Zombie M4 relief road relies on phantom cars

Gareth Clubb says Edwina Hart is applying a ‘predict and provide’ prescription to her top transport challenge

So now we know. Either we’re getting a new motorway running to the south of Newport, or we get nothing. At least, that’s the choice that Edwina Hart appeared to lay down in her written statement last week. Although it’s fair to say that doing ‘nothing’ is viewed – at least by the UK and Welsh Governments – as being rather unlikely.

There’s a frenzy of excitement amongst those who would build a 14-mile motorway across largely greenfield parts of Newport, including the Gwent Levels. Their prize is tantalisingly within reach. Of course, if you stop and consider the rationale for building a motorway, things start to look a little disjointed. The Minister tells us that

“Addressing the capacity and resilience issues on the M4 around Newport is the top transport challenge that we face in ensuring that Wales has an effective economic infrastructure which improves our competitiveness and access to jobs and services”.

Really? Where is the Welsh Government’s list of transport challenges? What’s number two on the list? Or is this just a needless vanity project? Because neither this Minister nor her predecessor has provided us with a shred of evidence that this road is necessary. Traffic volumes have decreased year-on-year for the last five years and are now 4 per cent lower than they were in 2007 (see Table TRA8904)

And yet the Welsh Government cheerfully predicts that there will be 46 per cent more vehicles on parts of the M4 around Newport by 2035 than there were in 2012 (see Table 7.1 and Figure 7.2 here). What we are seeing is the resurrection of a zombie we had thought dispatched a long time ago: predict and provide. This theory (‘build it and they will come’) is so lacking in logic, and so thoroughly discredited, that it is no longer used anywhere in the developed world. Back in 2010 even the CBI regarded predict and provide as a policy tool “no longer appropriate”. But it’s alive and kicking here in Wales.

Nor has the Government provided any economic rationale for greater capacity on the M4. It appears to rely wholly on anecdotes from its principal cheerleaders in this endeavour, the CBI: “no other project has the potential to transform the South Wales economy… an M4 relief road will attract busineses to Wales”. Perhaps the CBI and Welsh Government alike need a lesson in statistics: the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

Why hasn’t the Welsh Government come up with a convincing rationale for major modifications of the road network around Newport? The M4 relief road was included in the Welsh Trunk Road Forward Programme in 1991. So between the Welsh Office and the Welsh Government, they’ve had 22 years to come up with the compelling and devastating case for a new motorway. And what do we see? Fantasy projections of traffic volumes breathtakingly out of line with lived experience.

This all adds up to something that I’d thought we’d happily consigned to the dustbin of political history – policy-based evidence. That is, evidence squeezed and manipulated to try to justify a policy. Whatever happened to evidence-based policy?

If the Welsh Government is looking for evidence, it could do worse than look back at its own research from 2011. Because it concluded that traffic in the Brynglas Tunnels would be reduced by 5 per cent at a stroke through closing the eastbound sliproads, at close to zero cost. And the Welsh Government has already concluded that the transport problems associated with the M4 could be negated through improved public transport. It leads someone to the suspicion that the Welsh Government’s interest here is not in dealing with congestion, but in another grande projet.

But let’s generously assume there’s a problem to be solved. Let’s acknowledge that occasional closure of the Brynglas Tunnels creates difficulties for people using this stretch of motorway. The solution, then, is a Brynglas/Newport bypass of some sort. And what do you know? The Welsh Government already owns the dual carriageway through Llanwern, and all sorts of associated land. The cost for a bypass starting at junction 23A (Magor), using the Llanwern dual carriageway, and joining the Southern Distributor Road to bypass Newport would be in the region of £200 million, for a net saving of approximately £800 million.

£800 million builds a lot of schools. There’s no case for an expensive new motorway south of Newport. There never was, and it looks like there never will be.

14 thoughts on “Zombie M4 relief road relies on phantom cars

  1. Oh dear. Once again it appears that Welsh roads have exactly the opposite effect to roads anywhere else in the world. The usual case against roads is that, once built, firms locate to them, out of town developments spring up along them and the congestion they were designed to overcome appears once more. In Wales, by contrast, firms will not relocate, business developments will not appear, and people simply will not use the new road!

    There are many good reasons for Friends of the Earth to oppose this development, not least the devastating effect on the Gwent Levels. It doesn’t help the case to pretend that the impact of a road development will be uniquely different in Wales.

