a very picturesque area of the country, both north and south of the border. It incorporates three major urban centres — Dungannon, Monaghan and Armagh city. Along the length of the canal, there are attractive villages in great need of regeneration.
The study was a comprehensive socio-economic analysis of the Ulster Canal area. That analysis evaluated the facts and figures and included a public consultation of key stakeholder groups in the area. It considered the revenue-generating potential of restoration, the tourism potential, the wider economic impact and the benefits to other inland waterways. On the map, members can see what is meant when people talk of the canal as a “missing link”: were the Ulster Canal restored, it would connect Coleraine in the north with Limerick, Waterford and Dublin. It would link up many inland waterways in Ireland.
This is based on the work that we did in 2005 and 2006, so it is slightly out of date but still highly relevant. We defined a six-mile corridor either side of the canal. That area has a population of 100,000 and includes Armagh city, Dungannon, Monaghan and Clones, as well as smaller settlements, such as Charlemont, Moy, Blackwater and Benburb. Some of those small towns and villages are situated close to the canal. The population in that area is younger than the national average, and the economy relies heavily on agriculture and agribusiness, both of which face increasing pressures from competition. Arguably, both sectors are in decline. Tourism is greatly underdeveloped in that area; however, a visit to the area reveals huge potential, but little happening. When we visited the area, it was often difficult to find somewhere to stay. Facilities are sparsely distributed and underdeveloped. Earnings and house prices are below average. Generally, there is a feeling that the area is disadvantaged, deprived and in need of regeneration. There is evidence that the border has constrained development opportunities.
Earlier, Sean Conlon mentioned the cost of restoring the canal. In January 2006, Ferguson & McIlveen estimated that, at current prices, the capital cost would be £125 million. This is a major engineering project: the canal is 93 km long; it has 26 locks, 56 bridges and many other associated structures, including lock-keepers’ cottages and canal stores. Some of those structures have been restored, but most have not. The amount of work involved is significant.
The conclusion of the most up-to-date version of the feasibility study, conducted in 2001, is that it was:
“A major cross-border construction project with potential for significant economic, social and spin-off effects in the long term.”
This study was commissioned to consider the benefits of restoration. I want to tell the Committee about the views of the local community. Our consultation exercise was extensive: we talked to more than 20 community groups based along the canal. We set up six focus groups, which included members of the general public. We spoke to retailers and businesses, as well as to representatives of central Government and the various agencies.
We felt that it was very important that the consultation was robust and needed to be strongly representative of the views of the area. We were pleased and, from an analytical point of view, it made the job easier, as there was a positive reaction from the community and the general public.
The public are very supportive of the idea of the restoration and feel that it will attract large-scale tourism to an area of disadvantage. It is seen as an opportunity to showcase the existing heritage of the area, which, in some cases, is already happening. However, there is still much more to be done to showcase that existing heritage.
The regeneration will also provide the missing link that we talked about earlier and, people do see that as bringing significant benefits, both to the area and to the wider network of waterways in Ireland. Additionally, it will stimulate the regeneration of towns and villages in the area, one of the concepts about which people are most enthusiastic.
The people who live there are very passionate about the area. However, they feel that it is lagging behind, due to being neglected during the Troubles, and that work needs to be done to restore the villages.
The regeneration is also expected to bring significant benefits to local businesses. This will be mostly in the area of tourism and hospitality, but local retailers can see how they would benefit from increased visitors, tourists and more people wanting to live in the area.
Everyone whom we interviewed compared the project with the success of the Ballyconnell and Newry canals. They could see the significant impact that restoration has made there in attracting people for walking, cycling, boating and other water-based activities.
Despite the overall positive reaction, there was some concern about the cost of the project. People in the area wanted reassurance that the money would not be diverted from schools and hospitals to pay for the work. Therefore, although there was a really strong desire for the project to happen, there was also some concern about the costs.
