The way in and out of Wales

Gareth Clubb takes issue with the cost-benefits of the projected M4 relief road

Last week claim and counter-claim about a proposed new stretch of the M4 hit the headlines. Most of the headlines have focused on possible tolls, which we’re now reliably informed won’t happen.

But let’s consider for a moment what this really means. If we discount tolls – which are a perfectly legitimate way of paying for infrastructure by those who use it – then we end up paying for it by direct taxation. I’m sure there are plenty of people in mid and north Wales who would feel more than a little disgruntled by the idea of subsidising extra lanes of carriageway in south Wales that they may never use. And how about the people who never use a car, around a fifth of the population? You’ll still be reaching deep into your pocket for the new M4 for the next 20 years.

Tomorrow: Alternative plan available for M4 relief road

Former Transport Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones explores the dilemma the Welsh Government faces over the Bryn Glas tunnels bottleneck

The UK Government would counter this by saying that economic growth that’s generated as a result of more lanes of tarmac would have Wales-wide benefits. They would also claim that the Olympics really benefited people in Blaenau Gwent as much as it did people in East London. Indeed, George Osborne recently said:

“I hope the road is going to get built and I think there’s a very strong case… I think it’s one of the most important road schemes in the whole of the United Kingdom. I think it would be of huge benefit to south Wales”.

For someone who apparently thinks a lot, there doesn’t appear to be much substance behind his thinking. A very strong case? Huge benefit? Let’s go back to the consultation the Welsh Government’s undertook in spring 2012. The only mention of economic benefits was tucked away in the final paragraph on the document’s last page, in Appendix One:

“The forecast traffic demand used in the M4 CEM appraisals is likely to be high compared to current traffic growth projections, especially if some of Newport’s planned development projects fail to be followed through to completion. This is likely to result in an over-prediction of economic benefits of any proposed schemes”.

This was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Welsh Government’s approach to economic forecasting. And how about the now thoroughly discredited Strategic Environmental Assessment of the M4 improvement options, which Friends of the Earth Cymru successfully brought to an end through a legal challenge? There was no mention of the economic case. In fact, I haven’t come across a single cost-benefit analysis for this scheme. Yet we’re under siege by commentators telling us that such a scheme would be worth billions to the economy of south Wales.

It may surprise some people to find that traffic levels are now 4 per cent lower than they were at their peak in 2007. The theory that roads will inexorably fill with a never-ending increase in traffic was subject to forensic examination in a Welsh transport statistics seminar in December 2012. The conclusion? We may have reached a plateau, or even a peak, in vehicle numbers. Increasing costs of fuel and the feeling more and more people have that they’d rather not be sat around unproductively in traffic for hours of the day add to the impression that the peak in traffic has come and gone.

Some of the means to reduce congestion around Newport are already making a difference. Variable speed limits are smoothing traffic flow. More and more people are choosing to work at home or travel by public transport.

What else could be done? A metro for south-east Wales, linking Newport, Cardiff and the Valleys that would link 1.4 million people with reliable and good value public transport would cost in the order of £1.5 billion. That’s not much more than the £1bn mooted for a 14-mile stretch of motorway. And instead of draining the public purse through construction debt for decades and maintenance costs for all time, this scheme would contribute directly to its own upkeep through fares. A sort of toll, if you like, based on use.

And is there something else here? An idea that Cardiff and its hinterland could become a driver for prosperity internally within Wales, rather than being forever dependent on more and more people being able to enter and leave Wales at 70mph?

16 thoughts on “The way in and out of Wales

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this very well articulated article. This motorway is a complete nonsense.

    The Welsh Government’s current thinking around the ecosystems approach means that it is working with landowners, farmers etc, to look at the landscape as a whole to determine what best can be done to maximise environmental benefits such as clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration, wildlife, access to green spaces for people like tourists to enjoy and play in – the whole shebang.

    This ill-conceived motorway will cut a huge swathe of tarmac across a fragile and important ecosystem, the Gwent Levels. This is completely contrary to the ecosystems approach – and in fact, utterly undermines it. And it makes no sense either when Newport and Cardiff are due to be connected by the new Metro.

    It is no surprise George Osbourne ‘thinks’ the motorway is a good idea. He also thought he was going to deliver the Greenest Government Ever. Look where that’s got us.

  2. I’m afraid the isolationist/nationalist approach, which you hint at in your last paragraph, is somewhat ignorant for a number of reasons… not least that many people in Wales seek to get east of the Brynglas tunnels to then head to mid/north Wales along with the midlands. It’s not all about the bridge.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Comeoffit: the last paragraph was more a reference to economic planning and performance than to isolationism. UK regional development policy doesn’t exist – instead the UK appears to think that if the City of London can be persuaded to generate more and more wealth then the rest of us will do just fine. That’s all well and good – if you work in the City of London. But the evidence that the London/south-east England approach has been a failure for Wales stares us in the face each time the relative UK prosperity figures are released.

