Guy Dinmore analyses the decision facing the Welsh Government on the M4 relief road
Finally – after years of intense debate and prevarication – the Welsh Government says it will decide soon whether to go ahead with a controversial plan to loop an extension of the M4 around Newport, erasing a unique stretch of countryside in the process and at huge expense.
Congestion on the M4 through the two-lane Brynglas tunnels leading in and out of South Wales is legendary and costly. Big business groups pressing for the new M4 Corridor argue that traffic delays hinder investment in the region.
But the decision facing First Minister Carwyn Jones before he steps down in December rests on both known and unknown consequences.
For sure the so-called ‘black route’ of about 14 miles of six-lane motorway would obliterate a large stretch of the Magor Marsh nature reserve and precious habitats along the Gwent Levels, a system of drained marshlands and dykes built by monks some 1,000 years ago and now designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Cranes have only just returned after a 400-year absence and their nests would go, along with otters, rare water voles, rarer bumble bees, and others.
What is far less sure and is hotly contested by ‘experts’ is whether the Corridor and its 440 metre span bridge across the Usk would actually relieve congestion and promote economic development, or whether the current price tag of around £1.4 billion, which would consume the government’s borrowing capacity for some years, could be better spent on alternatives. Those include a less intrusive and smaller ‘blue route’ of dual carriageway along an existing road.
A lengthy public inquiry costing £11 million set out to tackle those issues and has submitted its report to the government. Ken Skates, Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport who is a backer of the project, told the Welsh Assembly on September 26 that the current First Minister would make the decision on granting planning permission. This would be followed by ‘an open and robust debate’ and then a ‘final’ investment decision. It is not known yet whether the National Assembly for Wales will hold a binding vote on the issue, with some Labour AMs opposed to the scheme.
Mr Skates said he respected that this was a ‘very divisive issue’ but reiterated his support for the project. He said a decision must be ‘evidence based’ and that evidence showed ‘the benefit-cost ratio of the proposal is classed as high’.
That claim has been strongly challenged however.
A major voice opposing the project and adding a novel dimension to decisions of such weight for the future of Wales comes in the form of the newly created Future Generations Commissioner.
When Sophie Howe was appointed in 2016 as guardian of the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, critics warned that the position’s lack of authority would make her a toothless watchdog and that her long and close association with Welsh Labour would temper her actions. On both counts Ms Howe is pushing back and demonstrating her independence in defending the Act’s four sustainable development pillars of economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being.
Ms Howe has spoken out forcefully against the M4 plan and warns that she could insist on a time consuming statutory review if the government decides to go ahead. She has directly challenged Mr Skate’s ‘evidence’, accusing the government of ‘vastly outscoring’ the supposed economic benefits of the project while not scoring alternatives, such as enhancing public transport.
In an interview for this piece she says she used strict criteria for her interventions and that this was the single biggest issue facing her office so far. “Aspirations of the Future Generations legislation makes a compelling approach for a new policy… rather than just responding to current situations, Wales needs to plot a new course,” she said.
The Commissioner issued a report last month saying:
“Wales has a choice to make. It must choose whether to spend £1.4 billion on building a 14-mile section of M4 motorway, or to invest in alternative sustainable transport infrastructure that’s fit for future generations, that Wales and the world can be proud of…Welsh Government’s obsession at addressing 21st century transport issues with 20th century solutions must not continue. The Black Route fails to consider future trends and does not reflect the ambition or intention of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.”
The ‘Transport Fit for Future Generations’ report was written in partnership with the Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England, Sustrans and New Economics Foundation. It offered alternatives of integrated public transport schemes to complement the South Wales Metro and would use the M4 money to fund the Metro’s later stages.
During the public inquiry, which began in February 2017, testimony given by economists and transport experts revealed the complexity and uncertainties surrounding the project. History has shown that generally new motorways simply fill up with the traffic capacity they create.
According to a traffic modeller testifying on behalf of the Welsh Government, the new highway would reduce the average peak travel time between junctions 23A and 29 by up to five minutes on completion and 11.5 minutes in 2051. But some experts suggest a new era of driverless vehicles in convoy and more efficient public transport will ameliorate congestion.
Even the mantra of big business that more roads mean more inward investment is contested. Some economists argue that South Wales risks creating a net outflow of investment heading with greater efficiency towards the more developed west of England.
What is more certain is the environmental devastation. Ian Rappel, chief executive of Gwent Wildlife Trust, says the black route ‘will destroy an irreplaceable and precious area of the Gwent Levels forever’.
‘What kind of society have we created that would exchange 10 minutes of a hypothetical car journey for a landscape and waterways that have been fizzing with a density of life comparable with the rainforests for hundreds of years?’ he asks.
Mr Jones, in one of his last acts in nine years as First Minister, will address that question.
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