During the course of the consultation, we interviewed 100 businesses, North and South. Again, we had a very positive reaction and those we spoke to saw benefits to both the community and to them as individual businesses. On the whole, businesses south of the border were more positive than those in Northern Ireland, and there was a higher level of scepticism in the North. However, there was a feeling across the board that businesses expected to see increased profits, increased customer numbers and a growth in employee numbers as a direct result of the regeneration. They expected the main benefit to be to the tourism and hospitality industries but also felt that retailers, estate agents and other businesses could benefit.
Moving on to a summary of the economic benefits of the regeneration, the analysis shows that increased tourism in the area would amount to £3·14 million per annum. Broader economic regeneration, including hospitality, new housing and ancillary businesses, would create an additional £5 million to £10 million per annum. Furthermore, 12 sites or nodes, totalling 23 acres, were identified as potential development areas along the length of the canal — development that could, potentially, bring in further revenue.
Another benefit is job creation. The first major area of growth would be in the construction sector. Our estimates show that the work involved in the actual construction and regeneration of the canal would bring in 3,000 jobs per year, which is the equivalent of 2,300 to 2,600 job years.
The regeneration process will create approximately 300 to 400 jobs. In addition, analysis showed — and it is difficult to quantify — that the public exchequer will receive additional funds through VAT, rates to local councils and income tax. Therefore, we envisage significant benefits from the restoration of the canal. This is not simply a leisure or tourism project; it is a regeneration project, which will bring far-reaching benefits beyond the physical restoration of the canal. Communities along the canal will benefit greatly.
It is important to highlight some of the unquantifiable benefits, sometimes referred to as “softer” benefits — although I do not like that term because it downgrades those important benefits. Restoration would bring major health benefits and encourage more visitors to come to the area to walk, cycle and participate in other outdoor activities. Therefore, the project will not only increase boating and cruising opportunities — and many people consider those minority activities — but will stimulate various other activities, in which everyone can participate.
The project will bring environmental and heritage benefits and will link with the rest of the inland waterway network — that will encourage more people to visit the region. It will stimulate cross-border co-operation and will, importantly, increase community morale. Community groups and members of the public report low morale in the area and want the regeneration project to address the disadvantage there.
Furthermore, the restoration of the canal will improve the external perception of the area and may encourage foreign direct investment.
The Assembly, in partnership with the Irish Government and other agencies, can make a vital contribution to this project. Apart from DCAL, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) have roles to play. The region is dependent on agriculture to generate income. However, there has been a culture of entrepreneurial area spirit in the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector, which will be improved by the positive spin-off effects. Businesses will not simply come to the area as soon as we dig the canal; we must make a huge effort to attract business and to create financial and tax incentives. Many of the mechanisms have been employed in other areas in need of regeneration and have proved successful.
Over the past number of years, Monaghan County Council has engaged with Minister Éamon Ó’Cuív, who has had the same portfolio for the past three, four or five years. He recognised the merits of our appeal and considered the Ulster Canal to be worthy of considerable investment. Blackwater Regional Partnership has worked with the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland — a large lobbying group that has networks across Ireland and aims to encourage people to use the waterways. That organisation made its argument forcefully to the Government and local authorities.
There are roles to play for Waterways Ireland, an Enniskillen-based agency set up under the Good Friday Agreement, and BRP, which has already contributed to community development.
After years of lobbying by Blackwater Regional Partnership, the Irish government have committed €35 million to help to renovate approximately 13 km of the canal, from the Fermanagh-Cavan-Monaghan border area of Wattlebridge up to Clones town to the west of County Monaghan. The money will help to pay for 13 bridges, five road-crossings and quite a number of 4 ·5-metre-wide towpaths along each side of the waterway, along with at least one mooring area or marina, probably in the Clones area.
The project is expected to take three years. A consultant, recruited within the coming months through advertising in the ‘European Journal’, will oversee design, planning, land acquisition and other parts of the scheme; a process that will take until 2011. Construction is due to start in 2011 and end in 2013, showing a level of commitment that reflects the project’s merits.
