Zombie M4 relief road relies on phantom cars

Gareth Clubb says Edwina Hart is applying a ‘predict and provide’ prescription to her top transport challenge

So now we know. Either we’re getting a new motorway running to the south of Newport, or we get nothing. At least, that’s the choice that Edwina Hart appeared to lay down in her written statement last week. Although it’s fair to say that doing ‘nothing’ is viewed – at least by the UK and Welsh Governments – as being rather unlikely.

There’s a frenzy of excitement amongst those who would build a 14-mile motorway across largely greenfield parts of Newport, including the Gwent Levels. Their prize is tantalisingly within reach. Of course, if you stop and consider the rationale for building a motorway, things start to look a little disjointed. The Minister tells us that

“Addressing the capacity and resilience issues on the M4 around Newport is the top transport challenge that we face in ensuring that Wales has an effective economic infrastructure which improves our competitiveness and access to jobs and services”.

Really? Where is the Welsh Government’s list of transport challenges? What’s number two on the list? Or is this just a needless vanity project? Because neither this Minister nor her predecessor has provided us with a shred of evidence that this road is necessary. Traffic volumes have decreased year-on-year for the last five years and are now 4 per cent lower than they were in 2007 (see Table TRA8904)

And yet the Welsh Government cheerfully predicts that there will be 46 per cent more vehicles on parts of the M4 around Newport by 2035 than there were in 2012 (see Table 7.1 and Figure 7.2 here). What we are seeing is the resurrection of a zombie we had thought dispatched a long time ago: predict and provide. This theory (‘build it and they will come’) is so lacking in logic, and so thoroughly discredited, that it is no longer used anywhere in the developed world. Back in 2010 even the CBI regarded predict and provide as a policy tool “no longer appropriate”. But it’s alive and kicking here in Wales.

Nor has the Government provided any economic rationale for greater capacity on the M4. It appears to rely wholly on anecdotes from its principal cheerleaders in this endeavour, the CBI: “no other project has the potential to transform the South Wales economy… an M4 relief road will attract busineses to Wales”. Perhaps the CBI and Welsh Government alike need a lesson in statistics: the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

Why hasn’t the Welsh Government come up with a convincing rationale for major modifications of the road network around Newport? The M4 relief road was included in the Welsh Trunk Road Forward Programme in 1991. So between the Welsh Office and the Welsh Government, they’ve had 22 years to come up with the compelling and devastating case for a new motorway. And what do we see? Fantasy projections of traffic volumes breathtakingly out of line with lived experience.

This all adds up to something that I’d thought we’d happily consigned to the dustbin of political history – policy-based evidence. That is, evidence squeezed and manipulated to try to justify a policy. Whatever happened to evidence-based policy?

If the Welsh Government is looking for evidence, it could do worse than look back at its own research from 2011. Because it concluded that traffic in the Brynglas Tunnels would be reduced by 5 per cent at a stroke through closing the eastbound sliproads, at close to zero cost. And the Welsh Government has already concluded that the transport problems associated with the M4 could be negated through improved public transport. It leads someone to the suspicion that the Welsh Government’s interest here is not in dealing with congestion, but in another grande projet.

But let’s generously assume there’s a problem to be solved. Let’s acknowledge that occasional closure of the Brynglas Tunnels creates difficulties for people using this stretch of motorway. The solution, then, is a Brynglas/Newport bypass of some sort. And what do you know? The Welsh Government already owns the dual carriageway through Llanwern, and all sorts of associated land. The cost for a bypass starting at junction 23A (Magor), using the Llanwern dual carriageway, and joining the Southern Distributor Road to bypass Newport would be in the region of £200 million, for a net saving of approximately £800 million.

£800 million builds a lot of schools. There’s no case for an expensive new motorway south of Newport. There never was, and it looks like there never will be.

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