TODAY marks one year since Mark Drakeford rejected proposals for an M4 relief road – bringing to an end years of 'will-they-won't-they' over plans to ease motorway congestion around Newport.

The First Minister said environmental concerns and spiralling estimated costs were behind his decision to pull the plug on the so-called Black Route, which would have bypassed the city to the south, between Magor and Castleton.

Hailed as a victory by conservation groups and supporters of more investment in public transport, the first minister's decision also proved controversial.

South Wales Argus:

Mr Drakeford (inset, above) was criticised for going against the recommendations put forward by a planning inspector following an 18-month, £44 million public inquiry process; and long-standing concerns remained over the effects of motorway congestion on air quality in Newport.

One year on, how have things changed? And with the coronavirus lockdown slashing transport use across the nation, will the pandemic have a lasting effect on how people in and around Newport travel?

Rob Hepworth and Catherine Linstrum's campaign group, CALM (Campaign Against the Levels Motorway), was at the forefront of opposition to the relief road project, on grounds the new motorway route would carve through the Gwent Levels wetlands and destroy a diverse ecosystem.

Speaking to the South Wales Argus, they maintained that the First Minister's decision had been a "historic moment" which "turned fine words about the climate and biodiversity emergency into action".

In the wake of his relief road decision, Mr Drakeford set up the South East Wales Transport Commission to find alternative ways of improving the region's transport network.

The CALM leaders have urged the commission to focus on improving public transport and active travel, including cycling.

While acknowledging public resources would be "tight" after the pandemic, a projected reduction in road use - due to more people working from home - "gives us more time to plan alternatives to a new motorway", they said, adding that CALM would "strongly support" proposals to build new railway stations in Magor, Llanwern, and Caerleon.

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Sophie Howe (above), the future generations commissioner for Wales, opposed the relief road plans.

She said the coronavirus lockdown could be an opportunity to support healthier means of travel in the long term.

“As we plan to rebuild our economy, it’s vital we don’t rush into a return to ways that were causing harm," she said, drawing on research into links between air pollution and Covid-19 deaths, as well as suggestions that people would be open to working from home after the lockdown ended.

“Such an approach, alongside employers adopting staggered working, is likely to result in a significant reduction in traffic on the M4 at peak times, alongside a reduction in carbon emissions and significant cost savings.

“We can encourage a permanent change to healthier ways of getting around and shifting car use to essential journeys.”

Fewer cars on the M4 would ease concerns over air pollution in Newport, with the city's member of the Senedd for Newport West, Jayne Bryant, saying "doing nothing is not an option" to improve local air quality.

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Ms Bryant (above), who last year called the First Minister's decision a "bitter blow for Newport", is optimistic changes forced upon drivers by the coronavirus outbreak could lead to long term healthier choices.

"Changes to behaviours that we thought would take a generation have happened almost overnight," she said.

"We must take advantage of the opportunity that we have, to do things differently. Tinkering around the edges will not cut it, though.

"The M4 Commission must act at pace with practical and real solutions.”

The transport commission's long term goal is to find workable ways to improve transport - private and public - in and around Newport.

After convening last autumn the commissioners, headed by Lord Terry Burns, have so far proposed a set of short-term fixes, such as scrapping the variable speed limit around Newport - although these are yet to be put in place because of the arrival of Covid-19.


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Ms Bryant's Senedd colleague John Griffiths (Newport East, above), who opposed the relief road plans, said it is important to cut damaging air pollution and called for an "accessible and affordable" public transport network which could "take some of the pressures off the M4".

But he acknowledged the short term difficulties of expanding public transport at a time when public health advice urged people to avoid bus and train travel.

As the country moves out of lockdown, Newport Now BID (Business Improvement District) chairman Zep Bellavia said traffic problems on the M4 could soon return.

"The current advice to avoid public transport if possible runs the risk of an increase in car usage as more people return to work and the danger of a return to congestion on the M4 with gridlock on arterial roads leading into Newport,” he said.

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The BID was in favour of the relief road, and Mr Bellavia (above) said its view remained unchanged - that Mr Drakeford's decision "was not good news for businesses in Newport".

With traders now coming to terms with a "totally different" business landscape caused by Covid-19, Mr Bellavia said there has to be focus on how towns and cities could recover from the lockdown.

“There is a clear post-Covid focus both on active travel - and city centres are obvious places where walking and cycling can be promoted - and remodelling traditional high streets so pavements can be used for more seating areas for food and drink businesses, and roads become used more by pedestrians and less by traffic," he said.

“But the current advice to avoid public transport, if possible, runs the risk of an increase in car usage as more people return to work, and the danger of a return to congestion on the M4 with gridlock on arterial roads leading into Newport.”

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When Newport councillor Matthew Evans (above) stood as the Conservative candidate in the Newport West by-election last spring, he made building the relief road a campaign priority.

One year on, he reiterated his opposition to Mr Drakeford's decision but said more work should still be done on improving other transport connections in the city, such as the long-mooted plans to restore the Ebbw Vale-Newport rail link.

"I appreciate the world has changed significantly over the past few months and it has been good to see more people walking, cycling and using their cars less often," he said.

"Inevitably there will be a debate on whether or not the M4 relief road is needed, but I still believe it is the only long term solution to alleviate the congestion and pollution problems people in Newport face on a daily basis."

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But Heather Myers (above), the chief executive of the South and Mid Wales Chamber of Commerce, said the relief road was always only one part of [the] economic jigsaw" in terms of bringing "wider connectivity" and economic support to the region.

"The pandemic has called into question the need to travel, safe ways to do so, and our relationships with workplaces and our environment," she said.

"While transport infrastructure improvements are vital as part of an integrated system, much more business attention is now focused on having the digital infrastructure in place which, in turn, would keep many employees out of their cars and create much-needed capacity on the M4 for just-in-time deliveries and essential journeys."

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Lord Burns (above), chairman of the South East Wales Transport Commission, said the group would consider the current and lasting impacts of Covid-19, but "our primary focus of reducing congestion on the M4 near Newport remains".

“The Covid-19 epidemic has inevitably affected the work of the commission. We have had to change our ways of working and pause some of our engagement work," he said.

"However, despite the challenges, we have made good progress.

"We intend to publish an ‘Emerging Conclusions’ report before the summer recess and will produce our final recommendations by the end of the year."