BRP wants the Committee to grant the same recognition to the project, because doing so may help it to secure some of the $150 million of New York city pension funds that are being invested in the recently announced emerald infrastructure development fund. We think the international community, and in particular philanthropists, will be amenable to investing in the project if it is presented as a tangible, on-the-ground, cross-border and cross-community initiative.
I hope that the Committee also recognises those merits and will provide a commitment within weeks on how best to take forward the plans.
Thank you for the presentation.
The Committee has been treated to the latest in series of excellent presentations. I have a long-term interest in the subject, and sense a degree of frustration in the complete lack of progress being made on a worthwhile and excellent project. I wonder why better people than me are not moving it along. I think the witnesses need to address that for the Committee. I have questions that will enable me to form an opinion.
Are any territorial claims likely to arise and cause problems along this 93 km corridor? The economic benefits that were referred to related to 2006; have those benefits improved since then and could they be further improved? By how much has the £125 million capital cost estimate of 2006 increased, and what are the projected costs on completion? Why is local Irish business more positive about the project than its Northern Ireland counterpart, and how can that be corrected?
Private investment was mentioned; as was the fact that Northern Ireland will host a major international investment conference next month. How will BRP take advantage of that? Will BRP make a presentation at the conference? Will it lobby the delegates? Who would BRP want to talk to? Above all else, Mr Thomson has said that he wants a return for their money, which I assume should be a competitive return. What kind of return could BRP offer an investment agent such as Mr Thomson?
Waterways Ireland is responsible for the engineering restoration but it has no remit for the economic regeneration. Therefore, an overarching body combining all those interests is required — what progress has been made on establishing that? I am not criticising BRP; I want to make a constructive comment. It seems that BRP has got the project to this point and now realises that it needs to take it further, and that would happen if an overarching body were put in place.
It is difficult to appreciate where the project is going. Although I appreciate and support where BRP hopes to get to, from an economic perspective, it is difficult to reconcile the objectives stated in the presentation with the fact that the overarching body — the next part of the project — is not in place yet. Members need to know when BRP thinks that body will be in place, because that process could drag on and take a long time.
I will make a few comments first, and then other members of BRP are welcome to comment. Either Neil or Julie may be able to comment on a few of the questions about the results of the feasibility study on the economics of the project.
We are all familiar with large capital projects encompassing large swathes of land, be they for motorways or suchlike. If there are difficulties with territorial claims, there could be considerable hold ups with, say, compulsory purchase orders or claims for land along the route. We have not addressed that specifically; however, our first objective is to get all the partners on board and see total commitment from all sides, and that may cover quite a few of the points raised by Mr McNarry. It was suggested that the Northern Irish respondents to the feasibility study may not have shown as much enthusiasm for the project; however, that objective, which is about generating leadership from all sectors and all statutory organisations, will lend itself to people responding enthusiastically to the project.
When the project commences, BRP wants to protect and sterilise the route from any development or building work. On the Monaghan end, there is a sterilised zone that must be preserved, regardless of any planning application that is lodged. That would be the first step towards preventing someone from building any sort of fancy project that may impede the canal project or result in extra costs for it. The first priority for the various councils’ planning sections is to sterilise that route.
Although it has a limited remit, Waterways Ireland contributes significantly to the waterways throughout the six counties and the rest of Ireland —
Excuse me — with all due respect, this is not the six counties.
I beg your pardon.
I am going to make a ruling on that — I am not going to be hard on anyone for how they term things. I might say tomato; somebody else might say “tomayto”. I will respect the ideology of any witness, whatever it may be.
You may respect it, but I would not —
I will make a ruling on it.
You cannot make a ruling on it.
I will make a ruling on it.
You do not have the authority to do that.
