So there we have it the Labour in Wales Welsh Government has made it decision to spend at least £ 1 billion pounds (more like £1.2 billion according to some estimates) of tax payers money on a single project to build a new road. This questionable and controversial decision has been taken despite there being more cost effective alternatives which would allow much needed investment in infrastructure across the rest of Wales.
The Labour Minister made the decision to order the construction of a new stretch of the M4 to the south of Newport between junctions 23 and 29. No one will argue that there are not problems with the M4 when it comes to traffic congestion, especially around the Brynglas tunnels. It’s the choice of route, the potential cost, the environmental impact and whether or not the Minister’s choice will be good value for money that have caused things to kick off.
To this can be added the way the Minister announced her decision unexpectedly and in an unscheduled way, literally on the last sitting day of the Assembly’s term. She chose not to respond to a letter from the Environment Committee before she announced the decision - something that has not happened before. Additionally, so far at least, no questioning of the Minister has ever been allowed to take place on the issue of the M4 relief road – in essence so very New Labour or perhaps so very Labour in Wales.
As for value for money a few years ago the cost was estimated by the Welsh Government as being between £800 million and £1 billion (and possibly up to £1.2 billion) depending on the route. The £1 billon ‘black route’ was Labour’s ‘preferred option’ and it is believed that this is what they have chosen. So far no information on how the project will be paid for has been produced. With the limited powers that the Welsh Government has Wales will be allowed to borrow up to a limit of £500 million in the recent deal with the UK government. All of that will be used up on this project with the other £500 million pounds or so will have to be found from elsewhere.
The ‘black route’ would cross over the environmentally sensitive Gwent Levels, which are an important environmental site and wildlife habitat, and there are problems with building motorways more generally. Environmental, Business and other groups of people raised concerns during the (what many people consider to a deeply flawed) consultation process on what route to choose, that the Welsh Government over-estimated predicted traffic levels, made use of old data and did not fully carry out environmental checks that are meant to happen as part of making the decision.
By opting for the ‘Black route’ the Welsh Government has pretty much decided to use up all of the Welsh borrowing limit in one go and on one scheme. Even this decision won’t find all the necessary funds for the project which means that they will need to find the money from other budgets, which means projects elsewhere in the country will have to be delayed or even cancelled.
However, you look at this, this is bad news for most parts of the country and means that investment is not being distributed fairly by the Labour in Wales Government. There is no detail on how the much needed South-East Wales Metro project can be funded (unless it is reduced in scale and made a less ambitious scheme), and there is nothing in the pipeline for the A55 or for west Wales beyond what has already been agreed.
Now no one is saying that there is not a need to improve east west communication links along the M4 corridor but any investment in infrastructure has to be affordable, sustainable and sensible. Plaid continues to support investment in the M4 corridor around Newport. When Plaid was last in government (between 2007 and 2011) investment in transport infrastructure included a substantial investment in the existing M4 along with investment in other areas of Wales.
Perhaps more disturbingly, this decision pretty much means that the hands of the future Welsh Governments will be tied into paying for this project. The Westminster government’s attempt to link borrowing powers and tax raising powers with the proposed M4 Relief Road is entirely unacceptable. The London-based Westminster government has no right to predetermine what the priorities, economic or otherwise of any Welsh Government should be.
We need a whole Wales transport plan and the vision to go with it. The problem is that the current Labour in Wales Government is perceived to lack any coherent all Wales vision in so many areas– this is a basic failure to stand up for Wales and is simply unacceptable.
Now perhaps the reason for the failure may be down to a combination of poor advice from civil servants to ministers, simply a lack of vision or perhaps more disturbingly simply a marked indifference on the part of elected representatives of Labour in Wales to any other parts of Wales that fall outside what they perceive to be their territory.