Saturday, 18 July 2020

Some thoughts on the M4 Relief Road and alternatives

An M4 Relief Road has been debated in some form for decades. It would be a tough task to attempt to tell the whole story in one blog post. I shall not attempt to. However, two recent news items have brought a project, which has to date cost the taxpayer £114,000,000 without a single metre of tarmac being laid, to the forefront once again. First of all the Prime Minister made an unprompted reference to "do the things the Welsh Government has failed to do" and "We will unblock the Brynglas tunnels". Shortly afterwards, the South East Wales Transport Commission published an Emerging Conclusions report. This Commission was given the thankless task of finding alternatives after the First Minister rejected the findings of an independent inquiry commissioned by the Welsh Government and ditched Welsh Labour's manifesto pledge. Performing a u-turn on a motorway is unlikely to end well!

My view is that the proposed M4 Relief Road Black Route should have been built. While there would be an impact on the Gwent Levels, very considerable efforts had been made to mitigate against the loss of natural habitat. A smoother flowing M4 in a less residential location would have had an air quality benefit for much of urban Newport. The disincentive to invest in Wales would have been removed. The connectivity between a multi-centred Severn Region would have been enhanced to mutual benefit.

Some will argue that road building is an outdated solution and in principle I have some sympathy with this view, but I think there needs to be a dose of realism. The proposals for the M4 are not planning for the future, they are patching up the long-existing failures. I also believe it is plausible to deliver car-free city centres and largely public transport / active travel based metropolitan models for movement. A city has a predictable pattern of travel, it pulses. In the morning the majority of people move into the centre or a small number of hubs, in the evening they move out. This can be planned for and offer a critical mass for viable public transport investment. In Newport the issue is a little more complex because as well as the city having a pulse of its own, residents also travel into Cardiff and Bristol in large numbers. Nonetheless, the patterns are such that alternatives to car use can be pursued and I wholeheartedly think we should aim for just this outcome. The difficulty is that while the M4 carries some metropolitan travel, it is in essence a cross country route. Offering an alternative for a predictable travel route such as Bristol to Newport is relatively straightforward, but there is unlikely to be any public transport offering that connects up Thornbury with Caerphilly that is going to be more convenient than jumping in a car and heading along the M4. A metropolitan travel solution is not going to solve cross-country travel. When it comes to cross-country travel we have to be pragmatic enough to realise that the car is going to remain the obvious choice and put our effort into cleaner, greener technology for private vehicles.

That is the background to my long-held view that the M4 Relief Road Black Route should be built. However, I also have a concern that a sole focus on that option is distracting us from other options which, while not as effective, do offer some benefit. That is why, disappointed as I was with the First Minister's decision, I did hope that at least with a decision there was scope to move on from years of dithering. It is also why, as a supporter of the Black Route, I have misgivings about the Prime Minister's most recent interjection. Some politicians in Wales rushed to state how affronted they were by Boris' supposed disrespect for devolution. I think this only really served to illustrate a disconnect between them and the people of Wales. Most of us would take improvements to Wales' creaking infrastructure and leave others to debate the constitutional implications. And yet, there is a risk that all the Prime Minister is really doing is populist tub-thumping with little in way of a solution on offer. To me his statement posed more questions than answers:
  • Is this a statement the UK Government will deliver the project directly?
  • If so, what is the timetable for it?
  • As the Black Route was not specified, what form would the Relief Road take?
I suspect that if challenged on the detail this would turn out to be little more than a party political broadcast ahead of the Senedd elections scheduled for 2021. In recent years, especially following the 2019 Newport West parliamentary by-election, the Conservatives have gone all in on the issue of the Relief Road. Although notably, the wording always stops shy of stating the Black Route. Prior to the Newport West by-election both Gwent-based Tory AMs (now MSs) tweeted what appeared to be opposition to the Black Route. Furthermore, when Antoinette Sandbach shadowed the environment portfolio and Byron Davies the transport brief, the Welsh Tories were dead-against the scheme, even as David Cameron advocated it.