I will make a ruling on it. I want people to respect each other’s sensitivities on that matter. I am aware that the deputation today is composed of representatives from the North and the South and is unionist and nationalist in character.
Please continue, Mr Conlon.
Waterways Ireland has a limited role, and the appointment of a lead agency is required for a project that encompasses a wide range of interests and incorporates a variety of agencies. As a result of signing up the various agencies, a lead agency will be appointed to advance the project. Mr McNarry referred to the economic conference, which would provide a sterling opportunity to secure investment.
Mr Ian Frazer (Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council):
Mr McNarry raised two issues, the first of which concerned the investment conference. Recently, we met representatives from the Department for Social Development (DSD) to discuss opportunities at the investment conference for local authorities. From the briefing that we received, unless a lot more work is prepared, seeking investment at that conference would be unsuccessful.
Secondly, there is already an initiative from Lisburn City Council to examine an east-west link, which would open up a waterways corridor from Belfast through to Limerick and Ballyshannon. Our initial interest is in the Ulster Canal, which we are expected to promote vigorously. However, we see the opportunity to work with other initiatives, such as the east-west link, the Lagan navigation system and the Newry Ship Canal, to develop a network of waterways. Members have seen the map and noticed the gap in the infrastructure of waterways. I do not want to talk about other issues, but there is also a big gap in the railways. We are happy that a new road network was announced recently, but we regard the reopening of the Ulster Canal as another major infrastructural development, which will have lasting benefits for the rural community.
Are outside investors showing an interest in the project?
I cannot gauge that. However, outside investment is a future opportunity, and we were advised by the Department for Social Development to await the outcome of the investment conference and identify specific funding opportunities. There is nothing to be gained by approaching outside investors without a clear and concise business plan — without that, the people at the investment conference will not have much time for us.
Have the cost estimates from 2006 increased, or have they improved? The Irish Government are investing €35 million for 13 km; forgive my ignorance, is that 13 km out of the total 93 km, and, therefore, €35 million out of the £125 million, whatever that is after conversion?
Yes, it is.
That is why Irish business folk are a bit more interested — they can see some money on the table.
Yes, of course. There is a long-standing commitment from the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. There is a passionate core group among the enthusiasts who have, for considerable time, been willing to put up at least £1 million from the outset. Therefore, there is huge enthusiasm from the enthusiasts, and there would be a similar gesture of goodwill from different sections of the private sector.
Mr Neil McCullough (PricewaterhouseCoopers):
Our work on the economic benefits was completed in 2006, and, in many cases, it was based on trends from 2005. We have not done any work on that since then. The headlines about the economic environment have changed for the worse, but the mood is uncertain rather than downbeat. That might have a negative impact on the trends that we used, but the population, level of wages, rate of employment and — more importantly — level of tourism in Northern Ireland are all increasing. Therefore, there is a chance of a positive effect on our 2006 figures.
On balance, I am not sure whether those have increased or decreased; we would need to do the estimates again.
The estimated capital cost of the canal restoration was £125 million in January 2006. What is the estimated cost now?
It is difficult to say; we would need Ferguson & McIlveen to examine that estimate.
That figure was worked out by the engineers, Ferguson & McIlveen. The estimate was made specifically for our study at that time, and would need to be recalculated.
It is unsatisfactory to be presented with figures estimated at a time when the project was still five years away. Surely a guestimate of the current figures could be made. Has the estimated cost increased by 10%?
The Department would ask that same question.
It is the question that I am asking, and that anyone would ask. An investor would not accept an estimated cost figure of £125 million that had been worked out two years ago. If you quoted those figures to Sir Alan Sugar in ‘The Apprentice’, you would be fired.
As a good public representative, I do not have time to watch ‘The Apprentice’.
We still have not been given an answer to that; could an answer be forwarded to us?
