LAST week's announcement that the Welsh Government is backing a new motorway across the Gwent Levels provoked a backlash from critics and was welcomed by those backing the "black route". So what happens now? JEN MILLS reports.
ECONOMY, science and transport minister Edwina Hart now faces the fall-out from her announcement last week that the Welsh government is backing the black route, a new motorway proposed across the Gwent Levels south of Newport, in a bid to ease the traffic misery which the M4 around the city has seen for decades.
And now come the questions about how the £1billion scheme will be financed, what the exact details of the route will be and whether opponents will be able to launch legal moves to stop the scheme going ahead – potentially tying it up in the courts for years longer than its proposed opening date of 2022.
An M4 relief road – along a different route – was first proposed more than 20 years ago, in 1991. That idea has been shelved and resurrected and has taken until now for a decision to be taken.
The owners of Newport’s docks have now come out against the decision, as a planned bridge across the Usk would cut right across the port and is likely to stop the largest ships sailing into the north dock.
They say this could hit trade and jobs but with the government prepared to use a compulsory purchase order to buy the land, owners Associated British Ports may have little choice but to watch as the JCBs roll in.
Environmental groups have criticised the cost to wildlife and the financial cost is just as hefty: a price tag of around £1billion pounds at the Welsh government’s latest estimate is enough to pay for a lot of public services.
And that is not money the government already has in its pocket.
It has just been granted borrowing powers and it seems likely that a large proportion of that will be spent on the relief road.
A spokesman for the Welsh government defended the project, touching on how it would be financed: “The M4 project is of vital importance to the economic prosperity of the country as a whole.
“In the past, we were unable to progress the scheme because it was simply unaffordable – but thanks to the new borrowing powers we have secured, we can now take forward this and other vital schemes.
“It is simply wrong to say however, that we will be using all of our early access borrowing powers to deliver the scheme.
“We have been clear that we will be using our new borrowing powers, alongside innovative finance and direct capital funding streams, to benefit all parts of Wales.”
Heading off claims that the new motorway would clog up funding for other projects, he added: “We continue to invest in major infrastructure programmes right across Wales.
“More than £40million is being spent on improving the A55, and we are progressing with the Caernarfon to Bontnewydd bypass, an investment of around £100million, to give just two current examples.”
How the road will be financed is a key question, and there are no definite answers as yet.
The government say it is too early to give a final figure on costs, claiming that it is “actively working to manage the costs of the scheme to ensure it delivers best value for the people of Wales.”
After examining the M4 decision, the National Assembly’s environment and sustainability committee concluded it had “grave concerns” about the consultation process.
It said the total cost and the means of financing the scheme were “unclear” and that the environmental cost could have been underestimated.
Estimates for the amount of traffic using the motorway in coming years could also be unreliable, the report said, as the potential impact of public transport improvements including a metro scheme had “not been given sufficient consideration.”
“Serious unanswered questions” remained, the report said, while chairman Alun Ffred Jones AM criticised minister Edwina Hart for not appearing before the committee to answer questions and for announcing the decision just before the report was published.
Although part of the cost will be made up from the new borrowing powers, the government can only borrow up to £500,000 while the road is estimated to cost £1 billion.
A government spokesman said the balance would be met using capital from the economy, science and transport budget.
“We have been clear that our borrowing powers will be used to benefit all parts of Wales” he said.
“So we will not be committing all of our borrowing capacity to this single scheme.
“It is too soon to say exactly how much of the scheme will be financed through borrowing – that will depend on the final cost of the project, which is still subject to detailed work.”
Aside from this, the government will look at “innovative financing options”, as yet undefined.
But the delay in finding a solution to the M4 bottleneck has damaged the local economy, says South Wales East AM William Graham.
Prime minister David Cameron said that the Brynglas tunnels are a “foot on the windpipe” of economic development across South Wales.
Mr Graham blamed Labour for deferring the project after a route and funding was confirmed in 1991.
And he claimed: “Had we seen the realisation of the M4 Relief Road earlier this century, this Conservative investment in Wales would have transformed South Wales.
“It would have eliminated the most significant barrier to sustainable business development; allowing indigenous companies easier access to the UK and European markets and increased the attraction of South Wales as a region for further economic investment.”
