Adjournment Debate: Comber Greenway 3 March 2020

Transcript below:

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): In conjunction with the Business Committee, I have given leave to Mr Robin Newton to raise the matter of investment in the Comber Greenway. The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for Infrastructure for taking time away from what I know are many very busy and competing priorities. At the start, I would like to pay tribute to two permanent secretaries who were in the Department prior to the restoration of the Assembly, namely Mr Peter May and Ms Katrina Godfrey, who made what contribution they could to the development of and investment in the Comber greenway. It is appropriate that we acknowledge the fact that they did that.

The Comber greenway is a seven-mile route that runs from east Belfast right through to Comber. It is recognised by a number of organisations that have an interest in cycling, well-being and health. Cycle NI said:

“From the Holywood Arches to Dundonald the Greenway provides a tranquil green corridor through East Belfast”,

recognising it as a great asset. Walk NI said:

“This route provides a tranquil green corridor through East Belfast and ending passing through a rural landscape into Comber”.

Sustrans, which has had a major part to play in the development of the route, said that the Comber greenway:

“provides local people with a traffic-free route for walking or cycling”

from Comber through to east Belfast. Discover Northern Ireland said:

“The most remarkable feature of the Greenway is the feeling of rural escape from urban bustle.”

Each of those organisations recognises what an asset the Comber greenway is.


4.15 pm

I am pleased to say that Belfast City Council and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council unanimously supported a motion calling for investment in the Comber greenway. Belfast City Council established a working group as a result of that motion. I look forward to Ards and North Down Borough Council giving consideration to a similar motion and working with the Department on the development of the greenway.

Belfast City Council, in its motion, noted:

“the benefits which the Comber Greenway facility has created in allowing Belfast’s citizens”

— Belfast’s citizens, not east Belfast citizens —

“and visitors to the City the opportunity to become increasingly active and to promote increased health benefits. The Council calls upon the Department for Infrastructure to develop, through a collective approach, a strategic, political and costed plan for the Comber Greenway, as part of the recently launched Strategic Plan for Greenways within Northern Ireland.”

We need to take notice of the benefits that greenways have, in general, brought to Northern Ireland. The best model of a greenway is the Connswater greenway. I have often referred to the Comber greenway as a sister project of the Connswater greenway. Both link at the junction of the Holywood Arches, where there is a natural, continuous flow from one into the other.

The evaluation report of the Connswater greenway states:

“In many respects, CCG … is a model and example of best practice for the development and delivery of large-scale, multi-partner, complex projects with multiple objectives. This is reflected in widespread national and international interest and through numerous awards and accolades, including recognition as one of the world’s 200 most influential projects by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 2018.”

There is no reason why the Comber greenway, with the right vision and support and with a holistic approach to its development, should not receive the same accolades. It has the potential to be a living landmark and a valuable, life-enhancing asset.

The Comber greenway has the potential to offer increased levels of walking, cycling and dog walking. I am pleased that the infrastructure is in to allow lighting to be applied from the Holywood Arches to the Billy Neill playing fields. That is positive. We need to move to the next stage of lighting installation. I hope that the Minister will see that as a worthy investment.

The Comber greenway goes further than just a venue for walking, cycling and dog walking. Like its sister project, the Connswater greenway, it has the opportunity to apply to provide play facilities. It probably has a better opportunity than the Connswater greenway to encourage wildlife, to develop shrubbery and the bridges along its route, and to pay tribute to its long history as a railway track. A number of station platforms are still in situ, and there are groups interested in bringing them back into view. It has the potential to hold events and, indeed, to contribute overall to a much more holistic and healthy lifestyle for our communities.

Like greenways across the UK, the Comber greenway also has the opportunity to contribute to increased business and the creation of businesses, be that with the existing Holywood Arches traders or new traders that could abut on to it. There is potential to develop the Hanwood Centre along the route, to increase the cycle facilities that have been provided by Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council and to have guest houses abut on to it.