Wage costs and the annual rate of inflation have been factored in. Property prices in the Monaghan area have steadied off considerably, and, indeed, reduced by 15%. I cannot give the specific answer that Mr McNarry wants, but I do not envisage the estimated cost increasing hugely. We will formalise the necessary mechanisms and return to the Committee with a figure.
Ok, that is necessary and legitimate.
At this point, it would be dangerous to estimate a figure. However, we are happy to consult with our counterparts Ferguson & McIlveen, which made the initial calculations.
I do not want to mention the Maze stadium, the Committee’s hardy annual; we are blowed if we can get any accurate figures about how much that will cost. Similarly, we are not going to agree to the canal project without knowing the relevant figures.
You are not going to say yes anyway.
I am in a bit of a hurry. It is one of those days — I have a tour to do at 12.15 pm and another at 12.30 pm. Thank-you for the presentation, it was very interesting.
Is there any indication of how many long-term jobs the project will create? Reference was made to the 2,500 or 3,000 construction jobs that will be created, but we must look beyond the short term. It was mentioned that the project’s cultural heritage could attract tourists. Has the business plan identified where those tourists will come from? Is there room for fishing opportunities in the proposals? Boats and fishing do not mix well in a small canal, but fishing might also attract tourists.
Blackwater Regeneration Partnership has undertaken work to develop natural resource tourism. We should not lose sight of the socio-economic benefits of a corridor by focusing merely on the waterway.
Confidence will help to create jobs. The area has a strong culture of self-help and entrepreneurial development at SME level. We hope that a public expression of confidence will be matched by the public and private sectors, allowing small businesses to thrive. An injection of confidence is needed right along the corridor.
The waterway is a means of developing the corridor. The socio-economic results show that the corridor needs to be regenerated; we acknowledge that. I am not sure whether that answers Mr Shannon’s questions.
The presentation states that there is potential for cultural heritage tourism. From where will those tourists come? This is a constructive comment, but not everyone is a boating enthusiast, for instance.
Members will be aware that the Tourist Board identified a number of signature projects, but none of the significant projects is in the west. We see this as a signature project that encompasses a few complementary activities, such as outdoor pursuits. We have been advised that cultural and heritage tourism is the next new market. I accept that the area that we are trying to develop is aimed at a niche market. We are not going for the sun-and-sand market, but it is a niche market that will rely heavily on marketing. The tourists will comprise canal users plus short-stay visitors from the home market. This is an area of Ireland that few people have visited or know much about, but it has great potential.
Through Blackwater Regional Partnership, we have initiated a few angling classics. There are upwards of 600 lakes in the BRP region, but not all of them are along the Ulster Canal. From the map, one can see that there are a considerable number of lakes and areas at which anglers and barges could stop for fishing.
That is off the corridor, which is a good point. It goes back to what Mr Frazer said about the development not merely being for the benefit of one area.
The canal is the catalyst for development, but there will be spin-offs. We have identified a six-mile corridor, but the project is not defined by that six-mile stretch. The whole region should benefit from the regeneration, and it is important that it does.
How much responsibility will Blackwater Regional Partnership take for marinas, for example, which are essential to a working canal? Are private developers expected to propose plans to develop marinas at points along the canal? Where is the biggest engineering obstacle? I assume that it is in the North.
It is not.
That is interesting; I thought that it would be.
There is a significant obstacle in the way of a navigable waterway at the bridge over the M1. It is too low to allow the type of craft that we want to attract. There will be a significant cost to bypass that obstacle, but it is not insurmountable. Engineers have looked at it, and they have advised us that it will be possible to develop a passage without making major changes to the bridge.
We expect that the private sector will be involved in the marinas, but the public sector also has a responsibility to identify areas where marinas can be developed. The developed canal does not run through the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council area; the only navigable part of the canal is the Blackwater River. We have identified sites on the Blackwater River at which we would like to see marinas, and they would link in with the Coalisland Canal — another urban link. So, there are opportunities.
