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Adjournment Debate: Comber Greenway 30/6/2015

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for staying on after such a long day and, indeed, given that this is the last day of term. I also thank the Minister for being here. I recognise that, out of his time and very busy schedule, he has taken the opportunity to be here.

I think that this project potentially has real benefits for the entire community and particular benefits for the east of Belfast city, those parts of the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council area where it runs through and, indeed, the Ards and North Down Borough Council area. It is referred to as the Comber greenway. I want to refer to it as a starting point in the east of the city at Holywood Arches. It runs from that point through to Comber. It has a seven-mile stretch that is free from all traffic. It runs through some traffic intersections, but those are relatively small, where they cross over a main road. It is also designated as part of the National Cycle Network running from Belfast. It is known as the Comber greenway because it was the Comber railway line at one stage.

It offers us an opportunity for traffic-free cycling. The better part of it is a stretch of tarmacadam that was laid following the railway surfacing being dug up and major sewerage pipes being laid. It runs from the Holywood Arches, a feature that is starting to develop as a hub in that part of the city. It is a hub that has a large amount of potential. Part of the area is being developed by the East Belfast Partnership and will include in the not-too-distant future, via social investment fund money, a tourism facility, and it will be a focal point within the area. There are other investments planned for that area. They are certainly not major investments in the sense of what government sees but investments that will help to lift the area. So it is the starting point from this side of the city.

As the Comber Road continues towards Dundonald, the route diverts briefly from the old railway line along a section of riverside path known as Millmount Road. Millmount Road will be featured on Saturday as part of Second World War celebrations to mark children being evacuated from east Belfast to a place of safety from German bombers.

The route skirts around the Enler river and farm lanes, using a number of bridges that have been reinstated. It is virtually flat and offers a wonderful opportunity for investment, potentially, by the Minister. It would not be hard to describe it as the potential flagship project going through the three areas that I spoke about. It has the potential to be a leading-edge project in all that it could bring to the table. For the Minister, it has the potential to be a jewel in the crown of his cycling network. You could describe it as a top prize, but, to deliver the project, a visionary approach and a cocktail of funding are required.

What might the route deliver in the longer term? It has the potential to improve, given that it is brought up to standard. The standard that one might think about is the standard of the Connswater Community Greenway, where the figures indicate huge increases in people using Belfast City Council parks and river walkways, enjoying them to such an extent that some figures show a 73% increase in people going past specific points.

More people are using the parkway and allowing themselves to exercise, which has implications and benefits for the Health Minister, who I welcome, even though he is sitting on the Back Benches today. The parkway can be used for walking, cycling and jogging, and has the potential to be used by primary and post-primary schools for the study of wildlife and nature, as is happening on the Connswater greenway.

One of the features certainly of the Connswater greenway and potentially of the Comber greenway is community buy-in. Whether a project is in Northern Ireland, England or America, getting the community to buy into the project is key. That means communication and selling the advantages. Selling the advantages involves looking at the health benefits, the educational benefits and the potential for it to become a community-owned asset, in which the community will invest its time in the early stages of the project, to advise what would be of benefit to the community and how any changes that had to be made would be viewed and, indeed, to ensure overall success in delivering it.

I was approached today by the BBC about this debate, and they made the point that dog walking in these areas is controversial because of dog fouling. They also mentioned that people have been injured. I know of one gentleman who was knocked off his bicycle when using the Comber greenway and, in fact, ended up with a broken leg. Again, the key is to have areas designated, where walkers can walk, joggers can jog and cyclists can cycle, and you get a harmonious relationship between all three that delivers the benefit.

I accept that the Regional Development Minister is here tonight and that, if it is to be delivered in the longer term, this project might well need a joined-up approach from various Departments and that there would also need to be a strategic look at the overall benefits.

I will just speak for a few minutes on the economy. Investing this amount of money to provide this type of facility offers us an opportunity to deliver something for the economy as well. I have referred to investment around the Holywood Arches and to where there is the potential for more. If this were to go ahead, there would be the potential for small shops around the Holywood Arches to benefit and, indeed, for other businesses to emerge as part of the strategy. There is the old Neill's Hill halt. The base, the platform waiting area on the Comber greenway, is still there. Right on the edge of it, in the Dundonald area, is the Hanwood Centre, which has the potential to exploit the walkers, cyclists and joggers who might use the area. It is a community asset with the ability to offer much more than it does at this time. It is unique in how it is organised, run and funded. It did not receive any funding from Castlereagh Borough Council, but is a self-sustaining project. There would be opportunities for other small businesses to emerge along that seven-mile stretch. There is also the potential for the Minister and other Ministers who might be involved to apply for European funding.

Just in closing, I want to refer to the Minister's strategy at this time, the Northern Ireland cycling strategy.

It was launched back in June 2000 by a very young looking Minister for Regional Development from the time, Mr Peter Robinson. The introduction to the strategy says:

"Transport is an integral part of modern life. Increased mobility has provided enormous economic and social benefits through widened opportunities for work, leisure, holidays and the choice of where to live."

Having said that, it says:

"Despite the benefits of increased motorisation, there is growing acceptance that the price society is paying for its mobility is too high, through short and long-term effects on health, road traffic collisions, environmental damage and noise pollution".

I believe that this project offers a partial solution in that area to Minister Kennedy's cycling strategy. It requires a degree of joined-up thinking, and Belfast City Council may have a role to play through the 'Belfast Active Travel Action Plan 2014-2020', which is, obviously, current. It asks why active travel should be a priority. I will mention two aspects, the first of which is "healthier people". It says:

"Being active everyday by walking and cycling, has many positive benefits for physical health including reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes."

Finally, the action plan makes a point about connected communities. It states:

"People living in heavily trafficked streets have fewer friends in their neighbourhood when compared to people living in lightly trafficked streets."

The project has the potential to not only realise the Northern Ireland cycling strategy and the Belfast Active Travel strategy, but to make a major contribution to the health and well-being of our people, to the recreation of our people and to the development of business potential and offer something to those who live in that area and further afield. That would be a major flagship project.

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