There is a major opportunity where the Comber greenway reaches Dundonald village. I accept that Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council is working on another plan, but Dundonald village is described in the current plan, in about six lines, as a village with a high level of vehicular traffic going through it and a number of boarded-up properties. It is a shame that you can rent a property in Dundonald village if you pay the rates. You do not need to pay rent; you can pay the rates, and you will get a property in Dundonald village. Travel a mile down the road to Ballyhackamore and you will pay top dollar for a property renting — a mile down the road. There is potential for the Comber greenway to link with the Comber Road shops and with Dundonald village, providing increased business opportunities and the opportunity to enhance Dundonald village. That would be a significant feature if we were to invest in the Comber greenway, and it could enhance life in and around Dundonald village.

It is not possible to think of it just as somewhere to walk or cycle. We need to think of it in a holistic manner. We need to think about what abuts on to the Comber greenway on either side and about its potential as a whole. I am pleased that the Minister, in her former life and in her current role, has been a supporter of the greenway movement and the cycling movement and so on. I am not quite sure what her role was here, but I am pleased that, Nichola Mallon, as an elected representative, paid tribute and said:

“I personally have enjoyed the cycle along the Comber Greenway”.

Indeed, she went on to say that:

“and as a party, we are keen to explore further development of Greenways”.

She added:

“The SDLP believes that Northern Ireland needs a long-term and dedicated strategy to improve cycling provision.”

We have an opportunity to do that here. Indeed, we have an opportunity to do much more than just develop the cycling strategy.

I will finish by saying that, in its document ‘Exercise, Explore, Enjoy: A Strategic Plan for Greenways’, the Department outlines its vision, aims and objectives. It states:

“The Minister for Infrastructure is committed to active travel and strongly supports improving health and wellbeing for everyone across the region. In setting out this Strategic Plan for Greenways, the Minister’s vision is a region where people have ready access to a safe traffic-free environment for health, active travel and leisure.”

The case for investment in the Comber greenway is indisputable. It brings so much to that corridor from east Belfast to Comber, and not just for those who live in areas abutting on to it. There is the additional potential for business activity and education opportunities for our children, who can use it as a play area. It brings a holistic approach to improving our overall health and well-being.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Other Members will have five minutes in which to contribute to the Adjournment debate.

Mr Allen: I follow the esteemed Member and colleague from East Belfast whom I have had the opportunity, from my time in the House, to work with on a number of occasions. We have worked quite well together. I recall him securing previous Adjournment debates. I am sure that he is glad to be back down to the area of the House from where he can again contribute as a Member working for the community on the ground. I am sure that he continued to do that in his role as Speaker.

As the Member, quite rightly, pointed out, the Comber greenway is a wonderfully tranquil green corridor that runs all the way from Comber to the heart of east Belfast. As he highlighted, the greenway is about much more than just east Belfast. It is about looking at the wider context of the greenway and all the positive benefits that flow from it. It would be remiss of us to zone in on the cycling and walking benefits. There is so much more to greenways. They bring potential footfall to businesses along their route. When doing a bit of research prior to this Adjournment debate, I came across some statistics. It is estimated that, for every £1 invested in greenways, the return is up to £4. It is about looking at greenways in that wider context and the positive benefit that they deliver for our wider communities.

Recently, people from the wider community made representations to me. They want further investment in the Comber greenway and, indeed, the enhancement of greenways right across Belfast and Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that the Minister is here. I welcome her positive attitude towards greenways and the commitment that she has given to them. I have worked very well with the Minister in the past, and I have no doubt that she will do everything that she can to invest.

I note that there are plans to enhance greenways. The current greenway stretches for seven miles. My young children — aged 11, seven and 15 months — very much enjoy going out at the weekend with their nanny Linda and walking along a stretch of the greenway. I am very happy that the Member brought the matter to the House. I am very happy to support it and to work with him, other colleagues across east Belfast and colleagues across Northern Ireland to work towards the realisation of that commitment to invest in our greenways.

Mr Lyttle: As MLA for East Belfast and chairperson of the Assembly all-party group on cycling, I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the outstanding community facility running through my constituency that is the Comber greenway. I thank my colleague Robin Newton MLA for availing himself of the Adjournment debate opportunity so that we could do so collectively.

On the wall of the constituency office that I share with Naomi Long MLA hangs a letter that we received at a time when a former Regional Development Minister was considering replacing the greenway with light rail. It reads:

“Please keep our greenway. We always cycle on it. The trees give us oxygen and blackberries. Thank you. Oisín Doran, 7 years on this planet.”