There are villages on the waterway, such as Caledon and Glasslough. There are, therefore, a few opportunities for marina development. We want to achieve a comprehensive development plan by working within a partnership of public and private interests.
We will ensure that the infrastructure is in place for developers to plan their hotel, marina and mooring opportunities. I am a representative of Monaghan County Council, and it is in that town that the biggest difficulties are most obvious. In the decades since the canal closed, the path has been built on extensively, and some creative engineering will be required there. As members will see from the map, Monaghan town is in the middle section of the canal, and it will — most likely — be the last section to be developed. That is regrettable for me, but I am here for the bigger picture and the bigger plan.
Mr D Bradley:
Good afternoon. This is a very interesting project and one that will have a major and beneficial impact on the whole area. With which Departments and public bodies have BRP’s plans been discussed? What sort of commitment have they offered?
The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland has been one of the driving forces. Through public meetings and direct meetings with Monaghan County Council officials and councillors, it convinced the council of the merits of the project. We needed no convincing: the association was knocking at an open door. Inland Waterways is more than keen. When asked to, it will forward a considerable fund for the start-up: £1 million has been mentioned as the preliminary figure.
Furthermore, we have lobbied Waterways Ireland, and it is onboard. Its officials attended meetings that we held nine months or a year ago, the last of which was held in the Armagh City Hotel. Those meetings were well attended: several hundred people showed up at each.
In the Irish Government, Éamon Ó Cuív, has shown interest, both on visits to the county, which he has made from time to time, and in receiving delegations, which the council has sent to his offices in Leinster House. Correspondence regarding the canal has been regular and ongoing. Obviously, the project has been positively received, since the Irish Government are committed to investing €35 million in it.
The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland may have been in touch with the International Fund for Ireland — I am not sure — but there is a groundswell of enthusiasm in favour of the project, and I would be surprised if the Inland Waterways Association has not been networking further. Support is extensive and is gathering pace.
Mr D Bradley:
The lead Department on this side of the border is DCAL. Has BRP met with departmental officials? What response has it been met with?
The Chairperson mentioned the June correspondence. In May, our original letter was sent to DCAL: the minutes of the council meeting are on the Monaghan County Council website. All the details are in the minutes of the May meeting. DCAL’s response was that the matter would have to go to the Committee. I expect that the departmental officials passed the letter on to the Committee.
Mr D Bradley:
BRP has not, then, met with DCAL officials as yet? That is something that BRP should tackle with some urgency.
Yes. DCAL realises that power lies with the Committee. That is why its officials told us that we should meet with this Committee first. However, I appreciate that the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and DCAL should co-operate.
I recall that Edwin Poots brought this to the House in the form of a North/South Ministerial Council sectoral format statement. Therefore, Éamon Ó Cuív and Edwin Poots have been engaged on this.
Mr K Robinson:
I thank the witnesses for attending.
Firstly, may we strip away the consultants’ jargon? Those of us who are local councillors are fluent in that language. We have skimmed through this and we are pulling the bones out of the argument.
This morning, I have waited in vain to hear one aspect, which no one has mentioned: the farming community. I know the area well: I have travelled through it and I worked in it for two years. It is beautiful, and farming is all around. Will the farmers chip in something towards the project? Will they give the land that might need at a reasonable price, or restore land to the canal? Or is it an opportunity for them to make a little extra? Money might come from that source.
How could private-venture money be attracted? Could developers be enticed into the area to build houses or whatever is required, and would they put money into the kitty?
The Department and the regional authority have grave difficulty in stretching the money to cover everything that they are required to do. I am sympathetic to BRP’s scheme, and I would love to see it go ahead. However, it has been said that people in the North are sceptical. To paraphrase what my friend David McNarry said, people in Northern Ireland are realistic and like to see value for money.
How will private funding from the farming lobby, the local SMEs, or people with entrepreneurial or genealogical links to the area be generated? Can BRP give me a guarantee today that it can generate sufficient private funding to allow the Committee to agree to, if not match, that level of funding, or at least invest a significant slice of public money in the project?