    As I’ve pointed out, traffic volumes are declining and have been so for 5 years, and congestion is decreasing as a result of better traffic management. So why spend £1bn on a piece of infrastructure that has questionable function and justification? Let’s spend it on something that genuinely benefits Wales. If transport is your thing then aside from the metro there are lots of opportunities for active travel interventions that will reduce morbidity, boost productivity and provide far greater rates of return than an expensive tarmac expressway.

  4. This article reinforces what struck me when I first heard the announcement about this road.

    Academics in the transport field report that bringing the Department of Transport around to progressive transportation is proving difficult. By progressive, I mean intelligent transport solutions as a whole, and moving away from large new-build infrastructure projects like the M4 relief road.

    Gareth mentions that traffic has been falling, and this is indisputable. He also mentions an example of intelligent transport with the smoothing of traffic flow on the M4, in conjunction with public transport and home-working. Transport solutions taken as a whole, as opposed to solutions in isolation.

    It is known that capital projects like the M4 relief road yield a Net present value of the order of between 2 and 4; whereas, personalised travel programmes which target making best use of existing public transport / walking / cycling facilities yield a net present value far higher. Getting the DfT to recognise this is difficult.

    Could not more intelligent use be made of the Southern distributor road in Newport, in conjunction with existing public transport? A relief road would just be another concentric half-circle around southern Newport. The Scottish government has recently had to acknowledge that the new Kincardine road Bridge is underused as initial traffic figures were overestimated. I would hate to see the same thing happen to a new road link around the bottom of Newport – £1 billion could be far better spent.

  5. A previous Tory Minister of Transport favoured the building of many more roads over other options, such as railways – his name Earnest Marples. He personally profited from roads because his company built them.

    Are the current millionaires, governing us in England, benefiting in a similar way?

  6. I am personally concerned that the UK Govt is influencing Welsh transport policy with its cheque book. The metro proposal is very exciting and what’s more, what better time than now, with the current reminder of Thatcher’s policies and their effects on the southern valleys. The Levels option would be the wrong one in so many ways, so let’s hope that the WG chooses otherwise. After all, the final choice is theirs and not Londons.

  7. Traffic had declined from the 2007 peak. Didn’t GDP also peak in 2007? It fell and we have not yet got back to peak levels. Business transport is correlated with business activity, i.e. GDP. Unless you want to argue that economic growth has now stopped for ever, GDP will rise, if slowly, and traffic will inevitably follow. It’s a basic economic error to confuse cycle with trend.

    This argument is therefore unworthy of Friends of the Earth who would be cross if someone pointed to the lower temperatures of the last 18 months to argue against global warming. That argument would be false and so is theirs.

  8. I think one of the biggest faults with the latest consultation is that it concentrated solely on the M4 corridor between Junctions 23a and 29 without considering the bigger picture.

    Comeoffit mentioned the route to the north and midlands of England as if getting past the Brynglas tunnels depended on it. That illustrates the short-sightedness of the consultation, for a major factor against building a parallel motorway or dual carriageway around Newport is that the dualling of the A465 Heads of the Valleys road is not yet complete.

    When it is, it will provide (along with the A40 between Abergavenny and Ross on Wye and the M50) a more usable and direct route to the north and midlands of England from large parts of south Wales than the M4 currently does. This will act to reduce pressure on the M4, and will also provide more resilience to the network in that it will be an alternative to the M4 in the event of it being blocked, rather than an alternative to just the section of the M4 around Newport. As far as I understand it, the plan is still to complete the dualling by 2020, details here.

    As for the four options presented for local improvements to the M4 at Newport, here, I firmly believe that a parallel dual carriageway or new tunnels (options A and D) are completely unnecessary.

    However I think there would be a good case for some judicious improvements to the A48 Southern Distributor Road in order to take local traffic off the motorway. Option B is for at-grade junction improvements, and Option C for grade-separated junction improvements. I think the ideal solution might be a mixture of Options B and C, i.e. for grade-separated junction improvements to the western part of the SDR, but not for the eastern part because upgrading the Steelworks Access Road will make it unnecessary.

  9. Tredwyn:

    “Traffic had declined from the 2007 peak. Didn’t GDP also peak in 2007? It fell and we have not yet got back to peak levels. Business transport is correlated with business activity, i.e. GDP. Unless you want to argue that economic growth has now stopped for ever, GDP will rise, if slowly, and traffic will inevitably follow.”

