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The Department for Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon has written to Newry, Mourne and Down Council CEO Marie Ward, stating that value for money and the economic assessment sent to her by the Council in June will be important considerations informing her decision on whether the proposed Southern Relief Road Bridge over Newry Canal is a lifting or a fixed bridge. The letter marked for Noting is on the agenda for this Monday's Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism meeting.

Volharding leaves Albert Basin in May. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Volharding leaves Albert Basin in May. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

Plans are progressing for the Southern Relief Road planned to carry traffic from Warrenpoint Dual Carriageway up to the A1. The chosen route travels over Newry Ship Canal with the potential of closing off access to Newry from Carlingford Lough forever.

The economic assessment titled 'Economic Assessment of Water based Activities' was commissioned by Council and caused consternation when it was produced in April, with Councillor's requesting more time to study the document. Eventually it was debated in May and approved by Councillors to be sent to DFI, but along with it they agreed to include a letter saying that the Council's 'Preferred Option' is for a lifting bridge.

It is the understanding of that the economic assessment in question concluded that a lifting bridge wouldn't be financially viable and recommended options that essentially would mean that a fixed bridge was the Council commissioned report's 'Preferred Option' from an economic point of view which made the addition of a contradictory letter at the time even more bewildering.

The DFI Minister commenting on the letter said "I fully acknowledge the Council's preferred option is for a lifting bridge over the Newry Canal. I also appreciate the importance of the maritime heritage of the Newry Ship Canal.

"I intend to engage with other stakeholders, including DFC Historic Environment Division, before making a decision on the next steps." asked Council for a copy of the Economic Assessment. We were refused but now a little light is thrown on the content of it from the Minister's reply.

Minister Mallon's letter adds "This assessment concludes that the loss to the NI economy by not having a lifting bridge at Newry would be £98k over the 60 years. Officials have advised me the additional cost of an opening structure is in the range of £18m - £32m, including ongoing operation and maintenance costs, over the same 60 year period.

"The demonstration of value for money and the economic assessment for the proposed Newry Southern Relief Road will be important considerations informing my decision on the type of bridge to be provided over Newry Ship Canal."

Campaigners who are determined that a bridge as part of the Southern Relief Road will not bring to an end over 250 years of Newry maritime history have expressed their concerns that the economic assessment was based on shipping traffic in the past when they believe Newry, Mourne and Down District Council didn't promote or encourage use of the facilities and doesn't take into account the massive future potential such a facility could have.

The statistics from the assessment mentioned in the Ministers letter are interesting indeed. Can you predict a specific loss to the economy over the next 60 years based (presumably) on the past 20 or 30 years of inactivity in the Albert Basin and on Newry Canal? A busy Newry Canal and a marina at the New Albert Basin Park could contribute massively to the local economy here in the future! Over 60 years the figure of £18m - £32m would mean a cost of £300k to £500k a year. Surely with regular festivals, spend from visitors, berthing fees etc that figure could be easily justified. Drogheda's annual Maritime Festival held up to 2018 attracted around 40,000 visitors a year and it would be surprising if they didn't on average spend €20 each. That's €800,000 from just one event!

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