Devolved powers have failed Wales with scrapping of M4 relief road

The decision to scrap the M4 relief road around Newport exposes the folly of devolving powers that impact on strategic routes, says Simon Shouler in this personal view.

Wales first minister Mark Drakeford’s decision to scrap the new M4 around Newport came as no surprise.  Vacillation over what to do about this section of M4 has run through all ministerial terms of office since devolution. The M4 study has been on the books from about the time of devolution and has been shelved twice and reactivated twice over the years before landing in Mark Drakeford’s lap.  

His decision is not only bad news for the Welsh economy, it will have a ripple effect along the M4 corridor and beyond. Consequently, the first minister’s decision exposes the folly of devolving powers that impact on the UK’s strategic and trans-European routes.

The decision of course is a major blow to the Welsh infrastructure industry and the training opportunities that this scheme would create. But, more worryingly, the announcement seems to demonstrate naïve optimism about what else we might try, and how quickly we could deliver it. 

The M4 study has a rigorous pedigree. For the first time in Wales, a study such as this was multi-modal. It considered an array of road-based interventions alongside options to enhance public transport and a hybrid approach combining infrastructure and public transport interventions. The options were subject to public consultation and compared using a Common Appraisal Framework – a forerunner to WelTAG (Welsh Transport Appraisal Guidance). Later investigative work was subject to contemporary Welsh appraisal guidance and further consultation.

Yes, the political imperatives are changing, but it’s difficult to see what Mark Drakeford’s “Commission of experts” might come up with that will deliver the scale of congestion relief needed. The original study looked at, amongst other things, new road routes to the north and south of Newport, widening the existing motorway, introducing and enhancing an array of rail and bus services and hybrid options. Three were short-listed: enhancing public transport, a hybrid approach or building a new motorway.  

A new motorway out-performed the other two options and appraisal highlighted the reality that pound for pound, enhancing public transport could not compete. In addition, there has been follow-up work to optimise the New M4 preferred route and revise cost. However, before finally committing to the project, there must have been exhaustive investigation of making better use initiatives such as local widening, building a third tunnel at Brynglas, widening the twin bores to three lanes and introducing measures to reduce local access onto the M4 in the Newport area by closing on slip-roads or ramp metering.

The lead-in time to develop an alternative strategy from the new commission could exceed a decade. In the meantime, we still need swift action to safeguard Wales’ economy and inward investment. The M4 scheme is “ready to go” and we have the reassurance that the project was scrutinised in detail throughout an exhaustive and open process that included public consultation and public inquiry. It has the mandate to go ahead.

On a final note, we are facing unprecedented environmental challenges, so how we fuel vehicles and transport people and goods will change out of all recognition. But, roads provide unparalleled accessibility and connectivity and carry most of our trams and cyclists and four out of every five public transport users.  So, with robust strategies in place about how we use them, roads will remain credible and vital routes in any future transportation strategy.

Simon Shouler is ACE Cymru Wales manager.