  2. Tim, this article is based on evidence and the lack of any provided by the Welsh Government. I’m not interested in ‘the usual case against roads’ because each case should be treated on its merits. This road scheme doesn’t appear to have any.

  3. This bypass project is about bypassing the Brynglas tunnels. It’s a hell of a long and expensive bypass for two tunnels that are only a few hundred yards long.

    A couple of months ago Ieuan Wyn Jones wrote a very clear article, on this site, as to why this proposed relief road is overkill.

    To relieve the problems as Brynglas all that’s needed are two more tunnels under the currrent ones and access roads to them. Going under the current tunnels solves the problems of the instability of the hill because they’ve already battled with that for the current ones. That solution is quicker, cheaper and easier. But Edwina Hart has not shown any signs of understanding such issues.

    There seem to be other forces at play, with the Labour Government here in cahoots with the Conservatives in Westminster. Not for the first time.

  4. It’s an open secret that the Minister is responding to the Welsh CBI and business lobbying for the new road. Business is not always to be indulged of course but if the road is such a bust as Gareth Clubb claims why is the business community so hot for it? Does he imply they don’t know what’s in their own interest?

  5. Tredwyn, I’d be intrigued to know just why the business community is – apparently (and at least as far as the CBI is concerned) – in favour. There’s certainly no evidence of any economic benefit, other than it being an expensive short-term job-creation scheme in construction.

    Gwyn, the Welsh Government has known since 2011 how to cut traffic through Brynglas tunnels by 5% at almost zero cost. Add that to the 4% decrease since traffic peaked and you would have 9% fewer vehicle movements through the tunnels. There is no evidence that any extra capacity is needed – and hence no need for extra tunnels – but I don’t see why the government hasn’t already acted on its own recommendation to reduce traffic through the tunnels.

  6. Why not make an FoI request for the cost-benefit analysis on the road? Even with strong lobbying the Welsh government would not spend a billion on a project without preparing some sort of business case. If that is public the strength or weakness of the evidence base becomes clearer.

  7. Far be it from me to strike the Machiavellian note but I wonder whether the Welsh government really means to do this anyway. They haven’t got a spare one billion so can build the road only if the Treasury let’s them borrow the money. The Silk Commission suggested borrowing powers for Wales but the UK government seems in no hurry to oblige. If borrowing powers don’t come through the Welsh government can say: we can ‘t build the M4 relief and it’s all Westminster’s fault! Is this just an exercise in pre-emptive blame allocation?

  8. why would it be in the interests of business to build a hugely expensive new stretch of motorway to the South of Newport?
    Well, if your business is road building then it makes very good business sense. Many of the large road-building firms have very close links to government and the Conservative Party in particular. Its a shame that those people interested in improving the strategic and urban cycle network have less clout amongst the decision makers.

    The optimist in me hopes that the Welsh Government would be more open to suggestions that might reduce car traffic, pollution, noise and CO2 emissions. However, the pessimist in me wonders whether they are not looking to miss out on a new UK wide road building programme so that they can cut a ribbon in a few years time and spout statistics about the millions of pounds of investment they have brought to the locality.

    Anyone who cares about our shared environment and society could not consider a few miles of new motorway across one of the few remaining tranquil spots in the area as a wise way to spend a billion pounds of public money. Why not spend some of that money on improving and extending the Valley lines, or new tram services in the major cities, new cycle paths and incentives to use electric pedal bikes? If you take the commuters off the motorway it suddenly becomes “faster” and more “efficient” for the remaining traffic without the need for more new roads.

    Why not? because unfortunately those billions of pounds are not available for such purposes, and if you’re jolly well not grateful for our proposed investment in the economy, don’t expect any money to fund your own proposals.

    The arguments are clear and cannot really be in any serious doubt. It does appear however that money still rules, or atleast those with control over the money will ensure it is spent on them.

  9. Tredwyn, I’ve already put in the FoI request for details on the economic case. The response from the Welsh Government is the reason I can state unequivocally that there is no economic case. I imagine that as we speak the civil servants are busily preparing some sort of economic analysis to justify the road. Policy-based evidence…
    Today’s announcement that continued tolling on the Severn bridges would be the mechanism for paying off the loan strikes me as being at least in some sense rational. Except for those people not travelling as far West as Newport, it means that those using the infrastructure are paying for it.
    Of course, that still doesn’t get around the fact that there is no case for spending the money in the first place.

