Thursday 17 July 2014

Newport M4 - Smell the Glove

"Blacker than the blackest black times infinity."
The decision to turn things up to 11 and give the go ahead to the Newport
bypass has set off the Welsh political equivalent of a mosh pit. Not that you care.

Well I can't say I haven't been kept busy since I returned to blogging....

As you probably already know, there've been big developments in the Newport M4 bypass saga over the last 48 hours, not long after my last post on the subject.

Economy, Business, Transport, Science, Agriculture & Fisheries Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), announced on Wednesday (16th July) that the "Black Route" – a £1billion bypass of Newport from Magor to Castleton – will be given the go ahead.

Contracts will be awarded in winter 2015, a public inquiry will be held in 2016, and work is expected to start in spring 2018 with an estimated completion date of autumn 2021 – around 10 years sooner than previous estimates.

If there's one thing you can say about Edwina Hart, it's that she doesn't muck about when it comes to making decisions. If you were to put money on any member of the Welsh Government suddenly announcing they're going to spend £1billion it would be her.

If there's another thing you can say about Edwina, it's that she doesn't communicate her intentions particularly well or keep AMs properly informed what she's up to in her grim & frostbitten Treforest bunker. This results in blunt announcements that catch everyone off guard and makes her appear autocratic, giving some credence to the "Redwina Hartski" label.

The Reaction

Much of the anger directed at the Welsh Government was because
they neglected to fully consider the alternative "Blue Route".
(Click to enlarge)

There was mild shock when the National Assembly were told (link to the debate). It was known an announcement would be made "this summer", but I doubt anybody would've expected it at the last plenary session before recess. The minister said she wanted to make a statement now and might've been criticised if she hadn't. She has a point.

BBC Wales managed to get hold of a draft copy of the (controversial) inquiry report by the Assembly's cross-party Environment & Sustainability Committee, which expressed "grave concerns" about :
  • The environmental impact of the Black Route.
  • The fact that the Blue Route wasn't included in the public consultation.
  • Unreliable traffic projections.
  • Uncertainties over funding and the eventual cost (somewhere between £900m-£1bn).
In short, they've rubbished the Black Route, or at the very least expect a more detailed explanation from the Welsh Government as to why they're choosing the Black Route over all other options.

During the Assembly discussion, Edwina Hart said the Blue Route "wouldn't provide a long terms solution to the identified problems....even in combination with public transport measures". She also made the point I made last time about the Blue Route being more disruptive to Newport itself as it would close/upgrade existing roads.

There was support for the decision – from the Welsh Conservatives, but even they expressed concerns about the environmental impact and the re-classification/"demotorwaying" of the current M4. There was also support from bodies that have long-supported a Newport bypass like the CBI.

Plaid Cymru's economy and transport spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys M
ôn), described it as an "expensive error....that will hit our ability to invest in infrastructure for years to come". Rhun make a good point that the UK Government's terms for borrowing powers were restrictive (it has to be used on a new M4), and that all transport schemes should've been eligible for borrowed finance.

He said Plaid had approached this "pragmatically", bringing up the criticism aimed at Plaid for holding their previous debate on this topic before the committee published their findings, saying the minister's announcement also "completely undermined the committee's work". The Chair of the committee, Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), added that he was "extremely disappointed by the way the decision has been made".

If Plaid had been patient and waited a few more weeks they would now be precisely where they feel most at home – chins thrust upwards, Y Ddraig Goch fluttering in the background, as they gaze off into the distance from the summit of Mount Moral Highground.

In an attempt to do that, Plaid announced today they're going to play hard ball and pull out of future budget negotiations with the Welsh Government, describing the go-ahead as "environmentally and financially reckless".

So although everything Rhun and Alun said about the decision-making process is absolutely correct, I have a hard time taking Plaid's righteous indignation with regard the disrespect shown to the committee seriously. Pots and kettles. I just hope Plaid are more careful in future. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why hypocrisy in politics is bad news for everybody.

Completing what's been an incredibly difficult few weeks for the Welsh Government, the announcement was met with a rare Labour backbench revolt.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) has done a complete about face, but he deserves credit for doing it for the right reasons, saying he was "surprised and disappointed by the timing of the statement". Mick -  a solicitor by profession - added that making a decision before the proper Assembly scrutiny had been completed leaves the Welsh Government open to a legal challenge.

This was echoed by Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North), who said it might be a "short-term decision" that doesn't take long-term concerns into account (aka unsustainable). Julie James AM (Lab, Swansea West) said Natural Resources Wales were unhappy with the content of the Black Route's environmental report – in particular parts relating to water and soil contamination. Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) said her constituents would be "unhappy with the decision" and that it might put the metro project in jeopardy.

The Lib Dem's transport spokesperson, Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central), described the Black Route as an "unsustainable 1970s solution" but wasn't surprised. She criticised the decision to "blow it (borrowing powers) all in one go in a project for the southern parts of Wales" (more from Blog Menai). Eluned also believed - she was rendered "speechless" in fact - that key evidence from bodies like Friends of the Earth Cymru and FSB Cymru might've been ignored, the latter is important in particular as it's an example of a business organisation which opposes the new M4.

Even the Western Mail's Martin Shipton tore into the plans, describing it as a "folly", believing the Black Route could "lead directly to cuts in health, education and other services funded by the administration."

Like I said, not the best of times for the Welsh Government.

What's next?

The environmental concerns - which haven't been properly cleared up it seems
- will almost certainly result in this heading towards a legal challenge.
It could also have wider possible political implications.
(Pic : RSPB)
The decision itself isn't surprising at all. It just helps to confirm what I suspect are widely-held beliefs that public consultations are there to support decisions that have already been made behind closed doors.

This is heading for the courts, no two ways about it. Edwina Hart said herself she expects this decision to be "challenged", and I'm going to presume that the likes of Friends of the Earth Cymru will have already started preliminary legal preparations even before this decision was made.

Plaid Cymru's budget pull-out could also turn out to be as significant as the announcement itself - but only if Leanne Wood can convince the Lib Dems to follow suit. Although the Lib Dems aren't happy either, it looks like they're going to continue negotiations. So it's nothing more than a statement of principle for now.

If Kirsty Williams does eventually follow Leanne in walking out on negotiations, that would mean Labour will be left with no alternative but to negotiate a budget agreement with the Conservatives or quite possibly see their budget fall – a previously unthinkable scenario in Welsh politics.

I'm feeling mischievous today. Considering the consolidation of numerous government portfolios under her brief, and this being put forward as further evidence of her "decisive nature", you could say Edwina's quietly trying to make a play at Carwyn's job. I'm sure dredging up some seven year old mud wouldn't be a convenient attempt to poison the well either.

If the budget runs into serious difficulties, once you add it to all the other recent problems it's improbable but not impossible that there could well be an opening at the top sooner than anyone would've expected.


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