I am glad for Oisín and the many people who use, enjoy and rely on that clean, green traffic-free cycle route and walkway daily that the campaign to save and maintain the Comber greenway was a success. That seven-mile section of the national cycle network is one of the few traffic-free walk and cycle greenways available in Belfast and, indeed, Northern Ireland, the like of which is vital to advancing the sustainable and active travel provision that we need to address the climate change, health and pollution challenges that face our population and planet.


4.30 pm

There are many positive benefits of the Comber greenway: transport; physical and mental health; community and business connectivity; and, of course, environmental. It is vital, therefore, that we work together to protect and enhance the greenway. My Alliance Party colleagues and I have consistently worked to protect and develop the Comber greenway. That has included working with the Department for Infrastructure, local councils, Sustrans and the Eastside Partnership to secure the installation of toucan crossings at key road crossings, such as at Beersbridge Road and Kings Road; path-widening schemes; public realm improvements at the Bloomfield walkway section of the Comber greenway; and the installation of one of the first if not the first bike stations in Northern Ireland at the Billy Neill soccer centre.

Further improvements are needed, including works at Island Street to extend and link the greenway to Titanic Quarter, ramps at North Road bridge, bins, seating, improved signage, better management of green space and enhanced linkage of the Comber greenway and Connswater Community Greenway, as part of the EastSide Greenways and the Northern Ireland Greenways strategies.

I have recently corresponded with the Department for Infrastructure to press for the introduction of lighting, as has been mentioned by other Members, at key sections of the Comber greenway, the like of which has been key to the success of the world-class, award-winning Connswater Community Greenway; indeed, the vision and the future development of the Comber greenway should be based on the Connswater Community Greenway model of a multi-use, linear park and walk-and-cycle way, adopted and maintained to the highest standards possible with the support of the councils in which it is located. I welcome the leadership shown by the former Alliance Lord Mayors of Belfast and Lisburn and Castlereagh — Nuala McAllister and Tim Morrow — to work in partnership with Sustrans and the Department for Infrastructure to explore and advance that model. I understand that work has been ongoing between the Department for Infrastructure and councils to progress that approach, and I welcome the attendance of the Minister for Infrastructure today to update the Assembly on the matter.

The sustainable and active travel, social, health and economic potential of the Comber greenway is vast, and Alliance Party representatives will give our full support to the Minister for Infrastructure and our elected colleagues to work together to do all we can to realise that potential.

Miss McIlveen (The Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure): First, I thank the proposer for tabling the Adjournment debate. Robin has been a great advocate of the Comber and the Connswater greenways. We can all agree that greenways such as the Comber greenway are an investment in the health and well-being of all our communities. I have used the Comber greenway on numerous occasions as a pedestrian and a cyclist, along with my colleague Joanne Bunting. As you travel along the greenway, it is evident that it attracts users of all ages and abilities. There are those on their own, those with families — both young and older families — and those with friends. It presents an opportunity to re-engage with nature and to exercise in a traffic-free environment. Certainly, the expansion of greenways in the UK and Europe has proven to be extraordinarily popular and a huge draw for tourists. Having my constituency office in Comber, I see at first hand the benefit of the greenway to the town and, in particular, to the local coffee shops. There are, therefore, numerous benefits to investments in our greenway network.

The development of the Connswater greenway has been a great addition to east Belfast, with its link to the Comber greenway. However, the contrast between the two is stark. The lack of lighting along the Comber greenway makes it unsafe and practically unusable once the evening starts to draw in. The fact that the greenway was constructed without some lighting provision is difficult to fathom. While I appreciate that work has commenced in East Belfast at that end of the greenway, if we are to encourage commuters from my constituency to use it as an alternative to the car, it is imperative that lighting be installed along the full route.

While the proposer has talked about the enhancement of the Comber greenway as it currently exists, as well as its future management, I am keen to see further expansion of the network. As part of a fact-finding visit, I went to the Netherlands to look at the fast-cycle route between Arnhem and Nijmegen and at how high-quality, dense cycling infrastructure networks enable local children to cycle to school and to assess the urban cycling infrastructure in Amsterdam. I also took the opportunity to go to Edinburgh to learn the lessons from their greenway expansions.