    Owain, I think you’re probably correct that the businesses most vocal in their support of this proposal are those that stand to benefit directly from the construction contracts.
    You’ll also see here http://www.clickonwales.org/2013/04/the-way-in-and-out-of-wales/ that I’ve stated my support for a south Wales metro that would generate income, not suck it out of the economy. It just so happens to be a sustainable transport solution too.

  10. @ Gareth Clubb

    You state in your piece that:

    “Traffic volumes have decreased year-on-year for the past 5 years and are now 4% lower than they were in 2007.”

    And you refer to Table TRA8904 which shows a reduction from 2008 top 2012 of 3.1% for the local authority area of Newport. This figure therefore includes the M4 (I assume) but we cannot infer what is true for the whole of Newport is true for the M4, can we?

  11. I’ll post the same question that i put on Twitter. If a new rail line was proposed to run across the Gwent Levels what would be the position of FOE Cymru.

    Like you i support the development of a South Wales Metro. You will however note that includes some proposals to build new or rebuild old rail lines. At the rate of growth of rail travel in South East Wales, there is an argument that in 30 years time we will need more capacity at other points throughout the region – such as more rail capacity along the “M4 corridor”.

    Building any transport infrastructure, including rail lines, has an environmental cost – but invariably its the costs which seem to hold sway. Never the wider benefits (Witness the skewed debate about HS2 when its benefits in actually increasing the capacity of the rail network and allow more freight to be moved by train is lost. Less Freight on roads, less CO2 emissions).

    Please correct me, but i sense that yourself and FOE would argue about many forms of transport interventions – even those which are “sustainable” like buses and trains.

  12. Rhobat,
    Unfortunately no figures are available for the M4 because there is no specific travel count. I’m using the Wales-wide figure and extrapolating. In my opinion it’s unlikely that traffic has increased on the M4 at the same time as decreasing to such an extent across Wales.

    Our predisposition is firmly in favour of increasing the use of buses and trains.
    I don’t know if I can answer your hypothetical question. I would imagine we’re many decades (at least) away from the prospect of new railway lines across southern Gwent. But railway lines would be considerably lower impact than a 14-mile stretch of concrete, and rail has considerably lower environmental impact (air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, land take etc), particularly once electrified.
    Do phone the office if you’d like a chat about this.

  13. In some ways it is a shame that the debate thus far has been dressed in terms of the environment (important thought that is); there is always the risk that anything connected with Friends of the Earth is invariably seen as nimbyism.

    My concern is different. The CBI and – sadly – the Welsh Government remain locked into a tried and discredited theory of economic development. Build the roads, the theory goes, and inward investors will flock along, bringing in their wake hundreds of jobs. The reality is totally different. Evidence from the A55 and the M4 is that movement has been in the opposite direction; these roads have provided a quick and easy way of distribution into Wales. The place to develop a factory or distribution facility is alongside the Severn bridge, not Bridgend, Cardiff or Swansea.

    Even if the inward investment did materialise, no thriving economy anywhere in the world was built on external ownership. We only have to look back at the “success” of the WDA for evidence. Fundamentally, contemporary theory (and policy) revolves around the building of local business competence; the £1bn or so would be better spent on developing indigenous business skills and the appropriate economic infrastructure. Grandiose schemes have had their day – is anybody out there listening?

  14. This is priceless stuff…a sensible and clearly well informed view from both sides…the arguments for and against
    Thank you so much
    I am interested as part of a campaign against ‘trial’ closure of junctions 40 and 41 at Port Talbot and the residents there have not even been given the opportunity to democratically discuss the proposals which even during a trial closure would have a far reaching negative impact on the town and it’s residents…submitted FOI requests being rejected generally though in the interests of fairness some (as you have rightly said ‘policy based’ information) has been released or at least quoted
    Interesting to note indeed that the town of Port Talbot has a recently completed Peripheral Distributor Relief road and I will not be offering prizes for guessing who signed the relative documentation
    Furthermore it’s fascinating to read the figures quoted here…as it would appear that some at least within WAG appear to think that economics communities and livelihoods stop just the other side of Newport…a billion pound investment there…a closure at Port Talbot with a perceived million pound saving and a million pound allocation to mitigation measures
    I hope you don’t mind me posting on this blog….I love it 🙂

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