Thursday 10 July 2014

Newport's M4 debate painted black and blue

Black bypass or Blue upgrade?
There's been more debate recently over the "Newport Question".
(Pic : BBC Wales)

In recent weeks, the debate over possible solutions to the "Newport Question" – What measures need to be taken to relieve pressure on the M4? - briefly heated up.

As you'll know, the current proposals (Newport's M4 coronary bypass) include building a brand new M4 bypass ("Black Route") using the borrowing powers outlined in the Wales Bill. The consultation has closed as far as I can tell, but the bypass is the preferred option of both Welsh and UK Governments.

However, a rival option has emerged courtesy of transport expert Prof. Stuart Cole called the "Blue Route" (pdf). This wouldn't involve the construction of a new M4 bypass, but would instead upgrade the existing steelworks road and A48 to the south of the city itself - more from Plaid Monmouth and Click on Wales.

Black vs Blue illustrated
(Taken from Google Earth - click to enlarge)

The Black Route

  • Welsh Government/Welsh Labour (as a "preferred route")
  • Welsh Conservatives
  • UK Government
  • Newport City Council (Labour-controlled)
  • Newport residents (South Wales Argus poll putting support at 69% [Jan 2014])
  • Confederation of Business and Industry (CBI)
  • Institute of Civil Engineers Wales

Proposals (as outlined)

A complete bypass of Newport stretching from Magor to Castleton (Junction 23a-Junction 29), built to three-lane motorway standard. It would pass south of the current steelworks road, cutting across northern edge of the Gwent Levels. Then, it passes through Newport Docks via a new crossing of the River Usk, travels south of Duffryn, before rejoining the M4 at Castleton, where it'll also tie in with the A48(M) which goes directly to Cardiff City Centre. As yet it's uncertain whether this new stretch of the M4 would be tolled or not, or what format the crossing of the Usk will take (tunnel or bridge).

  • Significantly increased capacity – It'll be wider than the existing stretch of the M4 through Newport and will include hard shoulders throughout its length. There'll also be fewer access points, meaning local traffic won't be weaving in and out trying to cross the city.
  • Less disruption - It'll be constructed as a completely new "offline" route, with minimal disruption to current traffic.
  • Big economic boost – It's said it would have the maximum impact in terms of economic activity, having a positive impact on logistics businesses and in terms of access to and from markets in south Wales. I haven't been able to find any raw figures, however.

  • It'll cost ~ £1billion – That's a hell of a lot of (borrowed) money for an ~11 mile stretch of motorway. You have to question if this is "taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut" (c/o Syniadau). There are disputes over the projected traffic figures which hint that the numbers used to support the Black Route are over-estimated, and car usage has "plateaued". This dispute could open the door to a lengthy and costly legal challenge.
  • It might be tolled – I'm not sure if this has been completely ruled out or not, but you've got to wonder where the Welsh Government are going to get the funds to pay back the borrowing. It's not like there's a franchise charge like the railways. Experience from the UK's only toll motorway around Birmingham shows that tolling puts drivers off using it. If the Severn Bridge tolls are used to pay for the new M4 instead then it could prolong the use of high tolls there.
  • Significant environmental impact – Although it's likely air quality will improve around the current M4, the Black Route crosses through the Gwent Levels – and several sites of special scientific interest – and is likely to produce significant amounts of carbon emissions just through its construction. "Sustainable" it ain't.

The Blue Route

  • Institute of Welsh Affairs (who sponsored/authored the report with Prof. Stuart Cole, University of South Wales)
  • Plaid Cymru
  • Welsh Liberal Democrats
  • Green Party of EnglandandWales
  • Federation of Small Businesses (FSB)
  • Institute of Directors
  • Friends of the Earth Cymru (tentative support)
  • Gwent Wildlife Trust (tentative support)

Proposals (as outlined)

Described as a combination of the existing A48 Southern Distributor Road with the A4810 steelworks road (which was bought for £7.7million by the Welsh Government in 2010 and upgraded), the Blue Route runs from Junction 23a in Magor through to Junction 28 at Tredegar Park. It also includes a stretch of the A48 from the Coldra interchange (Junction 24).

All these roads would be upgraded to a four-lane dual carriageway motorway standard, and existing traffic light junctions and roundabouts along the route would be replaced by motorway-style grade separated junctions. The report says there should be enough room to expand to three-lanes in the future if required.


  • It's cheaper and quicker to build – The Blue Route is estimated to cost £380million, saving at least £600million compared to the Black Route. That £600million could be spent on public transport improvements, and would go a long way to funding things like the South Wales Metro. Prof. Cole also estimates that the Blue Route could be completed by 2018 (more likely to be the early 2020s, IMO), while the Black Route could take until 2031 to be finished.
  • Almost completely avoids the Gwent Levels – A huge environmental plus point is that it only skirts the edge of the Gwent Levels and would mostly be constructed along existing road corridors.
  • It'll still be constructed to motorway standards – It'll just be a two-lane motorway instead of three-lane. It'll still increase overall motorway capacity and is only one lane narrower than the Black Route.

