M4 relief road: £1bn motorway plans

M4 AMs said the M4 relief road consultation needed to be "beyond reproach"

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Serious questions about the Welsh government's decision to build a £1bn M4 relief road around Newport have been raised by an assembly committee report.

Transport Minister Edwina Hart gave the project the go-ahead on Wednesday.

It followed a consultation over three route options but there has been anger a fourth put forward did not feature.

Next week's cross-party environment committee report raises "grave concerns" and chairman Alun Ffred Jones is "offended" it was not considered.

Members of the committee unanimously agreed the contents of their report which looked into assessing the environmental impacts of three possible routes for a new road around Newport.

Mr Jones said the Welsh government's decision to go ahead with the selected route across the Gwent levels had been "anything but transparent".

The new road, known as the the black route, will run between Junctions 23 and 29 and include a new bridge and is seen by some as the answer to crippling traffic congestion into south Wales.

Keith Jones, director of the Institution of Civil Engineers Wales Cymru backs the move

It was one of three new road options put out to public consultation last September but a fourth option from transport expert Prof Stuart Cole - the so-called blue route - was put forward three months later offering a cheaper and quicker alternative involving improving existing roads.

The blue route, which received support from various bodies and politicians, is understood to have been considered as part of the final decision making process.

But there has been anger it did not form part of the official consultation and the environment committee's report has also questioned whether the three options had enough variations to meet planning regulations.

With the black route, concerns about the impact on a local nature reserve have been made as well as calls for serious consideration of other options such as upgrading existing roads.

The committee looking into the matter had taken evidence from different organisations and BBC Wales has now obtained a draft copy of its report.

Route map Three of the route options including the black route, which Transport Minister Edwina Hart has backed

The comittee highlights a series of concerns about the Welsh government's proposal:

  • Doubt over whether the three new road options were different enough from each other to meet planning regulations
  • A suggestion that environmental concerns raised by Natural Resources Wales were not given due weight
  • Concern that traffic projections are unreliable
  • The cost of the project "remains unclear" and the source of funding "uncertain".

In June, the committee chair Alun Ffred Jones wrote to Mrs Hart asking her to answer a series of questions the committee had about the proposals.

But she refused and on Wednesday made her final decision to press ahead with the black route plans between Magor and Castleton.

She said the decision had been "carefully considered".

But the committee has said in its report that if Mrs Hart could not answer the questions raised the consultation process may need to be restarted.

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THE 'BLUE ROUTE' OPTION

steel road The blue route was a discounted fourth option

• This would involve an upgrade of the A48 Newport Southern Distributor Road (SDR) and the former steelworks road

• Roads would be re-constructed as a two-lane, dual carriageway at motorway or expressway standard

• It would be widened to a three-lane motorway in future if needed

• The route would follow a line between the Magor Junction 23A to the east of Newport to Tredegar Park Junction 28 to the west of the city

Source: Institute of Welsh Affairs

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'Rolls Royce' option, Martin Evans, director at the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport told BBC Radio Wales' Mai Davies

THE 'BLACK ROUTE' OPTION

• This would involve a new section of three-lane motorway being built between Junctions 23 (Magor) and 29 (Castleton) south of Newport

• It would include a connection for the M4, M48 and B4245.

• The route would have a crossing over the River Usk

• The infrastructure would include cycle and walking options

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The report added: "It is difficult to conclude on the basis of current information that a convincing case for the long-term value for money of this potential investment has yet been made."

After Wednesday's announcement, four Labour AMs - Mick Antoniw, Julie Morgan, Julie James and Jenny Rathbone - criticised the decision on environmental grounds and because of its timing.

And Plaid Cymru AM Rhun ap Iorwerth said Mrs Hart had shown "sheer contempt" for the environment committee while leader Leanne Wood said the party would withdraw from negotiations with the Welsh government over its budget in protest of the M4 decision.

Plaid accused the Welsh government of making financial decisions in a "reckless" way and said it would no longer take part with talks over the budget, which Labour needs to agree with opposition parties before it can be passed in the Senedd.

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Analysis

By Tomos Livingstone, BBC Wales political correspondent

The bulldozers will not move in to Magor for several years, but the decision to press ahead with a new £1bn motorway around Newport is leaving plenty of political rubble in its wake.

There was no obligation on Edwina Hart to wait for the assembly's environment committee to report back before she made her announcement - she is the minister and it is up to her.

But there are questions about her timing. Yesterday was the last day of term, and the committee - made up of members of all parties - were almost ready to publish.

Their report is going to be critical, saying not enough attention was paid to alternative ideas, and Mrs Hart's decision to go ahead anyway has put noses out of joint. Even the famed discipline of the Labour group in Cardiff Bay hasn't stopped Labour AMs voicing their disappointment.

It is also led to a rift with other parties. In most circumstances Labour won't mind too much that Plaid Cymru is unhappy. But Labour only has half the seats in Cardiff Bay and once a year it needs a hand to get the budget through.

Plaid now say they will not take part in talks, saying the £1bn cost of the new motorway is an irresponsible use of the budget. What about a deal with the Lib Dems instead? They say they are not walking away yet, but it will be difficult for them to do a deal with the M4 decision as it is.

The new motorway is supposed to reduce delays for motorists. Edwina Hart might find her decision's created a fair few logjams for the rest of the Welsh government in the months ahead.

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Liberal Democrat economy spokeswoman Eluned Parrott called the decision a "huge mistake".

And Shadow Transport Minister Byron Davies gave the announcement a qualified welcome but said it failed to take environmental concerns into account or provide relevant detail.

Martin Evans, director at the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport in the UK said the Welsh government had chosen the "Rolls Royce option".

But he added: "Just because the Welsh government's been offered a loan it doesn't mean the Rolls Royce is a suitable car for us or it's affordable."

However Keith Jones, director of the Institution of Civil Engineers Wales Cymru, who gave evidence to the assembly committee supports the decision to use the black route.

He said: "I'm absolutely totally in favour. Wales demands, needs and requires full motorway access into Wales. It's wrong that we would be denied this. It's hindering economic growth."

Responding to the report seen by BBC Wales, a spokesperson for the Welsh government said: "We do not comment on leaked documents. The minister will read the report when it is published next week."

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