He added: “Since 1991 the problem has been getting progressively worse.
“The construction of the Southern Distributor Road had little impact on reducing traffic congestion; and on those occasions when the M4 has been closed, it has repeatedly demonstrated that it is wholly inadequate alternative route around Newport.
Many welcome the decision. The Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Newport West Ed Townsend, said: “There is a balance to be struck between the economic benefit of this road and the environmental impact.
“I believe that on this occasion the Welsh government have come up with the correct answer. Newport and the whole of South Wales need the relief this road will bring from damaging congestion.
“They have also got it right by including improved links from the M48 to Severn Tunnel Junction.”
The leader of Newport City Council Bob Bright said: “The council wanted a decision on the preferred route to be made quickly and we are glad this has finally been made.
“The council was supportive of the black route but did have some concerns such as ensuring the city is not by-passed as well as the impact on the landscape of Newport.
“We will need to examine in more detail the exact nature of the route before offering further comment.
“However, we welcome the complementary measures of promoting the use of cycling and walking as an alternative to the car for journeys of up to three miles by providing new infrastructure or improving existing infrastructure.”
The plan for the M4 can be found atm4newport.com
'A disaster for the Gwent Levels' - green groups
OPPONENTS are already considering legal action to block the building of the new road.
The RSPB, which runs the visitor centre on Newport Wetlands nature reserve, described the black route decision as a “disaster” for the Gwent Levels.
Wildlife Trusts Wales described the decision as marking a “black day” for the environment. Wildlife Trust Wales has already vowed: “We will continue to challenge Welsh Government on this route, including looking at legal avenues open to us.”
Newport’s branch of Friends of the Earth proclaimed that “the black motorway is not needed.”
Katie-jo Luxton, RSPB Cymru Director said: “We are deeply shocked by this announcement which makes a mockery of the Welsh Government’s commitment to sustainable development.”
She added: “The Gwent Levels is a fragile ecosystem and unique historic landscape. It is home to charismatic wildlife including water voles, otters, an array of birds and one of the UKs rarest bumblebees the shrill carder bee. Building the motorway would cause irreversible damage to the wildlife there and destruct the centuries old wetland network.”
Meanwhile, Wales Green Party leader Pippa Bartolotti said, ”What an appalling decision. £1billion can go a long way, but without an intellectually original thought in the collective heads of the Welsh government it will be spent on shoring up the models of the past. This money should be spent on bravely constructing the models of the future, such as excellent health and education, clean energy from our enviable natural resources and model public transport.”
Plaid Cymru withdrew from Welsh Government budget discussions in protest at the move after branding the M4 decision “reckless” and “undemocratic”.
Dave Yates from Newport’s Friends of the Earth said: “This will have a negative impact on the Gwent Levels site of special scientific interest, and goes against the Welsh Government's alleged commitment to biodiversity, sustainable transport and climate change. The Welsh Government are basing their decision on flawed traffic data, and the area would be better served by investing in public transport, and improving facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.
“The Welsh Government are stuck in the last century if they believe that building yet more roads is the answer to today's transport problems. The cost, at over £1 billion, means that spending will be diverted away from investing in better public transport."
Meanwhile Wildlife Trusts Wales denounced the decision to build the motorway “through the heart of the Gwent Levels” as a blow for Welsh taxpayers, democracy and the environment.
Chief Executive of Gwent Wildlife Trust Ian Rappel said: “This is an incomprehensible decision to spend vast amounts of public money destroying a unique landscape when cheaper more sustainable alternatives haven’t been fully considered. We have been working to protect the amazing wildlife of the levels for over fifty years, and we will continue to defend them in any way we can.”
Even some business voices are opposed to the black route.
Wales’ Federation of Small Businesses head of external affairs Iestyn Davies said: “It is deeply disappointing that the minister has turned her back on the ‘blue route’ proposed by Professor Stuart Cole – a scheme which could provide an effective solution to the current problems on the M4 a full decade earlier than the scheme she is progressing and for around £600m less.
“We will continue to campaign for a speedier and cheaper solution to the problems of the M4 around Newport as we do not want to see our members who use the roads for business face an extra decade of traffic misery.”