Rejecting the M4 Black Route

Rachel Sharp says alternatives to the Welsh Government’s M4 upgrade must be explored.

With the enactment of both the Environment Act and Well-being of Future Generations Act, the new Government will govern Wales at a crucial time in Wales’ transition to becoming a sustainable nation. Therefore, now is an appropriate opportunity for the Welsh Government to highlight to the world that this new legislation does not mean ‘business as usual’, but the dawn of a new era of true sustainability. A true test of both the credibility and integrity of this new legislation will be the Welsh Government’s decision regarding the fate of the so called M4 “Relief” Road or Newport Bypass, as it’s becoming known.

The weight and strength of environmental evidence alone should lead the Welsh Government to withdraw the current plans, as the proposed route runs directly across 8kms and 125ha of the nationally important Gwent Levels, and the internationally important River Usk Special Area of Conservation Area (SAC). These wildlife sites provide precious habitats for waterfowl, otters, water voles, bats and rare invertebrates. The habitat loss, combined with the landscape and visual impact on the ancient Gwent Levels and its surroundings, would not only be brutal but irreversible. The proposed scheme represents ecological destruction on a landscape scale and one of the most damaging developments in recent history.

It is not just the environmental organisations who are calling for the Welsh Government to halt plans for the bypass. Natural Resources Wales have also submitted a 95 page letter objecting to this proposal. In addition, thousands of people have responded to the draft Orders calling on the Welsh Government to think again. Indeed the original consultation on the M4, the Black Route, had more objectors than supporters. Major employers and businesses leaders such as Association of British Ports, Road Chef and the Federation of Small Business (FSB) have also objected to the development. Economic, transport and climate change government advisors such as Professor Gerald Holtham, Professor Stuart Cole and Professor Kevin Anderson have all seriously questioned the wisdom of building this new motorway. In fact Professor Anderson and Dr Steven Glynn stated:

The M4 scheme is emblematic of a failure to acknowledge the challenges enshrined in the Paris Agreement. If it proceeds it will illustrate the Welsh Government’s disregard for its climate change commitments and the impacts of unchecked emissions on future generations of Welsh citizens and those poorer and climatically vulnerable communities elsewhere in the world today”.

Particularly concerning is that the Welsh Government have approached the transport challenges of South Wales in the wrong order. Increasing road capacity should be the option of last resort, not the first. The Government’s first priorities must be to enhance the potential of rail freight and improved public transport to meet future transport needs, including electrification plans for mainline rail and the expanded Metro serving the region around Cardiff and Newport. The Welsh Government’s Active Travel Act could also deliver the kind of transformative change in travel behaviour needed to meet the Government’s emission reduction and health targets, if the political will and necessary finance is forthcoming.

The latest Welsh Government figures estimate that the cost of the Black Route will be £1.1bn. However, this figure does not include VAT, inflation or maintenance, which could bring the total cost of the road scheme to £2.3bn. If this funding was made available to public transport, active travel and better use of rail freight the results for well-being could be hugely impressive. The resulting demand reduction, modal shift and more efficient use of existing infrastructure would mean the Government’s focus on roads could then shift onto a more truly sustainable basis, rather than one which simply equates bigger with better.

Professor Cole has also developed the ‘Blue Route’ option which is based on a Welsh Government plan from 2007, and uses a combination of existing major roads around Newport to create a dual carriageway to motorway standard. It would be cheaper, quicker to construct and less environmentally damaging than the Black Route. This, and other alternatives, we believe should be given more comprehensive and objective consideration.

In addition, the Black Route does not offer the early solution sought by some organisations such as the CBI. The official timetable for completion is Autumn 2022 but it is likely to be much later. Alternatives which make best use of existing road corridors could be in place much sooner. Combined with planned Metro links and rail electrification this solution would provide more than adequate relief of traffic congestion over the period to 2035.

In summary, the Black Route will not deliver sufficient benefits to justify or outweigh the environmental and financial costs. To the contrary, it will undermine key Welsh Government policy goals and legislative targets on environmental protection, modal shift, carbon reduction, air pollution and public health.

The coming months provide a real opportunity for the new administration to enact the inspirational intention of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and demonstrate how it provides the stepping stones for creating a more sustainable Wales. Therefore, the Welsh Government should abandon the ‘Black Route’ and pursue less expensive and less damaging alternatives such as rail freight, public transport and active travel.

Rachel Sharp is CEO of Wildlife Trusts Wales.

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