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Roads to Nowhere

Approving the M4 Black Route would be a dark day for Wales

Former campaigner's picture

A growing coalition of voices, from Wildlife Trusts Wales and the RSPB to the Federation of Small Businesses, has been building against the proposed M4 relief road, a new section of motorway planned south of Newport. The Campaign Against the Levels Motorway (CALM) is backed by thousands of people who have signed petitions calling on the Welsh Government to think again.

Campaign for Better Transport has formally objected to the plans, on the grounds that the proposed route will not deliver sufficient benefits to justify the environmental and financial costs. Instead, it will undermine key policy goals on environmental protection, modal shift, carbon reduction, air pollution and public health.

We are calling instead for a consideration of less expensive and damaging route options, combined with better use of rail freight and public transport alternatives. You can read our full objection here.

The environmental case alone should stop the plans: the proposed route runs across the Gwent Levels, and the River Usk Conservation Area, internationally recognised wildlife sites which provide precious habitats for waterfowl and rare invertebrates. The habitat loss, combined with the landscape and visual impact on the Gwent Levels, would be severe and irreversible.

The proposals also ignore the potential of rail freight and improved public transport to meet transport needs, including electrification plans for mainline rail and the expanded Metro serving the region around Cardiff and Newport. And they are at odds with other Welsh Government commitments on air quality, climate change and the rollout of Superfast Cymru which seeks to reduce the need to travel. Far from helping boost the local economy, the major port operator ABP warns that the Black Route plans put 3,000 jobs at risk by compromising Newport Docks.

There is a real opportunity for the new administration to unite parties and people by abandoning the expensive and damaging Black Route and pursuing positive alternatives instead.  

There is a viable road-based alternative on offer. The ‘Blue Route’ option is based on a Welsh Government plan from 2007, and uses a combination of existing major roads around Newport to create a dual carriageway to motorway standard.  It would be cheaper, quicker to construct and less environmentally damaging than the Black Route.

The estimated costs of the Black Route continue to rise, with the latest Welsh Government figures adding up to £1.1bn, while Friends of the Earth calculate it could be up to £2.3bn.

The Federation of Small Businesses in Wales is critical of targeting so much public money on one road, when investment is needed to support transport infrastructure across the country as a whole.

Their important new report, Moving Wales Forward, calls for a fresh approach, including better transport forecasting, a focus on affordable connections in urban and rural areas, and setting up a “Transport for Wales” body to lead on integrated transport, transport policy and provision.

Its author, transport expert Professor Stuart Cole, developed the Blue Route alternative and has been advising the FSB: he says “It is clear that we now need to look beyond increasing roads capacity, and consider how we can improve public transport provision to better meet the needs of transport users and reduce road congestion at peak times.” 

This is not some stereotyped environmentalist vs motorist conflict. Those who use the M4 most are demanding an early solution, which the Black Route does not offer.  Even its supporters acknowledge the Black Route would not open before 2021. The alternative Blue Route, by making best use of existing road corridors, could be in place by 2018. Combined with planned Metro links and rail electrification it would provide more than adequate relief of traffic congestion over the period to 2035.  

In its final days – and ignoring widespread concerns – the outgoing Welsh Government pressed ahead with the Black Route plans. Now, a week on from the Welsh Assembly elections, the makeup of the new Welsh Government is still being debated. It's time for a new Welsh Government to abandon the Black Route, defend the natural environment, and unite behind a positive transport alternative.