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Infrastructure blog

Northern Ireland assembly returns

16 January 2020

After a three-year hiatus, Northern Ireland now sees the return of its Assembly and the appointment of new Ministers to lead each of the government departments.

Northern Ireland assembly returns
Nichola Mallen NI Infrastructure Minister

After a three-year hiatus, Northern Ireland now sees the return of its Assembly and the appointment of new Ministers to lead each of the government departments.

ICE welcomes the return of the Assembly and its Executive and looks forward to engaging with the new Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, as she takes on her Infrastructure portfolio. The ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement clearly acknowledges the central role that infrastructure plays in connecting us all and shaping our quality of life. A number of infrastructure projects are highlighted for investment from the Executive and from the UK and Irish governments. The Minister has already noted her plans for a collaborative approach, building partnerships to deliver a sustainable infrastructure system that supports improved wellbeing for all.

One of the key points made in the agreement is the move away from single-year budgets, which have caused undoubted problems, particularly for infrastructure. This is very welcome, as longer-term funding provides more certainty, often offering better value for money and allowing the supply chain to invest in training and development.

There are a range of infrastructure areas in need of immediate action and funding decisions, notably wastewater and strategic roads projects, as well as ongoing maintenance programmes.

Capacity issues in a large number of wastewater treatment works are leading to stymied development and growth right across Northern Ireland. A number of strategic roads projects are underway or in the pipeline – these can improve connectivity and mobility for people and goods but need to be balanced with investment in sustainable travel options, particularly at a local and individual level, including public transport and cycling networks.

There is a need to address the new lifeblood of connectivity, by driving the provision of an improved broadband network for all, and we must also make swift progress in addressing our energy needs and waste management, particularly in the drive for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. We look forward to a leading approach on the net-zero strategy from the Executive.

There has already been a lot of good work done in recent years – the last Programme for Government took an outcomes-based approach and noted the aim to ‘Connect people and opportunities through our infrastructure’.

ICE is keen that the Executive takes the opportunity to build on those priorities and shape a strategic vision for Northern Ireland’s future. Our recent report, Enabling Better Infrastructure, brings together best practice examples from around the world, and notes that an infrastructure plan needs to begin with establishing a vision for infrastructure, ahead of conducting a needs assessment and then developing an infrastructure strategy. ICE is bringing together a range of sector experts in Northern Ireland to shape a report examining the need for an Independent Advisory Body for Infrastructure for NI – one that can support the Minister and Executive to make the strategic decisions and prioritise the right investment to improve opportunities for all of us living and working here.

As we all grapple with the challenges of the climate emergency, we must balance infrastructure investment by increasing sustainable travel options and encouraging (and undertaking!) behavioural change. Infrastructure has a role to play in achieving all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and there is a real opportunity for the Minister to take a lead on driving a sustainable infrastructure programme that will meet the needs of our society and unlock opportunities for the future success of Northern Ireland. As an independent professional body, ICE is well-placed to support the Minister, and looks forward to engaging with her as she shapes her agenda.

  • Jenny Green, regional director Northern Ireland at Institution of Civil Engineers