The way in and out of Wales

Gareth Clubb takes issue with the cost-benefits of the projected M4 relief road

Last week claim and counter-claim about a proposed new stretch of the M4 hit the headlines. Most of the headlines have focused on possible tolls, which we’re now reliably informed won’t happen.

But let’s consider for a moment what this really means. If we discount tolls – which are a perfectly legitimate way of paying for infrastructure by those who use it – then we end up paying for it by direct taxation. I’m sure there are plenty of people in mid and north Wales who would feel more than a little disgruntled by the idea of subsidising extra lanes of carriageway in south Wales that they may never use. And how about the people who never use a car, around a fifth of the population? You’ll still be reaching deep into your pocket for the new M4 for the next 20 years.

Tomorrow: Alternative plan available for M4 relief road

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The UK Government would counter this by saying that economic growth that’s generated as a result of more lanes of tarmac would have Wales-wide benefits. They would also claim that the Olympics really benefited people in Blaenau Gwent as much as it did people in East London. Indeed, George Osborne recently said:

“I hope the road is going to get built and I think there’s a very strong case… I think it’s one of the most important road schemes in the whole of the United Kingdom. I think it would be of huge benefit to south Wales”.

For someone who apparently thinks a lot, there doesn’t appear to be much substance behind his thinking. A very strong case? Huge benefit? Let’s go back to the consultation the Welsh Government’s undertook in spring 2012. The only mention of economic benefits was tucked away in the final paragraph on the document’s last page, in Appendix One:

“The forecast traffic demand used in the M4 CEM appraisals is likely to be high compared to current traffic growth projections, especially if some of Newport’s planned development projects fail to be followed through to completion. This is likely to result in an over-prediction of economic benefits of any proposed schemes”.

This was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Welsh Government’s approach to economic forecasting. And how about the now thoroughly discredited Strategic Environmental Assessment of the M4 improvement options, which Friends of the Earth Cymru successfully brought to an end through a legal challenge? There was no mention of the economic case. In fact, I haven’t come across a single cost-benefit analysis for this scheme. Yet we’re under siege by commentators telling us that such a scheme would be worth billions to the economy of south Wales.

It may surprise some people to find that traffic levels are now 4 per cent lower than they were at their peak in 2007. The theory that roads will inexorably fill with a never-ending increase in traffic was subject to forensic examination in a Welsh transport statistics seminar in December 2012. The conclusion? We may have reached a plateau, or even a peak, in vehicle numbers. Increasing costs of fuel and the feeling more and more people have that they’d rather not be sat around unproductively in traffic for hours of the day add to the impression that the peak in traffic has come and gone.

Some of the means to reduce congestion around Newport are already making a difference. Variable speed limits are smoothing traffic flow. More and more people are choosing to work at home or travel by public transport.

What else could be done? A metro for south-east Wales, linking Newport, Cardiff and the Valleys that would link 1.4 million people with reliable and good value public transport would cost in the order of £1.5 billion. That’s not much more than the £1bn mooted for a 14-mile stretch of motorway. And instead of draining the public purse through construction debt for decades and maintenance costs for all time, this scheme would contribute directly to its own upkeep through fares. A sort of toll, if you like, based on use.

And is there something else here? An idea that Cardiff and its hinterland could become a driver for prosperity internally within Wales, rather than being forever dependent on more and more people being able to enter and leave Wales at 70mph?

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