I have been a consistent advocate of our greenways, which is why, when I held the post of Regional Development Minister, I launched a fund to enable councils to undertake feasibility studies of expanding the greenway network in their area. As a Strangford MLA, I was delighted that Ards and North Down Borough Council availed itself of the opportunity to look at an ambitious expansion that sought to extend the Comber greenway through Comber itself to Newtownards and on to Bangor, connecting with the north Down coastal path. In principle, that is a fantastic concept that provides a large, circuitous and traffic-free route. However, problems have arisen in the conduct of consultations and how information has been presented to local landowners. It is natural that landowners and residents will have certain reservations, and those concerns need to be managed sensitively. There is a wealth of evidence now available to show how concerns about problems such as antisocial behaviour are largely unfounded and how, for example, those living along the Connswater greenway have embraced it. It is little wonder, though, that locals have objected when the “vesting” word has been used.

As we focus on an outcomes-based approach, investment in greenways can meet many of the outcomes, including connecting people; helping people to enjoy a long, healthy and active life; helping people to live and work sustainably; and creating places where people want to live and work, visit and invest. We should improve and expand such fantastic assets, but those charged with carrying out that function need to apply the lessons learned from other schemes in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. We need to ensure that there is consensus and acceptance not only from those who use greenways but from those who accommodate them when they go through or run adjacent to their property. Consensus and accommodation are obtained not through confrontation but through consultation and engagement.

In conclusion, I welcome the opportunity to have contributed to today’s debate, and I look forward to seeing improvements being made to my local greenway.

Ms Bunting: At this point, I feel as though I should declare my interest as a member of the Policing Board. That seems to be what I do this weather [Laughter.]

I am only joking. It has been quite the justice week.

I am grateful to my colleague Robin for securing the Adjournment debate. There can be no question about the benefits of greenways for physical health and undoubtedly for mental health. The value of time spent with friends or family, relaxing, winding down, seeing some animals, having a good laugh and getting some exercise while we are at it cannot be overstated.

Without reliving all our yesterdays, as my colleague Michelle McIlveen said, many a time, on one of our various health kicks, we cycled from Comber, right down the Comber greenway, right down the Connswater greenway and over to Carrick. Obviously, the benefits of that are cake and ice cream, and neither of us will deny that. Sometimes, you need a bit of an incentive, and that certainly worked for us.

The truth about the Comber greenway, as it currently stands, is that. if you mistime your cycle, you are in pitch black, you are potentially riding through dog mess, you are scared of running over animals rather than seeing them and you have no idea about who else is around. Therefore, there are safety issues and health concerns. Perhaps the Comber greenway is not being used to its maximum potential on the basis of some of those issues, which could be resolved to make the greenway a bit more like the Connswater greenway.

As my colleagues have mentioned, the Connswater greenway has become an international model of best practice. The folks from Connswater have travelled around the world, extolling the benefits of their greenway, and they have received numerous awards for the successes that they have achieved, not the least of which is flood alleviation. The Connswater greenway has enormous use and is of spectacular value to East Belfast and beyond. The thing with the Comber greenway is that it always feels as though it is the bridesmaid to the Connswater bride.

That is not to say that there has not been investment: there has. There has been significant improvement in the past number of years. I remember a couple of years ago — on my birthday, actually — going down because a number of organisations such as Sustrans, the Department, Belfast City Council and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council had made significant investment, as Robin mentioned, installing the connectivity for lights — albeit that there are no lights there — widening the path and resurfacing. Then we have Lisburn’s investment at the Billy Neill centre, which Chris Lyttle referred to. There has been ongoing work, and there is no question about the potential. There is so much potential for connectivity at the Comber greenway, and the difference that lights would make to use and safety would be immense.

Other colleagues have referred — there is no point in repeating it — to the benefits to the economy, local businesses, housing and safety, especially with regard to health and getting children to set down their gadgets and be outside in the fresh air with their parents, enjoying their young lives and their energy while they still have it. A lot of us wish we still did. The only thing I would say to the Minister is this: perhaps, it is time for Cinderella to become a princess.

Mr Harvey: Why would we want to invest in the Comber greenway? Is it because it is seven miles of the most wonderful, tranquil green corridor in the UK? It is classified as being easy, making it ideal for most, whether leisure walking or cycling. It takes in views of Stormont, Scrabo Tower, the two Harland and Wolff cranes, the CS Lewis statue and the Titanic centre. It is an ideal length of seven miles and takes approximately one hour to complete, and the bonus is that it is traffic-free. It is one of the most popular greenways in the UK, and I would welcome any future improvements or upgrades to this popular and well-used walkway that promotes health and well-being among all its users.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Some interest has been expressed beyond the immediate area, and I now invite Philip McGuigan to comment on investment in the Comber greenway.