I am glad that the Lagan towpath was mentioned, because I was going to ask about that. The towpath should be up and running; although as I am not a Lisburn councillor, perhaps I should not comment. The presentation missed out Maghery, Verner’s Inn ‘and Verner’s bridge. I take it that was because that is the navigable part of the river.
Yes; that is the River Blackwater, on which quite a few stretches are navigable.
Mr K Robinson:
Marinas in the area were not mentioned.
There is one at Oxford Island.
Mr K Robinson:
Is that because it is not a true canal?
Yes; it is on a different part of the river.
Mr K Robinson:
BRP and I have seen the potential in the area, and I can see that potential being realised, but BRP must prove to the Committee that the scheme warrants some of DCAL’s money.
I do not wish to sound flippant, but I have experience of working with members of the farming community, and I am aware of the difficulties that they face. Therefore, we do not normally ask farmers for money. In fact, if possible, we usually promise money to farmers.
Land acquisition is an issue, and much of the canal, particularly from Charlemont to Caledon, has disappeared, although some infrastructure remains, such as bridges and locks. As Sean said, one of our priorities is to protect the route of the canal so that, if possible and if we get funding, we can recover that land at market value.
Mr K Robinson:
I am sorry to interrupt, but the term “sterilising” was used when describing the protection of the route in the Republic. Do we have the potential to sterilise the northern part of the route?
Yes; there is an opportunity under area plans to identify the route as protected from development.
Mr K Robinson:
The environmental lobby did not seem to be totally on board. The area concerned is beautiful and is home to many flora and fauna that would require protection. Has that diminished the enthusiasm of the environmental lobby?
The protection of flora and fauna is one of several factors. The environmental lobby wants to ensure that the project is correctly implemented and the heritage properly restored. The lobby has a positive view and considers that if done well, the project could represent a genuine opportunity to restore a great deal of heritage.
Three or four years ago, a series of meetings was held at which the majority of attendees were from the farming community. The future of the agriculture industry is topical and features regularly in the media. There is a recognised need for diversification, and, as many farmers with vision and foresight realise, allowing a small proportion of their land to be used in the scheme would contribute to their ability to sustain their holdings and livelihoods.
During construction, there will inevitably be some disruption. However, when the towpath is in place, it will cover a limited area. The restoration of the canal is not nearly as controversial as hill rambling, where trespassing and so forth can create great difficulties. The towpath will be clearly defined and will lend itself well to the sustainability of the farming community.
Thank you for your excellent presentation. I assume that the €35 million that was mentioned could be used to restore a small part of the canal. Has BRP devised a programme whereby the project could be split into six or seven stages, or will it consider that in future?
Will BRP adopt a phased approach?
Will that €35 million go towards a defined part of the canal that is manageable and will produce benefits, rather than simply contribute to a certain amount of kilometres of the canal?
We do not expect to complete the scheme within a defined time period. This socio-economic study was launched in Parliament Buildings two years ago. Monaghan County Council’s request, taken up by the Blackwater Regional Partnership, has given this a new impetus. I acknowledge that much work needs to be done, and we must form partnerships with the farming lobby, particularly the Ulster Farmers’ Union. There are drainage issues, too.
This must, ideally, be a phased development. The Irish Government have made a commitment to the Clones link, and it would be a pity if the Assembly did not try to improve navigation on the Blackwater River. We must deal with the bridge over the motorway, which is a major engineering obstruction. Along the route from Charlemont to the border, a vast area — perhaps two miles — of the canal runs through private estates, and those areas need only to be cleaned out. They have been protected naturally because there was no development on those estates.
We could open a public footpath to protect the route. It will be dealt with as a phased development; it is not a one-off scheme that will start in two years and finish in three. Rather it is a generation of work.
