A David and Goliath battle

As a public inquiry launches, Rachel Sharp highlights the reasons why the M4 relief road shouldn’t be approved

Today marks the beginning of the long awaited Public Inquiry into the M4 motorway. This is a planning inquiry where an inspector will decide whether or not to grant planning permission. To make the decision the inspector needs to decide if the plan is in accordance with the Welsh Government obligations or not. They will then make a recommendation to the appropriate Cabinet Secretary, in this case Ken Skates AM, who will ultimately decide if the motorway is in the best interests of Wales and its Future Generations.  

At the inquiry cases for and against the motorway will be put forward by ‘expert witnesses’. The Welsh Government have already spent near to £28 million in preparation for the Inquiry. However, charities like Gwent Wildlife Trust have limited funds and have to seek pro-bono help from witnesses and barristers, a real David and Goliath competition. Our evidence is needed to hold the Welsh Government to account and to examine their legal obligations on wildlife protection, climate change and sustainable solutions.

So what is the case for the defence?  

On wildlife, Professor Sir John Lawton, one of the world’s most eminent scientists, states , “the effect of the proposed M4 extension will be to destroy and fragment large areas of designated…habitat and will significantly damage population numbers of a number of vulnerable species… Fragmentation reduces or eliminates the potential for (wildlife) dispersal and recolonisation, ‘devaluing’ remaining habitat and ultimately resulting in a greater risk of the regional extinction of some species. Despite this, the measures proposed to mitigate the effect of the proposed M4 extension are unlikely to be effective. They are scientifically unproven, and in some cases appear impossible. The scheme is therefore likely to have a significant and adverse ecological impact”. Or to put it another way, you thought the Newbury Bypass was bad for wildlife, this is far worse. More information on the Gwent Levels can be found here and here.

On Climate Change, Professor Kevin Anderson, the UK’s leading Climate Change scientist statedbuilding a new road will almost certainly result in the scheme increasing overall CO2 emissions…Investing over £1 billion in a scheme set to increase CO2 emissions, at a time where unprecedented reductions in carbon are required, is highly misguided and will impose still further misery on those poorer communities living in more climate-vulnerable landscapes as well as on future generations – including those within Wales”. This is similar to the conclusions of other public inquiries which were refused on climate change grounds such as the Westbury Bypass. Recently, a court in Austria has ruled that Vienna’s Schwechat Airport proposed third runway expansion, should be refused on climate change grounds.

In economic terms, the case for the Welsh Government’s ‘Black Route’ just doesn’t add up according to one of Wales leading economic experts, Professor Calvin Jones. He states that “if the rationale for an M4 Relief Road is one of economic development it is misguided, being based on no substantive evidence base. Whilst there is certainly a problem with the existing M4 provision, the costs of congestion on (which are suffered to a similar or often worse degree by other UK conurbations) do not justify the very significant investment in the Black Route”.

Welsh Government have recently introduced new legislation to tackle threats posed by climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the lack of resilient ecosystems in the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The governments proposals will therefore fail to meet the their own commitments on what they call ‘ground-breaking’ legislation. Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales in her evidence to the Public Inquiry stated “Building a new road is not in the best interests of future generations”, she also said “I believe that using the Welsh Government’s borrowing powers to finance one scheme that will, at best, result in geographically, economically and socially disproportionate benefits to one part of Wales is ill-conceived.”

She added: “Building roads is what we have been doing for the last 50 years and is not the solution we should be seeking in 2017 and beyond…The rationale for a new road was conceived over 25 years ago with the main purpose of addressing congestion in the area…I do not agree with the basic premise that this is the ‘most sustainable, long-term solution to current social, environmental and economic problems associated with this route’“. She highlighted this again recently in her Click on Wales article ‘Yet Another Road’. Will the Welsh government listen to its own commissioner?

The Wildlife Trusts are proud to fight for a more sustainable future for both people and wildlife. Therefore, we have to highlight to the inspectors at the Public Inquiry that building a motorway to bypass another motorway is clearly not sustainable. Instead we need to see investment into integrated transport solutions that encourage sustainable and healthier lifestyle choices for Future Generations.

Rachel Sharp is CEO of Wildlife Trusts Wales.

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