Dusting down 50-year old plans won't resolve air pollution woes

Traffic builds up on the Westlink during rush hour

JUST before Christmas a coroner in London made legal history by ruling that air pollution was a cause of the death of a nine-year-old girl, Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in February 2013 through acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and prolonged exposure to air pollution.

The coroner said the failure to reduce pollution levels in inner South London to legal limits possibly contributed to her death. It was the first time air pollution has been recorded as a cause of death and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said the coroner's conclusion was a landmark moment and called pollution a “public health crisis.”

As I write this, Belfast officially has a ‘good' air quality status according to the Department of Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs website, and the reduction in the level of road traffic during the pandemic has contributed to cleaner air overall.

The challenge is sustaining that lower level of air pollution as we exit the Covid crisis, in time, and commuters are tempted back on to the roads. That challenge will bring into focus the balance required between roads investment and private car usage and sustainable modes of public transport including walking, cycling and shared bus or glider use.

All of this comes at a time when Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon is in the middle of a review of the longest-running roads project saga in Northern Ireland, the York Street Interchange. The Department of Infrastructure is not the Department of Roads, and it is only right that in 2021, mid pandemic and with the chance of a cultural shift in work/life balance patterns, that this major project is subject to such a review.

The stated aim of the York Street Interchange is to replace the existing junction at York Street with direct links between the Westlink/M1, M2 and M3 - the three busiest roads in Northern Ireland. The project will also separate traffic through underpasses below the existing road and rail bridges, as well as underneath a new bridge at York Street. It would be a major investment and would hopefully go a long way to address the traffic gridlock in what is the most significant road network in Northern Ireland.

The project go back all the way to the late 1960s, when plans were developed to provide a Belfast Urban Motorway, which were reviewed in the 1970s in the face of opposition from Belfast City Council and a more challenging financial and civil situation.

That review in 1974 set the template for what remains in place today, a 50-year old plan to address the challenge of traffic management in Belfast. In the five decades since the plans have been reviewed, subject to more than one public inquiry, been through preliminary options reports, preferred options report, and not advanced on the ground as the M3 and Westlink were built, and now in 2021 the song around York Street remains the same.

All of which brings us to the current 'short, sharp review' ordered by Nichola Mallon in July last year. The review was designed to look at issues of wellbeing, sustainable travel, creating thriving liveable places and communities, responding to the climate emergency and connecting people and opportunities. That was an ambitious set of parameters, and Mallon said at the time that ‘designing and developing our communities means meeting the needs of all of our community and our wider environment now and for future generations.'

To me, that is the language of a forward looking minister taking account of the wider impact of such a major road building scheme on the community and city in which it is based.

The plans for York Street Interchange have been challenged by local residents and business owners, professional architects and surveyors on an ongoing basis. Alternatives have been suggested which on the face of it can have the required impact on traffic flow but also allow for a greener, more sustainable and even less expensive project.

Because of the location of the project it has the potential to link parts of north Belfast which have been previously neglected and even cut off from the rest of the city. That part of Belfast, mostly publicly owned, could connect the citizens of north Belfast to the Lagan and open up cycling routes, walkways and modes of public transport.

Most political representatives in north Belfast welcomed the review and are clearly open to a conversation about what really is a suitable and appropriate way to tackle this project. Most would surely conclude that lifting 50-year old plans off a shelf is not the best approach in 2021.

Of course, there are demands on the network which need to be addressed and the lack of progress with the overall project over the decades is has proven frustrating. But times change. The Covid crisis and its outcomes on their own would justify a review of the best way forward.

On her appointment, Nichola Mallon said she wanted her Department to work for all of the people of Northern Ireland. That means not automatically putting the sacred road network and the private car ahead of all other considerations. And we don't want to be a city that in the years ahead records ‘air pollution' as a cause of death.

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate ( Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access