    …makes a good point, and hints at the difference in opinion at the moment between transport commentators (Phil Goodwin, Peter Headicar) and the DfT. There is a hypothesis proposed by the former that car use has peaked, known as ‘peak car’. The reasons for this are yet to establish themselves – possibly due to a younger generation not looking to become as socially mobile as previous owing to different social and cultural trends (e.g. technology). The DfT adopts the line that the traffic reduction is consistent with the drop in economic activity, but this argument is apparently flawed in that traffic continues to drop through recent economic upturns.

  10. Tredwyn – the decrease in traffic preceded the 2008 recession. Where’s your evidence that “GDP will rise… and traffic will inevitably follow?” Your basic economic error is to link irrefutably transport growth with GDP. The academic community is crystal clear that the Department for Transport’s projections are wholly false. Now all we need is for the DfT to recognise the same and we can start planning our transport needs around fact, not some fiction of never-ending growth in traffic.

  11. UK GDP peaked in 2007. We were in recession 6 months before the Bank of England recognised it. My evidence that GDP will rise is that we still have a growing population. If GDP doesn’t rise we shall have declining GDP per head and increasing immiserisation. I find that unlikely, don’t you? I don’t argue that traffic growth will rise proportionately with GDP but it would be a break with all history if it did not rise at all. I don’t pretend to know what will happen in future but I think you need more evidence to argue for such a break from past experience than someone does to suppose that past relationships will more or less continue to hold.

  12. R Tredwyn, you make two surprising assumptions. The first is that the “increasing immiserisation” that would accompany a decrease in GDP means that GDP must rise, and that an increasing population is the mechanism for an increase in GDP. Now as it happens, I agree that it’s unlikely that GDP – and GDP per capita – will not increase. But to link increasing GDP to the two factors you do – population increase and that it would be rather unpleasant if it didn’t – is astonishing.

    Your second is that historic trends can do anything other than stay the course. If that’s the case, why is the Welsh Government making efforts to increase the numbers and proportion of people speaking Welsh? Why is the UK Government trying to reduce the deficit? It’s because Government policy can have an impact on trends.

    You ask for evidence for a break from past experience. Friends of the Earth Cymru has provided bucketloads of this evidence in our response to the M4 consultation ( I’m sure you’d find it an interesting read – particularly since it was part of the evidence we used in our legal challenge to force the Welsh Government back to the drawing board on its consultation.

  13. Why is it astonishing to think that output per head is unlikely to decline? If it does not and population grows, GDP will grow. That’s just arithmetic. Anyway it seems you agree with the likelihood of GDP growth.

    Let’s be clear what we are arguing about. If you say that Ministry projections of future traffic growth are too high or based on selected data I am not going to quarrel. You may be right, I don’t know. But if you are arguing that traffic won’t grow at all and your evidence is simply that it has not grown over the past six years or so then I have to say there is no more reason to believe your projections than the Ministry’s. That is what your ‘bucketloads’ of evidence comes down to. On one strip of road volumes are down from a peak during the worst recession in 80 years. Your own evidence asserts that a new road would attract traffic. Now make up your mind: will it be unnecessary and underused or will it generate traffic? Can it do both at once?

  14. R Tredwyn – feel free to read the paper I referred you to in my previous post for much of the evidence. You might also find this link interesting: It’s a report from a Welsh Transport Statistics seminar that I attended in December in which some of the most highly respected academics in transport statistics are now thinking that we’ve reached the peak in car use and there’s a good chance we’re either at a long-term plateau or a declining use of motor transport. Incidentally, it was the three Professors at that event who were most strident in calling for the DfT to revise its traffic projections.
    But you say “let’s be clear what we’re arguing about”. My case to the Welsh Government has always been that they are predicating improvements to the M4 on a never-ending growth in traffic. That’s why I pointed out that they’re patently wrong on the evidence since 2007. And that’s why I’m going to be so interested to see what evidence the Welsh Government uses in its next set of consultations, now that they’ve wasted £871,000 on the first sets that were so flawed they were deemed unlawful.

  15. What I would like to see is a very detailed study of road traffic movements to provide informed data which I am sure would support the need for more public transport (possibly a metro type, but why not mono-rail) to take shorter vehicle traffic off the roads and in particular off the city streets. If this was combined with better sited park and ride facilities it might make city life a lot more tolerable.

  16. Trouble is 85 per cent of travel to work in south Wales is by car. I agree entirely that we should develop public transport. Let’s suppose we double its use; that would still leave 70 per cent of travel to work by car. The odds are traffic on the M4 will grow when economic growth resumes, if at a slower pace than before. But so what if it doesn’t? The Bryn Glas tunnels are a bottleneck at current traffic volumes and threaten to cut Wales off whenever they are the scene of an accident. We need to do both: invest in and improve public transport and improve the M4. I am open-minded about how we do the latter and bow to the experts on the most cost-effective plan.

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