  • It'll cause more disruption during construction – You could easily see roads across southern Newport closed or restricted for several months at a time as the Blue Route is built. This could cause problems along the current A48 in addition to all the problems on the current M4. If both diversionary routes suffered major disruption at the same time that would be the equivalent of a fatal heart attack to south Wales transport.
  • Too many junctions could create more bottlenecks – Some of the existing problems with local traffic using the M4 to get from one part of Newport to another will simply shift to the Blue Route. While you can even argue that because it's to the quiet south of the city it might not attract enough local traffic at all.
  • The grade separation of existing junctions could be difficult – Looking along the route on Google Earth you can see that there's not much room to fit full blown grade-separated junctions in without creating junctions similar in style to that of Junction 41 in Port Talbot. It'll be an engineering challenge and could be an unforeseen cost as there's no detailed plan of the Blue Route available yet.

Plaid's Premature Presentation?

AMs often complain that their committee work isn't given the attention or respect it deserves.
So why did Plaid Cymru preempt an inquiry by a committee one of their own AMs chairs?
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)
The National Assembly's Environment and Sustainability Committee – chaired by Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon) - are currently undertaking an inquiry into the Newport M4 plans.

On 5th June, they sent a letter (pdf) to Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), expressing concerns about the environmental impact of the Black Route and asking her to outline how and why the Welsh Government decided to prefer it over other options.

I should point out that plans to completely bypass Newport have been in place since at least 2004 (pdf), and the Black Route is a continuation of those plans.

A few weeks later, Plaid Cymru publicly threw their backing behind the Blue Route, using their weekly debate in the National Assembly on 18th June to call upon the Welsh Government to rule out the Black Route on value for money and environmental grounds.

With the committee inquiry yet to report back, some AMs questioned the timing of Plaid's debate. During First Minister's Questions on 17th June, Carwyn Jones said :
"What I find farcical is that the....Committee is looking at the M4 at the moment, the Chair has sent a letter to the Minister, and we have a debate tomorrow prejudging the entire issue.....It calls into question the committee’s entire proceedings in that regard. Why on earth have committee proceedings when, half way through, a party makes its own mind up? That makes no sense at all. "

Both the person who led the debate - Plaid's economy spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Mon) - and Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) defended opposition parties' right to scrutinise the government whenever they choose. Eluned was less forthcoming when it came to the timing however, suggesting it was "serendipitous" that the debate coincided with the publication of the letter to Edwina Hart from Alun Ffred Jones laying out the committee's concerns.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) – a member of the Environment Committee – went further, saying it was, "imprudent and highly irresponsible....asking the Assembly to adopt a position on the issue....before we have completed our inquiry". Mick was exaggerating things but he has a point. The correct term is predetermination (c/o Tim Kerr QC).

Two days after the debate, Edwina Hart wrote back to the committee (pdf) saying that as there was a formal ongoing decision-making process she was unable to give further evidence to them. I'm sure the preempting of the committee report gave her an excuse not to as well.

Committee work is often held in high regard by AMs (and myself), so I doubt I'm the only person disappointed that Plaid chose to go about this in the manner that they did. The Blue Route deserved to be treated with a bit more care, as it isn't the be all and end all it's being made out to be. It has problems of its own.

You would expect all AMs, from all parties, to approach major issues like this objectively. Committee inquiries are often the main avenue by which to form an objective opinion after lengthy written and oral evidence submission, followed by cross-party deliberation. Having a committee report backing your party view is therefore very important in terms of forming an argument. In this case Plaid come across as impatient and intellectually lazy.

Although it's no secret that Plaid oppose the Black Route and have done for some time - it was Ieuan Wyn Jones who put a halt to the original plans - it's like telling the Assembly, "We've made our mind up without considering all of the evidence - even from a committee one of our own AMs chairs. Now we expect you to as well".

Considering he's a consummate parliamentarian, I'm sure that if Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) were still chair of the Environment Committee he would never have allowed this debate to go ahead. He abstained during the vote on the motion.

Plaid's motion supporting the Blue Route was comprehensively altered and rejected, after Labour were (seemingly) whipped into not voting on the motion at all due to the minister's "ongoing decision-making process". The Tories were never going to back it so it sunk.

I'm not aiming criticism at anyone in particular because Plaid aren't the only party that do this; the Tories preempted an ongoing tourism inquiry with their own debate last week, while Labour tried something similar in relation to the Williams Commission. Plaid have also shown recently - via their sport discussion paper and others - that they do take committee inquiries into account when presenting an argument or coming up with new policies. I don't see why it had to be different this time.

Sadly, Plaid have form when it comes to adopting positions or taking decisions without considering all of the evidence. Bad habits like these can become a political party's dark side if they're not careful.

UPDATE 16/07/14 : Well there you have it; the Black Route has won. The Welsh Government made the announcement that it was to go ahead earlier today.

I'll give credit to Edwina Hart in that she doesn't muck about, and she justified the decision based on the consultation evidence alone. But any moral high ground Welsh Labour might've had after Plaid's preempting of the committee inquiry has just evaporated, making the First Minister and Mick Antoniw look silly after their righteous indignation a few weeks ago.

There might still be time for this decision to be reconsidered, and the Environment Committee are yet to report back on their inquiry. What I fear now is that this project is going to suck up a significant portion of Welsh transport spending, and the South Wales Metro - which could probably be completed in 10 years - is now going to become a 30-40 year "generational" project.

As I said last week, "sustainability" is meaningless in Welsh politics.

UPDATE 17/07/14 : A new post covering all the developments and the politicial fallout - Newport M4 - Smell the Glove


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