Mr McGuigan: I accept that I am not from the constituency, but, as everybody should know, I have an interest in cycling, so I will never pass up an opportunity to promote cycling and investment in cycling. I have cycled on the Comber greenway on a couple of occasions, and I concur that it is a great asset. I would support further investment in the Comber greenway and further investment in other greenways. I want the ambitious target of 1,000 kilometres, as detailed in the North’s greenway strategy, to become a reality.

I take the opportunity to commend Jonathan Hobbs for the work that he has done in this field in promoting, pushing and cajoling the greenways strategy and cycling in general. I also want to mention the contact that I have had over the years with Andrew Grieve in the cycling department and thank him for his help to me in promoting cycling. I thank my party colleague Chris Hazzard, who introduced the greenways strategy in 2016.

What are greenways? Greenways create economic activity, improve cycling and walking opportunities, improve health through active living, enhance community identity and improve tourism opportunities. In my view, cycling and walking are vital to all the above. You can then throw in climate change. The more people we can get cycling and walking and being involved in active transport, the greater the saving it will produce for our health service. We can see the importance of all of this.

I hope that the Minister is able to invest in greenways to ensure that momentum is not lost. As I said, I want to see the 1,000 kilometres and much more come to fruition, particularly the two greenways in my constituency. The glens of Antrim greenway is proposed to run from Ballymena to Cushendall. I know that there is good work going on, particularly out round Glenravel, but I want to see that become a proper greenway in totality. I also want to see the Ballycastle to Ballymoney greenway opening up opportunities beyond the city.

I understand that the argument for moving people in cities is greater than, perhaps, it is in rural constituencies, but rural communities need to be able to obtain the same benefits from greenways as urban dwellers.


4.45 pm

I will wholeheartedly support any investment that the Minister can provide. In June 2019, in the South, €40 million was announced for 10 new greenways. The advanced state of the greenway infrastructure there is already over and above what it is in the North. I understand that, in 2019, we did not have a Minister, but only £3 million was allocated to all cycling and walking infrastructure, not even mentioning greenways. The 2015 bicycle strategy suggested an investment of £12·5 million per annum over five years, and £18 million per annum within 10 years to build a comprehensive cycling network across the North.

I am enthusiastic about cycling. I am delighted that I am able to cycle. In my view, cycling is a wonder drug that can cure many of the ills of society, climate change, and the individual. My physical and mental health has certainly improved since I took up cycling. Not everyone accepts that: not everyone is open yet to the wonder drug that is cycling. I am a great fan of the film ‘Field of Dreams’. I often use the phrase:

“If you build it, they will come.”

If you can build the infrastructure, people will come. The North, as a society, and all its citizens will benefit.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members not to walk in front of another Member when he is speaking.

Mr Durkan: Like the previous contributor, I might be a bit more geographically removed from the Comber greenway. I was certainly impressed by the very intricate knowledge of it that has been demonstrated by some of the East Belfast Members. Chris Lyttle knows every square inch of that greenway. I think of him now as Crocodile Dundonald. [Laughter.]

I am not a complete stranger to the greenway, however. I recall, on occasions during my time as a Minister, I had my driver leave me six or seven miles out the road or along the greenway in the mornings, and I ran here. I experienced many of the benefits that Members mentioned. It was a great way to clear the head and prepare for the day ahead, and I probably got here more quickly, although that is more a reflection on Billy’s driving than on my running, to be honest. The virtues of the greenway, and greenways in general, have been stated. The Comber greenway is clearly held very dear by the people of East Belfast, and true affinity with and affection for the greenway can be heard in the comments of the elected Members.

It is vital that we do what we can to expand the greenway network. I am heartened by statements from the Minister so far. Her presence in the Chamber demonstrates her commitment to improve the greenway infrastructure. The benefits are manifold. The environmental ones are clear and obvious: they are there in the name “greenway”. Then there are the economic benefits, which are not always as immediately obvious, although some Members on the opposite Benches have mentioned them. I have certainly seen them in other areas. I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of holidays in France, just outside Bordeaux, where there is over 100 kilometres of —

Mr Newton: Will the Member give way?

