Thursday, 23 October 2014

Hart Bypass returns to the Assembly

The issue of the Newport bypass has returned to the Senedd, and the
Environment Committee had a few choice words for Edwina Hart and the CBI.
(Pic : Wales Online)

It's back again....

Yesterday, the National Assembly debated the Environment Committee report into the proposed M4 bypass of Newport (Newport M4 : The Committee Strikes Back [pdf]) and the Welsh Government's response (M4 Newport – Edwina's Response [pdf]).

The Senedd's Heart to Hart

Committee Chair, Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), started by saying this project was, "the biggest decision the Welsh Government will take". The Committee haven't drawn any conclusions on merits of particular options, but serious, unanswered questions remained on whether the consultation process met strategic EU directives.

Alun said one issue "not given due attention" was the impact of electrification of the south Wales mainline and the South Wales Metro. The Committee believe these proposals weren't taken into account adequately when considering future travel patterns. He said the total costs of the bypass remain unclear, and funding sources were, "shrouded in uncertainty". He concluded that on basis of current information, the long-term value for money case is yet to be made.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) said the traffic figures from the UK Department of Transport (DfT)– which formed a foundation for the case for the bypass by projecting a 20% increase in traffic – was out of date, and that the latest figures have shown a plateau in general M4 traffic. He said the Committee couldn't get further details from DfT. Mick said it was "of some concern" that the CBI – one of the main private sector proponents of the bypass - failed to respond to six requests to give evidence when the Committee were trying to evaluate the business case.

Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) described this as an "extremely important inquiry", echoing concerns that the CBI didn't contribute to the inquiry in written or oral form. She also criticised the Minister, as she was asked several times to give evidence but turned it down. This is in light of previous criticism in chamber on the way this has been handled.

Antoinette said there were "grave concerns" over the consultation process, in particular the lack of distinction between the three options and the exclusion of the Blue Route. She said it was important that the Welsh Government were "above reproach" on this due to international significance of Gwent Levels, and there was a lack of public confidence in way the process was handled. Antoinette said the Minister hasn't been prepared to be "transparent and scrutinised properly" on this, and she doesn't believe the Minister, "has the support of the public for this project".

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) was also disappointed the Minister didn't give evidence on the route options or financing. This meant the Committee was prevented from scrutinising a scheme that has major financial and environmental impacts. He suggested there were "serious problems with statutory decision-making process", which meant the Committee were unable to scrutinise acutal costs.

Llyr believes the financial detail of scheme should be more widely known to ensure scrutiny on the basis of value for money, with the quoted costs having a massive margin of error, standing between £600million and £1billion. He said adopting the black route, "gave the impression to the people of Wales that it was a done deal" when there's a long way to go.

William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales) said the Assembly's committees perform a key role in scrutinising policy, which is made all the more difficult "when government doesn't participate on their (the Committee's) terms". William also criticised CBI, saying you can read their op-eds in the Western Mail but they were unwilling to give evidence to the Assembly itself.

He said it was "beyond question" that the M4 through Newport isn't fit for purpose, but all options need to be considered. He said it was a shame the answers came so belated from the Minister. However, he said the Blue Route is as open to debate as the Black Route and we should, "let the evidence speak for itself". Williams also stressed the need for other solutions, emphasising that people need to get people out of cars and onto integrated public transport.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) said it was an "annoying and frustrating experience" dealing with the report due to CBI's absence, which "showed disrespect to the Committee". She welcomed the future detailed environmental impact study and the fact no construction will take place until after the 2016 elections, which gives the Assembly "time to have debates on all the options".

She said every effort should be made to avoid the "disastrous impact" on the environment, but they also need clarification on how much of the borrowing will be spent on the bypass. She also said comments (from the First Minister - clip of the FMQs exchange on 30th September 2014) about traffic lights on the Blue Route were irrelevant as they would be replaced by grade separated junctions.

Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) was....surprise,surprise....disappointed the CBI didn't give evidence. He added his view that the Welsh Government ignored the environmental concerns and that any Newport bypass would have a knock-on impact on infrastructure projects in the rest of Wales – picking out improvements to the A55 and A40 in particular. Russell accused the Welsh Government of failing to look at Welsh transport infrastructure "in the round".

Former Environment Minister, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), said the Gwent Levels are unique, and that their importance and historical significance are "beyond doubt". Although he's now one of the more high profile opponents to the bypass, he said he didn't support the Blue Route either due to the possible air pollution and noise problems an urban expressway would cause. John would prefer "carrot and stick" public transport solutions.

He also raised the valid point that there's a new environment since the Scottish referendum, offering veiled criticism of the UK Government's caveat that early access to borrowing be dependent on funding a bypass.

In her response, the Minister for Economy & Transport, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said her letter addressed the Committee's concerns. She regretted not giving evidence in person, but the statutory decision-making process is "very strict" and she repeated her defence that she couldn't give evidence until after the consultation. She agreed with William Powell that this process may need "looking at".

She confirmed the Welsh Government have submitted their defence to Friends of the Earth Cymru's legal challenge and they're waiting for the court's decision. Edwina also confirmed that no detailed design work will be until after a full environmental impact assessment, and she expects more detailed financial information to be provided at any future public inquiry (which will take place in late 2016/early 2017).

Unsurprisingly, she said it would be inappropriate for her to comment further on other matters while these processes were ongoing.

Concluding the debate, Alun Ffred Jones said he was disappointed the government "always has a reason for not giving details or answering basic questions", and he was "none the wiser" after the Minister's response.

He said the Committee weren't opposed to finding a solution to the Newport problems; but it has to be the right decision after all reasonable options have been considered, and because it would have a knock-on impact to infrastructure spending. The Committee simply wanted to, "ask pertinent questions about the process and not discuss the merits of the routes".

He therefore upheld the Committee's recommendation that the Welsh Government should restart the consultation process with all of the route options included.

Total Eclipse of the Hart
The Black Route isn't quite a done deal yet.
(Pic : M4 Newport website/Me)

Some very large obstacles were placed in the way of the Environment Committee in the process of this inquiry.

Firstly, Edwina Hart and the CBI refusing to give evidence; secondly, Plaid Cymru's predetermined support for the Blue Route which threw everything off balance; and thirdly, the sudden/curt announcement from the Minister in July that the Black Route has been selected.

The Blue Route isn't quite dead yet, but you get the impression the Minister is doing her best to kill it off. It seems the only way you can get comprehensive responses from the Welsh Government nowadays is a Daily Mail headline.

Having said that, the media – maybe myself included – might have given the impression that the Black Route is (as Llyr Gruffydd pointed out) "a done deal". That's wrong. All that's happened is the principle of a complete M4 bypass of Newport that follows the black route has been agreed, but the design could change significantly between now and the start of construction, depending on the outcome of the further environmental reports and any future public inquiry.

The problems facing the Black Route continue to mount. I wouldn't at all be surprised if the environmental impact report will make grim reading and lead to serious questioning of the Welsh Government's supposed commitment to *groan* "sustainable development".

Secondly, there seems to be growing opposition amongst Labour backbenchers to the project – notably from John Griffiths and Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), who are two former ministers with responsibility for the environment. You can probably include Julie Morgan and Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) in there too, while Mick Antoniw has reservations by the sound of it.

Thirdly, as the South Wales Argus have covered, Newport Docks is going to have a whacking great big bridge built over it. I'd like to think that someone would've considered whether that proposal might have an impact on port operations. Newport Docks is Wales' most important cargo port and according to ITV Wales supports some 3,000 jobs.

Last but not least, as you might've noticed, the CBI were rightfully given a kicking from all quarters. When you consider they're often mouthing off to the press about the state of Wales, the fact they couldn't be bothered to give evidence on something they consider so vital - so important that it stands to become the single largest capital investment a Welsh Government will ever make - was nothing less than an insult to all of us. Up yours, Digby.

I certainly respect the work the Assembly's committees do, and it's not as if the CBI would ever consider snubbing a Westminster equivalent.


Post a Comment