The only other road-based proposal that has been debated recently is the Blue Route, but the independent inquiry criticised this as "driving an expressway through the urban fabric of Newport, would threaten the demolition of about 20 residential properties and 30 commercial properties. About 3,600 residential and commercial properties would lie within 200 m of the proposed route and could be blighted with increased noise and air pollution". It was also noted that "Professor Cole has produced no evidence to support his cost estimate of £380m for his alternative. The cost of the Blue Route has been calculated at about £836m and does not include any costs for further improvement of J28 or J24 at the Coldra or Tredegar Park. These junctions would not cope by the design year". Are the Conservatives really leaving the door ajar on this option?

When the inconsistency of the past is added to the impreciseness of the current pledge, I think it is reasonable to be sceptical about the Conservatives position. If they really intend to deliver the Black Route then let them explain how and when it will happen. If this is just electioneering then it risks just extending the dithering and distraction from other potential improvements.

I have referenced the Labour u-turn and the Conservative inconsistency and vagueness. I should complete this analysis of the politics of the M4 by noting that:
  • UKIP opposed the Black Route in their manifesto, but then hinted that they could work with Labour to deliver it in the Senedd
  • The Brexit Party now seem enthusiastic, but all MSs were elected as UKIP on the above mentioned manifesto
  • The Welsh Lib Dems are opposed to the Black Route but the Newport Lib Dems are in favour. This is possible as the Lib Dems have a very federal structure, but it will look like inconsistency to the outside world
  • Of all the major political parties in Wales, the only one I can say has been consistent on the M4 Relief Road is Plaid Cymru who are opposed to the Black Route.
It is a little disheartening that the only party with a consistent line has chosen the opposite perspective to my own!

The independent inquiry advocated the Black Route. For ideological reasons the First Minister rejected this. Instead he set up the South East Wales Transport Commission. Yet another inquiry! Nonetheless, I think it is important that this Commission is treated as the current best opportunity to achieve some improvements. One submission to it which was recently highlighted to me was from Prof Mark Barry who has been highly influential in the development of the South Wales Metro proposals. Prof Barry and I disagree on whether the Black Route should have been built, but this Commission is looking at options following the First Minister's decision and it is interesting to see such a considered response to that remit. I also welcome Prof Barry's focus on Newport city region because while I am very supportive of the South Wales Metro development, I do have concerns that it is beneficial for Newport but it is transformational for Cardiff and Rhondda Cynon Taff. I don't begrudge this for Cardiff and RCT and I accept that there are technical difficulties due to capacity of the South Wales Mainline, nonetheless, I want to see transformational solutions for Newport too.

If there are to be real alternatives to even metropolitan car use the planning process needs to be part of the solution. The Grange Hospital will be an impressive asset to health care in Gwent, but it has been located away from rail connectivity. I'm a firm advocate of the need to build new homes, but the enormous development between Fairwater and Creigiau has no rail connectivity. If recently planned major developments like these are not taking into account non-road travel options, it can appear fanciful to suggest that there will simply be a shift away from car use.

Finally, one must address the impact of the Covid pandemic. We don't yet know how long lasting the impact will be, but I'll admit that I'm not in a rush to board public transport anytime soon. This is a great unknown in terms of public transport planning, but it must be considered a factor. On the flip-side is that there has been a marked and largely successful shift for many to home working. Will this reduce commuting? Possibly, but I would not under estimate the need for mixing of people to generate and evolve ideas? Bioscience in Cambridge would not be as advanced today if everyone was working from home in relative isolation. Nonetheless, the digital home working revolution is here to stay to an extent and is another development to consider which while not entirely new, has been vastly accelerated.

How then to conclude this blog post? A conclusion? How unlike the M4 Relief Road debate such an idea would be.