Mr Durkan: Certainly.

Mr Newton: I am struck by the fact that the Member was prepared to run five or six miles to get to the Building. Perhaps I should have mentioned some of the statistics, which match the Member’s approach. Sixty per cent of people who could have used a car to get to work instead chose to make their journeys on foot or by bicycle. A total of 245,422 people made trips on the route in 2012. There has been a significant increase since then, with 86% of people who have used the route saying that it helped them, just as you said, to increase their level of activity.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the intervention and for demonstrating just how well-used the Comber greenway is. I think that it is fair to assume that use increases on all our greenways year-on-year.

I was touching on the economic benefits and on what I had seen in France, but you do not have to go that far afield to see it. You had cafes and coffee shops and so forth sprouting up along the route of the greenway. I was there for a couple of weeks, and I used the greenway daily to go and do shopping. It was a lot safer than trying to get used to driving on the right-hand side of the road. In County Mayo too, we have a great greenway network that has delivered a real economic dividend for that area. Many tourists come from far and wide to visit it. I believe that investing more in our greenways and marketing them better is why more people are using them, including our local people. Often these greenways are among our best-kept secrets, and I think that we have to market them better. Whenever we are marketing individual constituencies or the North in general as a tourist destination, we should be putting them in the foreground. There is a big market for it, and I think that we should become known more for our cycle paths than our psychopaths.

I will now get onto my own constituency, where we are blessed with a good greenway infrastructure, despite our many hills that make cycling not that easy. The Minister has pledged to deliver on EAPCs, which might make it a bit easier for some. We hope to expand that greenway infrastructure that we are blessed with in the near future. There are a couple of cross-border projects funded through Europe, with greenways running into Buncrana and Muff in Donegal. The Minister would be extremely disappointed, I am sure, if I were not to mention the Strathfoyle greenway —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We are straying a long way from the Comber greenway.

Mr Durkan: — on which her officials have been working hard in the absence of Ministers, I have to say. It would be remiss of us not to mention that the absence of an Assembly for three years has cost us a lot of opportunities with our greenway infrastructure.

Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): I thank Mr Newton for instigating this debate on investment in the Comber greenway and for his acknowledgement of the commitment and the work that has gone into trying to progress the Comber greenway from the previous and the current permanent secretary. It is appreciated.

This is not the first time that Mr Newton has brought a debate to the Assembly on the Comber greenway, and I think it is testimony to his commitment that he has again brought an Adjournment debate so early on in our re-establishment. I thank him for his comments and for all Members’ comments. It is very clear that all share a passion for active travel, for better-connected communities and for creating green safe space where we can enhance our physical and mental health.

On a general note, since I have been appointed Minister, I have made it clear that my focus is on doing what I can to improve the life of everyone living right across Northern Ireland. As an important part of that focus, I want to increase the proportion of everyday journeys made by walking and cycling across the North. As Mr Newton so elegantly quoted, greenways provide a “rural escape from urban bustle”.

The benefits of developing greenways are many, and the health and lifestyle benefits are well-understood and have been articulated by everyone in the Chamber this evening. In addition, there are social and economic benefits for communities, in particular in building dynamic local communities and vibrant economies. Walking and cycling are key elements of thriving towns and cities. In addition, more walking and cycling, especially for the shorter journeys that make up one third of all journeys that we make every day, will help to create a cleaner environment and ensure that all of us play our part in tackling the climate crisis.

I recognise that greenways can help to give people the freedom and confidence to walk, to start to cycle or to cycle more, all in a safe, traffic-free and pleasant environment, whether for commuting, travelling to and from school or going about their everyday business. Greenways provide opportunities for walking groups, for older people and, as Ms Bunting articulated, for people of all ages to get active and have fun moments of friendship.

It is clear from experience with the Comber greenway that, in the urban environment, greenways have the significant benefit of improving off-road routes for commuting to and from work and places of education.

