Local campaigners are celebrating the Welsh Government’s decision to scrap the planned M4 'relief road', a £1.4 billion motorway through the wildlife-rich Gwent Levels in South Wales. In this guest blog, Julian Branscombe of Campaign Against the Levels Motorway tells the story.
"The Gwent Levels are as important to wildlife in Wales as the Amazon rainforest is to global biodiversity. Yet for nearly 30 years, the powers that be have wanted to drive a motorway though this wildlife-rich wetland landscape. This aspiration has now been dramatically dropped by the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, who has decided that the financial cost and environmental impact are both too high.
You can imagine the delight for all of us in CALM, the Campaign Against the Levels Motorway: the coalition of local people, Community Councils and environmental NGOs that has opposed the plans since the early 1990s. At times, our position has seemed hopeless. Political will has followed the calls of the Welsh CBI (rather than the much more road-sceptical Federation of Small Businesses) and the drivers who make up the traffic. But awareness of challenges to our planet’s wildlife and climate has been growing, and we are delighted that the Welsh Government has finally realised that more roads just lead to induced traffic and more congestion.
The historic decision of Tuesday 4 June 2019 marks the scrapping of decades of counter-productive transport policy. Now the focus is solely on a fresh approach to meeting the challenge of congestion around Newport and providing sustainable transport for all (not just those who can afford a car) across Wales.
As campaigners, we have had many weary days. The 2017/18 Public Inquiry saw all the odds against us, from the disparity in resources in evidence preparation and legal representation, to the sharply slanting playing field which saw many of the fundamental policy issues ruled as outwith the remit of this Inquiry. The case against the new M4 was incredibly strong nonetheless. Objections were supported by a stunning range of expert witnesses, coordinated by the Wildlife Trusts. However, the Inspector found for the new road, swallowing the Welsh Government’s case hook, line and sinker.
Whether it was the Government's aggressive QC and their sharp Public Inquiry tactics which swung the Inspector's conclusion, or the skewed terms of reference, or indeed his own civil engineering background, the Inspector’s conclusion is one that shocks us. However, the Inspector’s Report was made public as part of the announcement that the road would not be built. The Welsh Government has realised that the case that they were pushing had been fundamentally flawed.
Things had moved fast since the Inquiry. Wales had a new First Minister after an internal election within Welsh Labour. Any decision to build the road was increasingly viewed as vulnerable to legal challenge on a range of grounds, given the forward-thinking legislation that the Welsh Government had championed. Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, had been very public in making an incisive case against ‘business as usual’ transport policy. The need for the country to slash its greenhouse gas emissions had come to the fore with the new Welsh Government administration declaring 'Climate Emergency' in April.
Mark Drakeford’s #NoNewM4 decision marks a paradigm-shift. Now we can put people and wildlife first, through a focus on active travel and affordable, integrated public transport to benefit landscape, climate, health and equality in an economy that sees urban areas as thriving green hubs, not traffic-choked slums to be bypassed.
There is much to do to bring this vision to fruition in Wales. CALM will play its part in that. The Welsh Government's leadership must also inspires others around the world. As Nikhil Seth, Director for Sustainable Development at United Nations said in response to Wales’s ground-breaking Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015), "We hope that what Wales is doing today, the world will do tomorrow.""
Guest blog by Julian Branscombe, Campaign Against the Levels Motorway
Kingfisher photo by Tony Wood, aerial photo by Tony Pickup.