Mr Phelim Gildernew (Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council):
On the same point, as was said, there are bits and pieces that Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council can do. In the bigger picture, it must be a cross-border project to guarantee funding; that is a very important issue. The project must commence sooner rather than later.
PricewaterhouseCoopers completed its report in 2006. Are there plans to update that report to incorporate any developments? First, the new dualling project from Derry to Aughnacloy to Monaghan will have an impact on access; that was, perhaps, factored into the report.
Secondly, RPA will move Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council and Armagh City and District Council into wider council areas. Those areas will benefit from the scheme, and that will strengthen BRP’s argument. Will the report be updated to incorporate that development?
The opportunity to make this presentation has given us new impetus. Blackwater Regional Partnership considers this a major project for the foreseeable future. Ongoing work in other areas complements the project, and Blackwater Regional Partnership wants to be considered the conduit to progress the project. We recognise that we do not have the resources or the expertise to act on our own, and, therefore, we must work in partnership with the Departments.
Under RPA, Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council will join with Cookstown District Council and Magherafelt District Council, neither of which are border councils. Armagh City and District Council will join with Banbridge District Council and Craigavon Borough Council, neither of which are border councils. This is a major border initiative, which the new councils should consider as complementary to their regions. Members will know that 30% of the new Peace programme funding must be directed at cross-border initiatives, and we will continue to work on ancillary projects to complement this project.
During the previous Assembly, Members took a tour of the Ulster Canal, and, as was mentioned earlier, much of it was built over. At that stage, the proposed cost of the project was £100 million. It is currently £125 million, and the longer we delay, the more it will increase.
Do you remember the French restaurant at Belturbet just off the canal?
I support the project. A lot of money must be found from different Departments. There is a big gap of £90 million between the £35 million that BRP has been promised and the £125 million that is needed. BRP needs a commitment from somewhere, but I do not know that that commitment is about in this Building at a time when everyone is shouting for money for health and education. I wish BRP well, and I support what it is trying to do.
Can you make a brief concluding remark on that?
I reinforce the point that the project will be a work in progress for generations. We do not expect the Ulster Canal to be opened in five or 10 years time, but we expect developments to commence as quickly as possible, leading to an end result.
Mr McCarthy’s remarks on costing are appropriate — that is the most difficult challenge that the project faces. I appreciate that it would be impossible for the exchequers of the British and Irish Governments to try to take on the project with one or two agencies. However, I will close with my earlier comments about the current political climate and the international favour that Northern Ireland and the border area have had over recent years, for good and sound reasons.
The timing is of the essence; if a number of years were to slip by, there would be a realistic threat that the opportunity could be lost. In the current climate, the timing is good, but we are not looking for a big bang. A phased approach is needed, and, if, over the years, it is divided among a variety of agencies, the project is doable. I look forward to future comments on that.
Some of our strong messages are about updating the business case and seeking an urgent meeting with the Department at ministerial and senior official level.
I reiterate the point about the neglect of the border areas, which I am sure the Committee has taken on board. That must be put in some order. At a later date, the Committee may consider bringing a motion to the Assembly on that issue. If that were our intention, we would need to discuss that. How soon could BRP fill the gaps that we have mentioned, and bring that to the Committee? We could not currently bring a motion to the Assembly because Members would ask the same questions that we have asked.
As an executive officer, I am encouraged by today’s comments. They have given us further impetus to move forward. It is opportune that our staff are coming to the end of previously funded programmes. We will have the resources to bring the Committee’s recommendations forward as quickly as possible. As a result of today’s meeting, I expect the board of Blackwater Regional Partnership to be advised that moving forward with a proper business case is a priority.
We are not raising expectations, but the Committee might be, to use that terrible term, “minded” to give the issue further consideration and to take it up the ladder. It would be good if there were an impetus from the Committee, which we will need to discuss.
The board would be willing to move that forward. At executive officer level, I will advise it to move forward as quickly as possible.
I thank the team for coming along.