Data from counters on the Comber greenway indicates that in the order of 300,000 journeys are made on the greenway each year. In recent years, a total of £1·5 million has been invested in the Comber greenway route by my Department and other stakeholders. As Ms Bunting referenced, the investment included around £500,000 on widening the greenway from 3 metres to 4 metres — that was done in association with the Department for Communities — and around £500,000 on improving access points at the Grahamsbridge Road junction and a new walking and cycling bridge at the Dundonald International Ice Bowl, which was a Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council project supported by my Department.

I assure Members that I share their passion, and I am keen to consider carefully how the development of greenways generally can deliver projects that have the potential to improve people’s lives and connect communities. I want to work collaboratively with Ministers, councils and other stakeholders to develop the Comber greenway and our other assets to make a real difference for our communities and to people’s lives.

Once the Budget process provides clarity on the resources available to me, I will be able to firm up my objectives for cycling and active travel. I can, however, give Members my firm commitment that delivering more ways for the public to access active travel will be part of my focus over the next two years.

With budget pressures and environmental challenges, we need to think big and think boldly about how we can deliver radical change. Enhancing health and improving well-being are key to connecting communities and tackling the climate crisis. With improving lives as our focus, we can and will deliver more. Creative use of our spaces, such as the development of greenways, will help us to achieve that vision, and I look forward to working in partnership to build on the successes already realised and deliver action on active travel.

Members raised specific points during the debate. Mr Newton pointed out that some lighting infrastructure has been put in place and ducting installed. I recognise the importance of lighting. As other Members said, lighting is key to enhancing greenways and to making people feel safe.

I assure Members that I want to see what more I can do to remove the barriers for people who want to walk and cycle more. When the budget settlement becomes clear, it is an area that I want to focus on, but it is important to say that I want to work in partnership with councils on delivery.

Mr Newton, Mr Lyttle and others mentioned trying to improve the attractiveness of our greenway as a community facility. Yes, that includes lighting, but it also includes the provision of other facilities such as seating. I am keen to investigate the possibilities through working with the councils. As Members will know, councils have wider powers for community facilities — powers that my Department does not have — and it appears that they have scope to develop the greenway as the linear park that Members expressed support for. I agree with Members that this is important for delivering on the physical and mental health and well-being outcomes in our Programme for Government, so I am keen to work with Members and the three named councils as we try to move this forward.

There is also a need, as Members said, to better connect our greenways, and I need to back that commitment with money.

I understand that, and I agree with the vision and approach that was articulated by Mr McGuigan:

“If you build it, they will come”.

Once the budget has been set, I want to see what I can do to deliver on my vision for the greenways.


5.00 pm

I take on board the points that were raised by Miss McIlveen, the Chair of the Infrastructure Committee. She has been on fact-finding missions, she has been a Minister and she understands. I am aware of the grant support programme that she had, and I am positively looking at that. I am also mindful that we need to learn the lessons about consultation and communication that she referred to. She is right: we need to build consensus and accommodation among those who use our greenways and those who neighbour them. I want to ensure that that lesson is learned going forward.

I also want to thank other Members who spoke. Mr McGuigan and Mr Durkan spoke about the importance of greenways and referred, with your indulgence, to issues in their constituencies. I am happy to try to pick those up, because I want to have a proactive and positive overarching approach to our greenways.

To sum up, Members are right: the evidence is there — we know that it is there — that greenways increase levels of walking and cycling, address flood alleviation, enhance biodiversity and grow local businesses. They also bring joy to children, be they Mr Allen’s three children or Oisín, who Mr Lyttle referred to. As Miss McIlveen and Ms Bunting said, they are places where you can go to begin or to continue a health kick or where you can go with your friends to spend time and relax and enjoy each other’s company.

I want to do what I can. I believe that the best way to do it is in partnership with others. Key to that will be a proactive partnership between my Department and the Department for Communities, but councils and communities also have a key role to play. Great progress could be made in the further development of the Comber greenway through better partnership working between my Department — I am willing to play my part in that — and the three councils that are particularly relevant to this case. As Mr Lyttle said, a steering group has been set up by my Department, and I have asked officials to re-engage in that and step that process up a gear.

I recognise the importance of the Comber greenway. I again want to thank Mr Newton for bringing the issue to the Floor. I also want to thank all Members who spoke so passionately about the Comber greenway and the need for more greenways across the North. I want to work with you and in partnership with others so that we can see that ambition for a greener, more sustainable, more environmentally friendly and connected society delivered on the ground. Thank you, Members.