The next First Minister needs to scrap the M4 relief road ‘Black Route’ project. This 30 year old policy, to build more roads in order to ease congestion, is no longer suitable for a Welsh Government which has since:
· Passed the Active Travel Act, ensuring all local authorities to set out plans for their citizens to take public transport and be able to walk and cycle wherever possible.
· Passed the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which embeds sustainable development at the core of all public sector policy and approach. It mandates all Welsh Ministers to consider the needs of future generations alongside Wales’ current citizens. Not just 20 years ahead, but 100 years ahead. To consider whether policy fits with the future we’re heading to. Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
· Set decarbonisation targets in law through the Environment Act, so we have to adapt policy to public transport, less cars, more electrified train lines and low carbon manufacturing. None of this fits well with a new motorway.
Alongside devolution, this project is no longer in the hands of the UK Government, who has woefully under-invested in Wales’ transport infrastructure for the last 30 years. To have a country that still cannot travel from south to north without trains that divert into England; we must surely have a Welsh Government that fully assesses all our transport needs for the future.
This is now firmly the Welsh Government’s decision. The UK Government, however — in negotiations over further devolution in the Wales Act — did allow early access borrowing powers, just to build this road. However, that was 2014. It’s now 4 years later and former Economy Minister, Edwina Hart’s, decision to build the ‘black route’ of the M4 relief road triggered an £11m public inquiry from the Planning Inspectorate.
Not considered in this inquiry was a new proposal, the Blue Route, from transport expert Professor Stuart Cole. The Black Route would essentially be ‘ecocide’ for the Gwent Levels. RSPB and The Wildlife Trust’s reserves there would be decimated. Water voles, dormice, rare plant life and bats would be killed and habitats concreted over, as well as the first nesting site for the common crane in Wales for over 400 years.
This is a rich, biodiverse and beautiful area. The Blue Route would, instead of building 14 miles of new motorway, would create actual relief roads, upgrading the A48 without disrupting as much nature or local communities. Natural Resources Wales and the Future Generations Commissioner have both expressed opposition to the current plans.
The Commissioner, Sophie Howe, has recently even highlighted the myriad of ways that £1.4bn could be spent instead. In an innovative report, she sets out several new ideas for public transport models around the South East Wales area. It includes park and rides, cycle routes and investment in trains, buses and active travel paths. She also highlighted that this money could fund phases 2 and 3 of the South Wales Metro, the long-running, not yet fully funded project to significantly improve all train networks in and around Cardiff, Newport and the South Wales Valleys. Transport for Wales could easily put this money to better use, perhaps by electrifying 175 miles of Welsh train lines that the Conservative Government told us are ‘not worth’ investing in.
Incidentally, that money could also be spent on “23,240 new social homes or 70,000 shared ownership homes”; “56 new secondary schools” or to “bring all homes in Wales up to required energy efficiency standards”.
Re-investing this money in something tangible that makes a direct impact on the general public’s daily lives would be a progressive, socialist Welsh Government in action. Whatever the money is spent on instead — be that the Blue Route, money given to Transport for Wales, or sharing the wealth and giving a boost to the North East Wales Metro plans too — it shouldn’t be the Black Route.
Welsh voters — who will be asked to re-elect Labour for the 6th time in a row in 2021 — want to see progress in Wales. They want transport to be more affordable and nicer to take. It’s not a big ask. They don’t want to spend £1.4bn on a badly judged, outdated road proposal which would actually only take 2.5 minutes off the average journey time.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding over the public’s wishes for this road. Polls and inquiries have been shrouded in leading questions, akin to ‘do you want to be stuck in traffic’ rather than ‘would you rather the £1.4bn is spent on schools or hospitals’? During the M4 Public Inquiry itself, the Welsh Government asked the public if they wanted the Black Route; the majority did not want it. Even the Federation of Small Businesses has expressed their opposition to the road, also arguing that the £1.4bn could be much better used.
People want trains that aren’t crowded and loud. They want integrated ticket systems. They want to be able to commute to their jobs. They want safe cycle routes, bike docking stations and buses that actually turn up. They want a modern transport system and the new First Minister should be the one who delivers it.
Liz Silversmith is a political analyst who works in the environment sector. She’s a member of Welsh Labour and Welsh Fabians.