Monday 21 July 2014

M4 Newport - The Committee Strikes Back

It's the committee report AMs couldn't wait to read, containing heavy
criticism of the Welsh Government's decision on the M4 around Newport.
(Pic :

The saga from the start :

It's led to rows, hypocrisy, (minor) backbench rebellions, and has turned out to be one of the more controversial committee inquiries in the Assembly's short history.

Towards the end of last week, the National Assembly's Environment and Sustainability Committee published their eagerly-anticipated report into the decision-making process which led to the announcement, on July 16th , that the £1billion M4 "Black Route" around Newport will be given the go-ahead.

The report itself (pdf) is short and to the point compared to other Assembly committee reports, and well worth a look regardless of your opinion on the M4 bypass scheme itself.

From the outset, the Committee say they were disappointed that neither the minister in charge, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), or the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) – one of the biggest cheerleaders for the bypass – appeared before them to give oral evidence.

The Committee have "grave concerns" about the consultation process which led to the Black Route being selected, but they stress that they make no observations on the "merits of any particular route". They believe that had the minister properly engaged with them, many of those concerns would've been addressed.

The Committee subsequently made a single recommendation; that Edwina Hart answers all of the questions and concerns raised in their letter to her on June 5th (pdf).

They go on to say that if the minister can't answer their questions to their satisfaction, then consideration should be given to restarting the public consultation process to ensure that all concerns (below) are taken into account and that all alternatives to the Black Route are considered.

The Committee's Concerns


The route selection process
– It's questioned whether the process of choosing a route met the EU's Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) directive. In the first consultation (2011-12
M4CEM), a completely new motorway wasn't included as an option. Then, it was included as an option in the second consultation carried out in 2013-14. This suggests the SEA process hasn't been followed correctly, as the sudden change in heart on the need for a bypass would contradict the environmental reports issued alongside each consultation.

The choice between purple, red and black routes (2013 consultation) – The choices on offer with regard a route for an M4 bypass were too similar to each other to "allow a meaningful comparison as required by the SEA directive". It also hasn't been made clear whether the Blue Route has been fully assessed by the Welsh Government to SEA standards.

The environmental report – Natural Resources Wales (NRW) say some of the concerns they raised weren't included in the final environment report. NRW flatly disagree with many of the conclusions in said report, which underplayed the impact on biodiversity, and provided incomplete assessments of  greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, landscape and townscape impacts.

Consideration of public transport (or lack of) – Possible public transport options and the South Wales Metro scheme haven't been given full consideration. They should've been weighted directly alongside the M4 proposals as they could have a big impact on the underlying case for a bypass.

Validity of traffic forecasts – Traffic forecasts on the M4 are produced using the UK's Department for Transport (DfT) forecasting methodology. However, in the past this methodology has – according to leading academics – predicted big growths in traffic volumes and car ownership when levels have actually remained flat. There should've been a more flexible traffic prediction methodology based around varying scenarios, but it's not something the Welsh Government can do themselves as DfT are very protective of their forecasting models. If traffic growth doesn't match the DfT's unreliable forecasts then the M4 bypass will be a waste of money. So the case for a bypass is partly reliant on traffic increasing. That's very "unsustainable".

Costs – It's unclear if environmental mitigation measures, or the future of the A4810 Steelworks Road, have been factored in to the estimated costs of the Black Route. Also, the proposed capital borrowing limit as set out in the Wales Bill (£500million) is only half the estimated total cost of the scheme. Therefore, there's a lack of clarity on how future borrowing powers would be used, and the impact the bypass would have on finances available for transport projects like the Metro. The Committee say it's "difficult to conclude....that a convincing case for the long-term value for money of this investment has been made".

Executive Decisions demand Executive Answers

There's no obligation on ministers to follow through on any recommendations made by an Assembly committee - it's just a good idea to do so. If Edwina Hart wants to ignore this she can, though it would probably make it more difficult for the Welsh Government to win any legal challenge (if it goes that far), as it looks like the Welsh Government haven't gone about this in a professional way and are washing their hands with democratic scrutiny.

Without question, something has to be done to the roads in and around Newport. I'm not blinkered enough to think the solution lies in public transport and "active travel" alone.

But you get the impression the Welsh Government wanted a new M4 from the start, they just realised they couldn't afford it. As soon as borrowing powers came into the picture – fuelled by the enthusiasm from Whitehall to give Wales "fiscal responsibility" – the Welsh Government decided to press forward with this while they still had a window of opportunity.

So we ended up with a public consultation that was effectively based around three minor variations of a single option and what appear to be "sexed-up dossiers".

Edwina Hart has done the position of economy minister proud so far, so it would be a real shame if she ends up pushing through something she may later come to regret. Maybe a bypass really is the right option, but it has to be handled conscientiously. That clearly hasn't happened.

This is one of the single largest capital investments in Welsh history, standing at the equivalent of about 65% of the Welsh Government's total annual capital budget. It's serious stuff that deserves proper answers from the minister before anyone can think of getting the project underway.


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