Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The ‘Black’ Route: a black day for Wales

by Nick Davies

In July 2014, the Welsh Government, which claims that sustainability is the central organising principle of everything it does, decided to build a motorway relief-road across a wetland containing four Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Anyone who cares about sustainability, who regards it as more than a pious aspiration or just something one says – anyone, in fact, who still believes, in this cynical age, that what a  government or a politician says should some connection with what they actually do – needs to mull over every word in that sentence.

This is a truly appalling decision, which leaves the Welsh Government’s sustainability credentials in tatters. It represents a lurch back from the lofty aspirations in the Government of Wales Act and the nobly-named Future Generations Bill to the post-war by-pass mania, now largely discredited in the eyes of anyone who takes sustainable transport seriously – although very much favoured by what can loosely be called the ‘roads lobby’, namely the construction industry, motoring organisations and various well-funded free-market thinktanks.

Why a Relief Road at all?

An M4 relief road is necessary, so it is argued, to relieve congestion between junctions 23 and 29 of the M4 outside Newport, where the motorway narrows from six lanes to four. The stretch includes the Brynglas tunnels, regarded as a notorious pinch point, as incidents there have resulted in lengthy road closures.  The argument, put forward by some (but not all) business organisations – principally the CBI – and some politicians, and  which has been accepted by the Welsh Government, is that the congestion, on a major route close to the English border, discourages inward investment and thus puts a blight on the Welsh economy.

There is congestion. The original Newport distributor road was a local road that was later incorporated into the M4 and in places it does not have a hard shoulder.  It is still used as a local road for short journeys, as well as a motorway linking the south and west of England to south and west Wales.  There are geographical or topographical reasons why simply widening the road is not an option. If one accepts an economic development paradigm for Wales that sees Wales as a peripheral satellite to England’s metropolis, or that relies on inward investment from English-based firms, rather than developing the Welsh economy with locally-based firms and supply-chains, then there is a problem there to be solved.

So is a relief road the answer? There seems to be little solid evidence of the economic benefits of building new roads. Friends of the Earth, for example, argue that new roads actually promote further traffic growth and increase congestion, defeating the original reason for the new road. As far back as 1998, the Westminster Government’s Standing Committee on Trunk Road Assessment warned that the ‘pervasive often implicit assumption that the benefit of improved accessibility will always accrue to the target area may often be misplaced. The possibility of the net impact running counter to regeneration objectives cannot be ruled out’. 

In other words, improved access can result in the benefit going outwards as well as inwards.  There are also the negative externalities of road building, not included as a ‘cost’, principally the public health and environmental implications of increased traffic: road traffic accidents, noise, the emission of diesel particulates, and the increase in CO2 emissions. The other argument against road building is that that there is an alternative: the development of an enhanced and integrated public transport system. This ticks the ‘job creation’ and ‘economic activity’ boxes, only more so, spreading the accrued benefits of accessibility and connectivity to more people in more communities, but also moving more people around more efficiently, at a lower cost to the environment.

As it happens, the Welsh Government  intends to build a metro system in south-east Wales, described as ‘transformative’ by Welsh finance minister Jane Hutt, the implications of which, in relation to the proposed relief road, will be considered in more detail below.

As well as there being a case against relief roads in general, there is a substantial case against this specific proposal, namely the inconvenient presence in its path of the Gwent Levels, one of the largest remaining areas of ancient grazing marshland in Britain, home to a number of threatened bird, plant, insect and mammal species and site of four sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The Campaign Against the Levels Motorway (CALM), consisting of the RSPB, Friends of the Earth Cymru and community councils, is building opposition to the project. CALM highlights the impact on wildlife of the construction of the motorway and the pollution from traffic, arguing that the road would create a ‘Berlin wall’ cutting the habitat in two. Farmers are concerned at the threat of flooding: they believe that the presence of the road will raise the water table.  Tourism would also be harmed, as the Levels are popular with cyclists.

The Welsh Government has conceded that this project runs contrary to its aim of bringing about a cultural shift away from the car towards more sustainable forms of transport. Nevertheless, it pressed ahead with its consultation, which itself was vulnerable to a potential legal challenge in that all the ‘options’ were essentially the same thing: a motorway running south of Newport through the Gwent levels.

An alternative solution has been set out by the transport economist, Professor Stuart Cole in The Blue Route: a cost effective solution to relieving M4 traffic congestion around Newport (published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs). The estimated cost of the blue route is only £380 million, as opposed to an estimated £936 for the projected motorway.  It avoids the Gwent Levels by rejoining the M4 at junction 28, not 29 and utilises the present A48 Newport South distributor road and a route through the old Llanwern steelworks, over land already purchased by the Welsh Government in 2010. It would be a four-lane dual carriageway, built to motorway standard, which could be widened to six lanes if necessary.
Professor Cole, who has previously advised both the Welsh and UK governments, has therefore told Welsh ministers that, if they really want a road, he can show them it could be built for a third of the price, on land they already own and avoiding the Gwent Levels.

