M4 Relief Road Decision: is this the beginning of the end for the car as king?

Cardiff Station small.jpg

Following some pretty clear signposting over recent weeks, not least in the Welsh Government’s declaration of a Climate Emergency, it was not surprising yesterday to hear First Minister Mark Drakeford’s decision regarding the future of the M4, despite the public inquiry, headed by planning inspector Bill Wadrup, concluding in favour of the project.

Dating back to 1991, and rolling back on the Welsh Labour’s 2016 manifesto plans to deliver the six-lane route, Professor Drakeford has now stated that the project will not go ahead due to "the financial position of the Welsh Government, the cost of the project, and its consequential impact on other capital investment priorities".

But this appears to be much more than a decision about economics vs environmental impacts – it perhaps indicates the start of a shift-change in Wales in terms of how we view the priority of the car. It can be in no way denied that this is the age of the car, with 80% of us still choosing to commute by car, and for example, new homes generally requiring 2-3 parking spaces per household.

The Future Generations Commissioner has been a long-term critic of this project, alongside a strong voice of environmental opposition to the project that largely focused on the sensitive ecology of the Gwent Levels, described by some as being equivalent to a ‘rainforest’ due to its diversity of species. Professor Drakeford stated that he placed “greater weight than the inspector did to the adverse impacts that the project would have on the environment".

There was much opposition to the project from within the Welsh Government itself, with many highlighting the impracticality of using up all of the Welsh Government’s newly gained borrowing allocation on one project – particularly within the South East and along the M4 corridor, a region already heavily favoured for government investment. In particular, Lee Waters AM, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, has been a vocal opponent of the proposal, which he has labelled “an expensive stop-gap” that would only “unleash” more traffic onto South Wales’ motorways.

However, despite a range of merits for and against the M4 scheme, there can be no doubt that communities around Newport continue to suffer the impacts of the stagnant traffic through the Brynglas tunnels, and that this route is seen as a “bottleneck” on one of Wales’s main transport routes.  Business groups were prominent supporters of the project, arguing that congestion on this stretch of the M4 “stifled” the Welsh economy, and Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns MP, highlighted the apparent need of the business community and those living in and around Newport for the project to come forward.

It is clear that congestion along the M4 needs addressing. However, opponents of the project have often pointed to evidence indicating that far from solving congestion, the creation of new roads only leads to more people travelling by car – returning the problem to its original state.

The question now is - what comes next?

Professor Drakeford has said he will set up an “expert commission” to recommend a “high-quality” integrated and low-carbon transport system that will have first call on the funds set aside for the M4. 

Thee will clearly need to be a renewed focus on public transport, including local rail infrastructure, and in particular driving forward the South Wales Metro, as well the Swansea Bay Metro, as two significant projects that could go some way towards dispersing the last 10% of traffic that apparently leads to congestion, and a reduction in the number of commuters who still travel by car.

In addition, based on the conflict between the Inspector’s Report and the First Minister’s decision – there is likely to be a legal challenge, but regardless, it appears that currently there is limited political appetite for taking the scheme forward within the Senedd. 

As the dust settles on this bold decision by the New First Minister, we wait to see over coming weeks and months whether this decision simply results in a stagnation for the south Wales corridor, or a range of innovative, sustainable transport solutions that can help catalyse the start of a new ‘post-car’ era – perhaps resulting in a change in the way we invest, plan and travel in Wales.