Thursday, 25 September 2014

M4 Newport : Edwina's Response

With Edwina Hart responding to Assembly committee concerns and a legal
challenge imminent, it's worth drawing a picture of where the battle lines are.
(Pic : South Wales Argus)


There's been a bit more news on the £1billion Newport bypass front. As some of you will remember, the National Assembly's Environment & Sustainability Committee wrote to the minister in charge, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), back in July setting out a number of concerns.

In the last week or so, Edwina has responded to the Committee (pdf).

In the interests of balance - and to ensure that everyone can go into this fully informed - it's worth taking a look at what the Minister said in response to the Committee's letter, and how she came to justify the decision on the Welsh Government's behalf.

Additionally, Friends of the Earth Cymru officially launched their legal challenge – via a judicial review – on Tuesday (23rd September).

The route selection process

Committee : In the first consultation (2011-12 M4CEM), a completely new motorway wasn't included as an option. The change in heart since suggests the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) process hasn't been followed correctly.


Edwina Hart : The Welsh Government used their "appropriate and recognised" WelTAG guidance process (pdf - large file). What's considered a reasonable alternative route under the SEA process is down to the decision-maker, but the SEA also allows a choice based on the objectives the decision-maker wants to meet. The Minister admits that the new fiscal powers offered by Westminster prompted a revisit to a full M4 bypass of Newport as an option.

The choice of route

Committee : The route choices 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.


Edwina Hart : None of the alternatives were considered "reasonable alternatives" in line with SEA regulations. She says the Blue Route wouldn't have been "sufficiently attractive to relieve M4 traffic", would cost £600million (rather than the £380million estimate) and would cause problems at connecting roads. It would also require significant land acquisition, and wouldn't meet the strategic objectives.

The environmental report

Committee : 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 town scape impacts.

Edwina Hart : Environmental concerns and possible mitigation measures have been taken into account during the Environmental Impact Assessment process. NRW's comments were taken into consideration during the drafting of the environmental report.

Consideration of public transport

Committee : 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.

Edwina Hart : The M4 bypass will complement the South Wales Metro scheme, but increased public transport use won't solve the problems on the M4. Studies undertaken during the planning process showed that even if public transport use increased by 100%, it would only reduce Newport M4 traffic by 5% (Owen : I'm presuming this is because of the number of lorries using the M4).

Validity of traffic forecasts

Committee : Traffic forecasts on the M4 are produced using the UK's Department for Transport (DfT) forecasting methodology, but this methodology has – according to leading academics – predicted big growths in traffic volumes and car ownership when levels have actually remained flat. 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.

Edwina Hart : Traffic volumes have returned to pre-recession levels after levelling off during the recesson itself. A new report on the traffic projection figures has been included on the Newport M4 website (pdf). She believes claims that current traffic projections mean a bypass won't improve traffic flows are "incorrect", and the plans are a "sustainable, long-term solution to the problems."

Costs

Committee : 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".

Edwina Hart : The £1billion price tag includes the costs of environmental mitigation measures. Before the Welsh Government commits to construction, the cost estimates will be carefully managed, and the aim will be to reduce costs wherever possible. It's claimed every £1 spent will result in a £2.29 economic return. The Welsh Government won't be committing all of their borrowing powers to the scheme, as they'll use block grant/capital funding too; though it's too early to say precisely how the scheme would be financed, as it depends on the final cost.

I think it's safe to say that we now have a more complete picture of both sides of the argument.

The minister has given some concise and assured answers to the Committee's questions, with the exception of her response to the traffic projection figures.

Those figures are the statistical case for the bypass, and although Edwina linked to the figures themselves, the fact she brushed the issue off with a political back swing (talk of "long term solutions" and "sustainability") tells me that's where the big weakness is in the case, and will probably be one part of Friends of the Earth Cymru's legal line of attack.

I'll let you make your own mind up.

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