M4+: a road to nowhere

November 25, 2018 0 Comments

Two public issues overshadow all others. That’s because doing little or nothing about them puts our own existence in danger. They are our own warming of the earth’s environment (anthropogenic climate change) and our destruction of life on earth (loss of biodiversity).

Very soon Members of the National Assembly of Wales may be asked to give a final vote on whether the proposed ‘Black Route’ M4 relief road around Newport should go ahead. The decision has a direct connection with both of these existential issues.

The Black Route will build a new, 14-mile, six lane motorway to the south of Newport. It will leave the current M4 near Castleton and rejoin it near Magor. In the process it will cut a broad path through Newport Docks and the Gwent Levels. The road’s cost is currently estimated at £1.4bn. Its intention is to reduce congestion on the current route, much of it caused by the narrowing of the road at the Brynglas Tunnels. CBI Wales claims that for every £1 spent on the extension will return £2 to the Welsh economy. The Welsh Government says it will ‘improve accessibility for people as well as Welsh goods and services to international markets’.

The M4 extension has many powerful defenders, in business and government. But it also has many opponents, and for good reasons.

The first is related directly to the loss of biodiversity. The extension will destroy a large part of one of the rarest and most valuable environments in Wales. The Gwent Levels, which cover about 57 square kilometres, are man-made coastal floodplains, drained since Roman times by channels called ‘reens’. Archaeologists have termed them ‘the largest and most significant example in Wales of a ‘hand-crafted’ landscape’. The wetlands support an astonishing variety of plant and animal life – a ‘soup of life’ in the words of the Gwent Wildlife Trust – including some rare plant species, like frogbit, arrowhead and duckweed, the extremely rare shrill carder bee, and endangered animals like otters and water voles. They provide breeding grounds and stopovers for migrating birds: this year, according to Iolo Williams, cranes nested here for the first time in 600 years. The Black Route would cut through not one but five Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). It would completely destroy a large part of the Levels, and cut the remainder of the area in half, creating what’s been called a ‘Berlin Wall for wildlife’.

Second, the effect on the overall environment would be just as severe. It’s estimated that an extra 42,000 more vehicles a day would use this part of the M4 by the year 2037, blasting even more carbon gases into the atmosphere: as much a half a million extra tonnes. It would be impossible for the Welsh Government to meet its current, too modest targets for carbon emission reduction.

A third reason is the extremely high cost of the Black Route – compared with the Blue Route, one of the other choices. Claims made for the size of the economic pay-back of the road are highly contentious. The initial cost of £1.4bn is likely to be exceeded. Estimated reductions in journey times are pitiful, at five minutes at peak times (worse, no doubt, as the new road fills up). It’s just as likely that investments and jobs, for instance, would exported from the Newport area to the other side of the Bristol Channel, rather than being imported.

And fourth, the M4 extension makes a mockery of the Welsh Government’s own, much vaunted Future Generations Act. The Act, passed in 2015, was supposed to ensure that major policy decisions took account of the economic, social, environmental and cultural needs of our children and grandchildren, rather than the immediate demands of today. The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Sophie Howe, strongly opposes the extension on the grounds that it endangers the interests of our descendants. Her devastating epithet for the Government’s plan is ‘unambitious’. In a report researched by the University of the West of England, Sustrans and the New Economics Foundation, she lists a panoply of non-road transport projects that would result in better benefits for Welsh people for the same cost (remember that a quarter of Welsh households don’t own a car). These include bus and train schemes, and improvements to benefit walkers and cyclists.

Sophie Howe hits the nail on the head with what she calls ‘Welsh Government’s obsession with addressing 21st century transport issues with 20th century solutions’. In an age when we know what the effects of building more motorways in highly sensitive areas will be, it’s inexcusable to push ahead with obsolete solutions like the M4 extension. Even if the economists can show that the road will bring benefits to the Welsh economy, they succeed only at the cost of ignoring its ‘externalities’ – the effects on, among other things, the climate and environment. Yet these things are not peripheral factors to be ignored or ‘trumped’ by the brute calculations of profit and loss – they’re critical to our survival and that of our fellow-inhabitants of the planet.

It’s rumoured that the Government is keen to push through a decisive vote on the Black Route before Carwyn Jones steps down as First Minister. If that’s true (the situation is unclear) I wonder how he’ll feel, if and when the vote is to proceed? The tomb of Christopher Wren bears the words, ‘si monumentum requiris, circumspice’ – ‘if you need a monument, look around you’ – meaning the wonderful array of churches he designed after the Fire of London. It would be sad, and unjust, if Carwyn Jones’s main legacy as leader of the Welsh Government for years came to seen as a thundering, poisonous belt of concrete.

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