I once remember being told by Ian Grist, a junior Welsh Office minister in the 1980s that road schemes are always controversial. I was, by then, campaigning hard for the dualling of the A55 across Anglesey. In the event, the completion of the A55 across the island was relatively uncontroversial as these things go. But Ian Grist’s adage was certainly true about the M4 relief road around Newport.
The economic case for the new road was being made by employers’ organisations such as the CBI and the Road Haulage Association. They felt that the delays around Newport were causing massive economic difficulties and was a barrier to investment in the area. The opposition came from environmental groups and those who wished to preserve unique wildlife habitats.
Soon after I became a Minister, a fatal road traffic accident closed the M4 near Newport and I appeared before the Senedd to make a statement. Once the motorway was closed, chaos ensued as there was no suitable alternative diversion to take the traffic. If a fatality is involved the police close the road as it is treated as a crime scene. A thorough examination usually means a closure for some hours. Even the opposite carriage can often be closed to prevent rubbernecking.
Following this early incident in my Ministerial career, I did not need much persuasion that something needed to be done to alleviate the traffic problems around Newport. The reduction of the three lanes to two at the Brynglas tunnels and the increase in traffic means that tailbacks are a daily occurrence at peak times.
The M4 around Newport is not up to current motorway standards. Originally built as a bypass for the city, it is too steep in some areas and some of the bends are more acute than one would expect on a motorway these days. It was not built to carry the volume of traffic we have today.
By 2004, the Labour administration in the Bay had concluded, on advice received from its own transport directorate, that a new section of M4 needed to be built around the south of the city. In order to keep clear of any built up areas and minimise disruption during the construction phase, a route was proposed which meant that the road cut through an environmentally sensitive area known as the Gwent levels which provide a habitat for a number of important wildlife species.
I was given the same advice as my predecessor when I became a Transport Minister in 2007, although I needed to be persuaded that the case was still robust and could be justified. Some of my officials, fearing that I might not continue with the project rather overstated the case for the new relief road. Nevertheless, I was prepared to look at it objectively, and come to my decision based on all the evidence which was available.
When the plan for the relief road was announced in 2004, the cost for the 15 mile section was estimated at £350 million. Even that figure had to be treated with some caution. Transport engineers will openly tell you that very often new schemes are underestimated so that they can be included in a forward road programme. This is known in the trade as ‘optimism bias’. However, it is also true that no scheme can be accurately costed until all the survey work has been done. So at best the 2004 figure was an estimate, and at worst was probably a substantial underestimate.
One of my early requests as Minister was to ask the transport directorate for details of every road scheme they had on their books, the cost of each scheme and what their future pipeline looked like. Once I received this information, I could see that many of the road schemes being planned were simply unaffordable within the capital funding I had at my disposal, and the work on the M4 relief road could only be done if sufficient funds could be raised under a Public/Private Partnership scheme. Since Private Finance Initiative was by then discredited, new forms of financing were being looked at. By now the cost of the scheme had rocketed to around £1 billion.
All these options had major drawbacks, since the Welsh Government had only two ways it could meet the interest payments, either by raiding the revenue budget or to raise tolls on the new road. I examined the plan to raise tolls extremely carefully. My officials had become extremely nervous about only raising tolls on the new section of the M4, as experience on the tolled section of the M6 showed that drivers were avoiding it in great numbers. Their advice was that tolls had to be raised on both the new and existing sections of the M4, a scenario which I found to be extremely unattractive. Paying tolls on the Severn Bridge was bad enough. Making motorists pay on the new and old sections of the M4 was a step too far. The public simply would not stand for it. The business case for the new road was also weaker if tolls had to be raised to pay for it.
When a new team took over senior positions within the Transport Directorate, their advice was that the M4 relief road as originally planned was by now simply unaffordable. I agreed with them.
However, I asked them to draw up an alternative plan, since doing nothing was not an option. They came up with a solution which would alleviate the worst of the traffic chaos, by purchasing a section of road which traversed the Llanwern steelworks site, and bring it up to dual carriageway standards. This road would link into the Southern Distributor Road around Newport and provide an alternative route for traffic. Given that much of the existing traffic on the M4 around Newport was local, some of the existing junctions would be reconfigured and closed with traffic redirected onto the alternative route. In the future, new tunnels could be constructed alongside the Brynglas tunnels should the increase in traffic continue well beyond current levels.
I can sympathise with the current Transport Minister, since she faces the same dilemma as I did. The UK government cannot force the Welsh Government to raise tolls and the Welsh Government should resist any pressure to so. My advice is to get on with the alternative plan I announced. It can be done quickly, it is more affordable, and avoids the controversy of building a new road on a sensitive site.
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