M4 relief road: brave or reckless?

I've been covering the political fallout from the announcement late on Wednesday afternoon, by the Transport Minister Edwina Hart, that a £1bn relief road is going to be built south of Newport, and what is clear is how polarised opinion is.

There are those, led by Plaid Cymru, who have called it reckless, while there are those, led by the CBI, who are delighted.

I don't want to be too cynical, but a bit of traffic chaos on the Brynglas tunnels in Newport over the next few days wouldn't do the Welsh government's cause any harm.

When it next happens, you can be sure that ministers will use it as justification to make what will be the largest single capital investment since the beginning of devolution.

And why not? After all, that's why the new road is being built, in order to stop big chunks of south east Wales grinding to a halt when there are serious problems.

But the question is, why the £1bn option, when an upgrade of the existing Southern Distributor Road could be completed for around £400m, leaving plenty in the kitty to be shared out among the rest of the country?

That would go down well in north Wales. One AM told me some of his constituents "go nuts" when they're told that the Welsh government has spent £50m buying an airport. He said imagine what they're going to say when they find out £1bn is going to be spent on a road in Newport.

Edwina Hart dismissed the cheaper option, saying it fails to provide a long term solution and would cause huge disruption to Newport for years by taking out a major road artery.

But a £1bn bill would mean soaking up virtually all of the cash generated by the assembly's new borrowing powers, and clearly deprive other parts of the country of road schemes.

Bad taste

Edwina Hart has to make the case that if you're going to spend that amount of money anywhere then Newport is the place to do it because, as David Cameron said when he was in Cardiff last year, it has its "foot on the windpipe" of the Welsh economy.

I don't suppose David Cameron and Edwina Hart agree on much but the M4 has brought them together.

There have been plenty of Labour backbench critics, which is highly unusual for a party which runs a tight ship in Wales, but it reflected some of the strength of feeling on the issue.

And there are some AMs who have left Cardiff Bay with a bad taste in their mouths because they feel the decision was pushed out late on the last full day of the assembly before the summer recess.

It must appear odd to people that, when hours and hours are spent debating all sorts of policies at the assembly, a massive decision like this is squeezed in without much debate.

Edwina Hart's argument is that she's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't, because if she waited until September she'd have been criticised.

Legal army

So what can get in its way now? The only real obstacle would appear to be a judicial review by one of the environmental groups.

I'm no expert, but lawyers tell me you can't just challenge something because you don't like the decision, there has to be some kind of flaw in the decision-making process.

The integrity of that process will become the centre of attention if that happens. It's impossible to know at this stage, but none of this will come as news to the Welsh government, so presumably there would have been an army of consultants and lawyers preparing for that eventuality.

The Welsh government have admitted all along that this would be controversial. That view has been borne out so far.

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