Relief at last? M4 decision looms

The M4 corridor around Newport. It’s a subject that has driven many a debate since the early 1990s when the then Welsh Office first proposed a relief road to overcome the congestion problems on this stretch of the motorway. Now, more than 20 years later, it seems the end of a long road may be in sight. What is not clear however, is in which direction this will be. Will there be relief at last for the supporters or objectors of the proposed new route? In this blog post we recap what has happened to date with the current proposals and explain what may happen next.

20 November 2018

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

The M4 corridor around Newport. It’s a subject that has driven many a debate since the early 1990s when the then Welsh Office first proposed a relief road to overcome the congestion problems on this stretch of the motorway. Now, more than 20 years later, it seems the end of a long road may be in sight. What is not clear however, is in which direction this will be. Will there be relief at last for the supporters or objectors of the proposed new route?

In this blog post we recap what has happened to date with the current proposals and explain what may happen next.

The road so far

The Welsh Government’s current proposal, its preferred black route option, has been subject to several Assembly debates and a lengthy public inquiry. The inspector’s report has been submitted to the Welsh Government, and the Leader of the House, Julie James, has indicated that an Assembly vote and debate on the proposals will be held in early December 2018.

Prior to the debate, the Welsh Government has stated it will publish the inspector’s report and the First Minister’s decision on whether to confirm the statutory Orders required for the scheme. If it does, this will effectively grant planning permission for the project to go ahead, with the final decision on whether construction begins seemingly resting on a binding vote in the Assembly. Should the decision be to confirm the Orders, the big question remains as to whether the Assembly would vote in favour of the scheme or against it. This is a project that has long divided opinion, and the road to reach this point hasn’t always been smooth for the Welsh Government, with even some Labour AMs seemingly opposed to the scheme (PDF,3MB).

Travelling back

In 2014, following a consultation late the previous year, the Welsh Government set out plans to build a new section of motorway, known as the black route, alongside a range of complementary measures in M4 Corridor Around Newport – The Plan. The Welsh Government considers these proposals to be:

the sustainable, long-term solution to current social, environmental and economic problems associated with this route [and an essential part of its] vision for an efficient integrated transport system in South Wales.

In March 2016, a substantial number of documents were published marking a key stage in the planning and delivery process for the project, as explored in our previous blog post. Ten public exhibitions were also announced where members of the public were able to inspect draft Orders, environmental information and other associated reports and materials.

Following the public exhibitions, in June 2016 the then Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, Ken Skates, announced in Plenary that a public local inquiry would be held.

Public inquiry

The  inquiry was due to begin in Autumn 2016 and in anticipation of this, the Welsh Government set out its statement of case in August 2016. Part 1 (PDF 2.23MB) details an overview and justification of the scheme, parts 2 and 3 (PDF 2.35MB) detail a summary of objections received and an outline of the Welsh Government’s response.

In October 2016, the Cabinet Secretary announced that the inquiry was delayed due to the need for revised traffic forecast modelling to be completed. A further update was given in December 2016, where the Cabinet Secretary stated that he had taken a ‘fresh look’ at the proposals. This took place in light of the revised traffic growth data and the Welsh Government’s latest proposals for the South Wales Metro, along with new duties required under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

The Cabinet Secretary also stated that he had looked again at alternative routes including ‘the much-discussed blue route’ option but believed that ‘the proposed M4 Project remains…the long-term, sustainable solution’.

Support and objections

The inquiry began on 28 February 2017 with an independent inspector appointed. The proposal for the M4 has regularly made news headlines and the strength of feeling around this project is clear from the number of objectors and supporters. This was emphasised by the inspector’s opening remarks (PDF, 205KB) to the inquiry which summarised the main grounds for support and objections to the proposed black route.

The inspector stated at the time that around 200 unique pieces of correspondence had been submitted from individuals, companies and organisations (mainly across South Wales) which ‘clearly expressed support’ for the proposals. Supporters of the proposed scheme, as summarised by the inspector in his opening remarks, believe it would help regenerate the city of Newport, remove barriers to investment in the area and alleviate congestion.

The inspector also noted that there were ‘something in the order of 340 unique objections’. Some of the main arguments against the black route are made on environmental grounds, with the proposed route set to cut across the heavily protected Gwent levels, and in March 2015 Friends of the Earth were unsuccessful in their legal challenge to the Welsh Government’s proposals.

There are also concerns regarding the financial impacts of the scheme with questions raised over whether the proposals offer value for money. In 2015, the First Minister stated the project would cost ‘nowhere near’ £1bn, the figure now being stated is 1.4bn.

Meanwhile, others argue that the proposals are not in line with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales)  Act 2015, which came into force after the Welsh Government had announced its preferred black route option in 2014. The Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, has spoken out against the plans and submitted evidence to the public inquiry.

