Further clarity is needed on obstacles to key York St junction

Morning View
Morning View

A row has flared up over the York Street interchange proposal in Belfast.

The infrastructure minister, Chris Hazzard, is blaming Brexit for the fact that the major upgrade has been put on hold.

The £165 million project will replace traffic lights at the point in north Belfast where the M2, M3 and Westlink all converge. It is highly congested, particularly for traffic travelling between the M2 at Fortwilliam and the Westlink/M1. The elaborate plans include flyovers and under-passes so that all movements between the three routes are free-flowing.

The scheme is eligible for significant European funding.

The Northern Ireland Office says that the chancellor, Philip Hammond, will guarantee funding for projects such as York Street so long as they are signed off before Brexit happens. Brexit is not likely to happen much before March 2019, two years after the trigger of Article 50.

These precise dates are relevant because Mr Hazzard says that the next opening to apply to the EU for funding for the scheme will probably be early 2018, and the outcome of the bid is unlikely to be known for a year or more after that. Thus “the project is unlikely to be signed off before Brexit”.

It needs to be made crystal clear to the public what point in the decision-making process is meant by “signed off” (the date when Hazzard approves it?). Is there anything he can do now to get the scheme moving towards being signed off, even if an option to postpone at the last minute is maintained?

The A5 and the A6 are important road schemes that will greatly improve transport in the west of Northern Ireland. Completing them and York Street will certainly be expensive.

EU funding is a major part of the financial jigsaw in this project. But Brexit is not the only reason that cash might be tight. Sinn Fein has an appetite for resisting any curbs on the lavish spending of UK taxpayer cash on various forms of public spending and so it cannot be surprised if there is limited money left for road schemes.