Growing a regionally balanced economy is at the core of the Executive’s draft Programme for Government. Strengthening Derry as a key economic driver and gateway is central to that.
As a cross-border city region with a catchment area of 400,000 people, the fourth largest on this island, the importance of developing the North West gateway should not be underestimated.
It is vital that we encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, grow a highly skilled and qualified workforce and create jobs, self confidence and self-belief.
And it is infrastructure that glues these together, creating the conditions for growth and ensuring this region can attract and retain inward investment and support local businesses to grow.
Like many communities west of the Bann, there is a sense that those in the North West have been left behind. One of my key priorities over the next five years will be to redress the north’s infrastructure deficit, particularly in the west.
To that end, there are a number of key projects I am taking forward as a priority.
The A6 Randalstown to Castledawson scheme is now well advanced. I am also working to expedite progress on delivery of the Derry to Dungiven dualling scheme. My aim is to deliver both during the current mandate.
Work on the A5 could begin late next year, subject to the successful completion of all the statutory procedures and the outcome of the Inspector’s Report.
I want also to progress the A2 Buncrana Road scheme. This is a unique opportunity to develop a cross-border economic corridor.
Enhancing rail connections to and from the North West will also be a key priority for me. Significant progress has been made on upgrading the Derry to Belfast rail line, with Phase 2 of the Coleraine-Derry track upgrade due for completion by December.
We will then have the basic infrastructure to introduce an hourly rail service between Belfast and Derry, though this will need funding which I don’t have at present.
Just yesterday I was delighted to announce we are at the final stages of procuring the old Waterside Train Station as the site for a new Transport Hub. This is an exciting project linking rail and cross-border public transport services and providing a landmark gateway to our second city. The Hub also offers an opportunity to create a destination and social resource at the heart of the city’s greenway links; connecting the new station directly to the Peace Bridge.
Investing in public transport and active travel is about transforming how people travel, but it’s also about building dynamic vibrant places that people want to experience. That’s critically important both in terms of attracting investment, talent and tourism.
But also in terms of building confidence and raising people’s expectations for themselves by showing they are valued.
This city has led the way with over 80 km of cross-border greenways, which have helped transform Derry and Strabane. It’s a fantastic resource for the area and its people.
In developing the tourism product in the North West, there is clearly a role for the port and the City of Derry Airport also. We’ve seen the success of Clipper for the city, in part enabled by the significant investment of Foyle Harbour in the Marina.
My Executive colleagues have already signalled their support for the airport and my department will have a major role in putting the package in place.
In all of this, we are not investing in infrastructure for its own sake. We are sending a message to our children and our communities that we value them. That has to be the starting point to realising their potential.