Some roadblocks have, however, been overcome with some objections to the project withdrawn during the inquiry process. In December 2017, the Cabinet Secretary issued a statement regarding objections made by Associated British Ports (ABP) concerning Newport Docks. The statement outlined that a collaboration between the Welsh Government and ABP had resulted in an agreement for works to take place to integrate Newport Docks with the project and address ABPs concerns. This does, however, further delay the anticipated completion date for the new road should the project go ahead. Following the agreement, the Welsh Government submitted updated scheme evidence to the inquiry which states:

the December 2016 Revised Economic Appraisal Report (PDF,900KB) assumed an opening year of 2022… due to the additional works within the Newport Docks, the new section of motorway will not be open to traffic until December 2023.

The initial plans published on the preferred option in 2014 had indicated that construction of the new section of road would be completed in 2021.  The updated evidence also showed that the works required around Newport Docks would further increase the cost of the scheme by about £190m.

A different direction?

A number of alternatives have been proposed to the Welsh Government’s preferred black route option.  When the Welsh Government consulted on its draft Plan in late 2013, it considered two ‘reasonable alternatives’, namely the ‘red route’ (a dual carriageway to the South of Newport) and a ‘purple route’ (a motorway along an alternative alignment to the South of Newport).

In July 2014, the Welsh Government published an appraisal of alternatives considered during the consultation process (PDF 2.39MB). This also considered the alternative, and much discussed, blue route which would use a combination of the A48 Newport Southern Distributor Road and the former Steelworks Road on the eastern side of Newport to create a new dual carriageway.

The blue route was proposed by the Institute of Welsh Affairs and Professor Stuart Cole in a Blue Route Report (PDF 814KB) published in December 2013. Supporters argue that this would be both cheaper and quicker to build than the relief road. The Welsh Government’s 2014 appraisal however, suggested that the blue route would not achieve the scheme objectives, and would itself require significant investment with insufficient benefit.

The Welsh Government’s opening statement (PDF 356KB) to the public inquiry outlined that it had ‘received details of 22 alternative routes’ from objectors to the preferred option during public consultation. Details of these 22 objectors’ alternatives (PDF 136KB) were made available as part of the inquiry and, in March 2017, the Welsh Government published its ‘Objectors’ Suggested Alternatives Report’ (PDF 56.1MB) which considered each of these alternatives.

Aside from alternative route proposals for a new road, other options suggested include investing the funds ear-marked for the project in alternative forms of transport. In September 2018, the Future Generations Commissioner published a report titled ‘Transport Fit for Future Generations’ proposing an option to ‘solve congestion around Newport’ by investing:

the £1.4bn currently earmarked for the M4 Black Route…in public transport, active travel and ensuring delivery of all phases of the South Wales Metro.

As reported in the media, the Commissioner’s alternative proposals received mixed reaction, with environmental groups welcoming the suggestions made. The business community, however, has been less welcoming, with the South Wales Chamber of Commerce’s Chief Executive stating the report doesn’t offer ‘solutions to the problems Welsh businesses are facing right now, every day’.

Yet there is debate even within the business community on the best solution for the road. The Federation of Small Businesses in Wales labelled the project ‘a billion pound mistake’ at the time the Welsh Government announced the black route as its preferred option back in 2014, instead favouring the blue route. Meanwhile the Confederation of British Industry expressed support for the black route stating that ‘the blue route does not learn from the lessons of history’.

Fuelling the debate

It also seems yet more fuel has been added to the debate recently with suggestions that the removal of the M4 tolls could influence the decision on whether to proceed. There have also been media reports suggesting conflict over the use of the Welsh Government’s borrowing powers to construct the road, which made headlines after the UK Government’s 2018 Autumn Budget announcement.

It was, in fact, the borrowing powers given to the Welsh Government through the Wales Act 2014 that helped drive the Welsh Government’s decision to consider building a new road, with the First Minister stating at the time that the powers to borrow up to £1bn mean ‘we will be able to consider the option of an M4 relief road’. The 2018 Autumn Budget outlined that the Welsh Government’s borrowing powers would be reviewed to consider if the borrowing cap should increase by £300m, with the UK Government saying this is for ‘supporting the delivery of the M4 relief road’. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Mark Drakeford, however, says ‘it will be for the National Assembly for Wales to decide on how borrowing powers are deployed’.

Relief at last?

The inquiry closed in April 2018 and the inspector’s report has now been issued to the Welsh Ministers for consideration. The Welsh Government has already committed to publishing the report and its decision on whether the Orders will be confirmed. Although the Welsh Government may  decide to confirm the Orders, it seems an Assembly vote will determine whether construction goes ahead with the Leader of the House indicating this will be held in early  December 2018.

With the current First Minister, Carwyn Jones, due to step down  on 11 December, the issue of who makes the Welsh Government’s decision on the Orders is another issue where Assembly Members are seemingly on different sides of the road. The First Minister himself has stated that it is a decision he will take although others suggest it should be left to his successor.

As the nation waits for the final decision to be taken on the scheme Orders, and the Assembly vote to decide whether construction proceeds, it remains to be seen whether it will be the project’s supporters, or objectors, that will have relief at last.

Article by Francesca Howorth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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