Crucially, Cole also argues that in its own consultation paper, M4 Corridor around Newport, the Welsh government’s estimate of a 20 per cent increase in traffic volume by 2035 leaves out of account the effect of electrification of the South Wales mainline, which alone, he contends, could reduce M4 peak traffic flows by 15 per cent. The planned metro and the ‘blue route’ could reduce the traffic volume on the M4 by 20 per cent and thus, he argues, solve the problem.

But the Welsh Government, and in particular Edwina Hart, the minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science, in whose portfolio the project falls, appeared unmoved by these arguments, declining to include the blue route in the consultation and deciding in favour of  the ‘black route’,  an option which was longer, at 12 miles,  three times more expensive and more environmentally destructive, a decision which appears to be almost inexplicably perverse at every level.

Could it get any worse? Yes it could.

Gerald Holtham, the economist who has previously advised the Welsh Government, notably on how Wales has been short-changed by the Barnett formula, has argued that the Welsh Government cannot afford both the new road and the metro system under the current financial regime. The motorway would take up the bulk of the government’s newly acquired borrowing capacity, limited to £500m. The rest would have to come out of the capital budget of £1.5bn p.a.  Holtham argues that the government could only afford both the motorway and the metro by resorting to private finance mechanisms, which the government, and Edwina Hart in particular, have always, quite rightly, said they wish to avoid because of the debt accrued to the public purse. Tellingly, Holtham has also opined ‘I don’t think, at this stage, local authorities are sufficiently engaged with the metro to help fund it’ adding that revamped transport authorities would allow local authorities to feel ‘adequately represented.’

Could it be that the metro, given the financial constraints resulting from the building of the motorway and the lack of capacity, financial and otherwise, of the small local authorities in South East Wales, is being quietly put onto the back burner? This might explain the over-estimate of traffic volume pointed out by Stuart Cole (although that might also be a result of the Welsh Government getting its advice from those lobbying for the motorway who have an interest in maximising its benefit, or simply of simply inadequate modelling). However, a project like the metro requires not only the resources to deliver it but a certain amount of political will, and a preparedness to see off the well-organised and well-funded roads lobby in favour of public transport – none of which, on this evidence, the Welsh Government looks like being able to muster at the moment

The political costs are already mounting. The Welsh Government – its pretensions to sustainability in ruins – has picked a fight with significant  environmental organisations. Friends of the Earth has written to the Welsh Government asking it to restart what it regards as a flawed consultation process. If this does not happen, then the likely outcome is an application for judicial review of the consultation process, which will end up in court. Plaid Cymru has condemned the decision to build the road as ‘environmentally and financially reckless’, made ‘without proper scrutiny and with no business case’. Labour, without a majority in the Assembly, has relied in the recent past on an agreement with Plaid to get its budget passed, but Plaid has now pulled out of negotiations.

Even if the Welsh Government does not go ahead with the relief road as proposed, either because of a successful application for judicial review or for any other reason, the decision already made represents a defeat for the hopes that in Wales, there might be a better way of doing politics than in the Westminster consensus. Those who shared those hopes and argued and campaigned for the Welsh Government to be given borrowing powers, only for that government to effectively blow it on the ‘black route’ might, in their darker moments, wonder if it was worth their while. This does not represent the total defeat of the ‘clear red water’ project: for example: Welsh Labour, in contrast to the British party’s equivocation, still sets its face against the privatisation by stealth of education and health that is happening  in England – but it is a very serious setback.

In retrospect, it can be argued that Welsh Labour’s sustainability agenda relied too much on the energy and ideas of one politician, Jane Davidson, sustainability minister from 2007 until she left the Assembly in 2011. Davidson’s successors have either failed to embrace sustainability properly – seeing it as some kind of optional extra when times are good – or else have been out-muscled in a Cabinet that is desperate to create jobs at any cost and vulnerable to the lobbying activities of big business. The result is an abomination like the ‘black route’.

Welsh Labour Party members and voters who took Welsh Labour at its word on sustainability need to join with those such as CALM to campaign, in the immediate term, to re-open the consultation process, but also to wage a broader campaign for a truly sustainable solution to all Wales transport problems, as part of a campaign to renew Wales’ economy based on the principles of sustainability and needs of the people of Wales, not those of big business.

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