THE new Minister for Infrastructure says she will make the final decision on the proposed multi-million pound development of Casement Park.
North Belfast MLA Nichola Mallon, who took up the position last week following the re-establishment of the Stormont Executive, confirmed that she will make the call on Casement, during an in-depth interview with the Andersonstown News at Stormont this week.
“The final decision on the planning application falls with the Minister for Infrastructure,” she confirmed.
“We are awaiting some further information from the GAA and my job is to look at all the evidence and consider all of the representation, follow due process and move to a decision.
“Because we haven’t had a government for three years, there are a number of decisions and issues and a big backlog. I want to be in a position to make robust decisions on key issues and I hope Casement will be one of those.”
Another key decision for Minister Mallon will be on the York Street Interchange, which was specified as a commitment for the Executive in the New Deal, New Approach document.
“There was a procurement process that was challenged. We now have to commence that procurement process again,” she explained.
“It certainly is an issue that needs to be addressed. Anyone who travels in that part of the city will know it is hugely congested when it comes to traffic. It is also bad for emissions and the climate which is one of my priorities.
“I want to try and progress that but also balance it around connecting people and doing what we can to tackle the climate emergency.
“The project is stated as commitment for the Executive but it also features in the New Deal New Approach and I very much welcome that commitment is in there.
“Infrastructure is central to the new document and it recognises if we are serious about transforming lives and ensuring people have real opportunities in areas were people are really struggling then we need to be investing in infrastructure.”
As for a possible Glider extending to link South and North Belfast, Nichola said one of her priorities is “about increasing public transport and people’s access to it”.
“I have asked officials for an urgent briefing to see where that is but encouraging people to use public transport and encourage people to walk and cycle are priorities for me.”
After three years of no Stormont Executive, Nichola said she is under no illusions to the challenges facing her around Infrastructure, including a huge backlog of work to tackle street lighting, potholes and climate change.
“The financial situation that I have inherited is extremely challenging. If you look from 2014, there have been systemic significant budget cuts to the department.
“One of the areas which has been affected has been street lighting and it is something I am very aware of. It is on people’s front doors and gives people a sense of safety and confidence.
“If we want to make a difference to people’s lives, we need to address issues like street lighting and pot holes.
“I would be hopeful of working with Minister Conor Murphy in the Department for Finance to secure more money to address some of these issues.
“Pot holes is a big issue across the North and mainly due to budget cuts to the department. I want to try and address it.
“I think we could be doing so much more in Belfast, especially around cycling. We need to encourage and facilitate parents who want to be able to walk their children to school. It will involve safety mechanisms but it is something I want to have a big conversation about with not only my officials but people as well. It is beneficial for the climate but also for people’s physical and mental health.”
Asked about many people’s negative attitudes at 12-hour bus lanes in the city, the Minister stressed she is keeping an open mind but called for better conversations around such controversial issues.
“It is about a balancing act. It is about encouraging people to use public transport but in a way to promote local businesses as well.
“I have an open-door policy here and I want to engage with everyone. When we all put our heads together, that is when you get to a better place for policies and decision-making.”
As for rumours of potential water charges being introduced for residents, she was quick to spell out her position.
“The SDLP is opposed to water charges and I have been very quick to say that it won’t be the case under my watch.
“I also welcome the fact both the First and Deputy First Minister have come out as well to say it also. I view my role as important in helping struggling families and not to add to their burden.”
On a personal level, Nichola is “excited” about her role over the next two years but stressed she will not forget about her local constituents in North Belfast who elected her to Stormont in the first place.
“It’s very exciting. It is a very big department. I think a lot of people think it’s just about roads but in actual fact, the department impacts on everyone’s daily lives.
“Infrastructure covers things like whether houses can be built or not which is important because we have a housing crisis and other things like waste and water.
“When you turn on your water tap, how you travel to and from school and work, MOT to ensure your vehicle is safe, road gritting in winter – all fall within the Department for Infrastructure.
“I haven’t forgotten I am here only because the people of North Belfast elected me. I am keen while I take up this role I don’t lose sight of that and continue to be focused also on my constituency and the service I provide.
“I will still be a familiar face around North Belfast. The reason that I got into politics is to serve people who put their faith in me.
“I won’t lose sight of that and I am very clear that I want to be in the constituency and welcome people to still come to me with their problems and their issues because my job is to try and help them.
“I am a parent too and for all parents, it is important to balance your work and your life. I am very lucky I have a supportive family. I look forward to family time and spending time with my children is important but I will do my absolute best in this role.”
As for her hopes for her two-year tenure at the helm of Infrastructure, Nichola concluded: “I really want to make the most of these two years. I understand I am coming into a position where we haven’t taken decisions for three years so there is a backlog.
“There are huge financial restraints but I really want to make an impact. At the end, I want to look back and ask what did I do to improve people’s lives, better connect people, have a thriving and balanced economy and an improved climate.”