Wales politics

Ministers misleading over M4 inquiry delay, say Conservatives

Ken Skates and the M4 Image copyright Labour/BBC
Image caption Economy Secretary Ken Skates should explain the "apparent consistencies", the Conservatives say

The Conservatives have accused Welsh ministers of "misleading" people over why a public inquiry into the planned M4 relief road has been delayed.

Economy Secretary Ken Skates has blamed a last minute "unexpected change" to UK government traffic forecasting.

But the Tories say an official's letter shows months of "significant engagement" between the governments.

First Minister Carwyn Jones has written to the Westminster saying no indication was given of the changes being made.

The Welsh Government wants to build a six-lane motorway to relieve congestion at the Brynglas tunnels in Newport.

But there have been objections, including from conservation groups, about the impact on nature reserves.

The new traffic forecasting system, known as Tempro, means Welsh ministers have to re-evaluate their evidence ahead of the public inquiry.

This was due to start on 1 November and has now been delayed until early 2017.

On Monday, the Welsh Government said the new model was "an unexpected change not shared in advance" by the UK government's Department for Transport (DfT) .

Mr Skates said it was "hugely disappointing that the DfT chose only to engage with us on these amendments to their traffic forecasting three days before they were introduced".

Image copyright IWA/Wildlife Trusts Wales
Image caption The proposed black route, other options and nearby nature sites

But a letter, written by a DfT official to Conservative AM Mohammad Asghar, states the planned changes to the Tempro system were first made public in December 2014 and the Welsh Government was given an "indicative timetable" for its introduction in "early 2016".

The letter, written by the DfT's Pawel Kucharski, says: "Our plans to update Tempro in 2016 were made public in December 2014 in the progress report on our research programme ("Understanding and Valuing the Impacts of Transport Investment") followed by an engagement event in March 2015.

"This publication set out the recommendations for the areas of the model that should be updated."

It added: "In early 2016 we provided Welsh Government officials with the indicative timetable for the release of Tempro 7 at a periodic engagement event between DfT, Transport Scotland, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Department for infrastructure.

"A high-level overview of national results (not specific to Wales) was presented three weeks before publication, during a general engagement event on a professional forum."

The letter continues: "This event was attended by Welsh Government officials.

"The full dataset was published on 28 July 2016."

Image copyright Welsh Government
Image caption An artist's impression of M4 relief road

South Wales East AM Mr Asghar has now called for Mr Skates to clarify his earlier comments.

"It is becoming clear that the cabinet secretary's statement was, at best, misleading and we now know that there was significant engagement between the governments over many months," he said.

"It is deeply regrettable, therefore, that instead of acknowledging responsibility for yet another delay to this project, that the Welsh Government is seeking to lay the blame elsewhere.

"Despite the cabinet secretary's claims, the Welsh Government has had officials involved at every step of the way since the changes were first announced in December 2014.

"Mr Skates should clarify his earlier comments and issue an urgent statement explaining the apparent inconsistencies."

'Not given details'

However, a letter written by Carwyn Jones to Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns claims that while the DfT advised earlier in the year that changes were going to be made, "no indication was given on the scale of changes being made to planning data used within Tempro".

He said Welsh Government was not made aware of when the updated version of Tempro would be released, "even when DfT officials were asked at the beginning of July this year".

"Welsh Government was not given details of the actual changes, nor the new numbers, until they were published on 28 July 2016," he said.

'Direct cause'

A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: "We stand by our previous comments.

"The Department for Transport gave us no prior indication of the impact that their methodology changes would have on Welsh Government projects including the M4 corridor around Newport.

"This is particularly disappointing as the UK government has publicly called for work on the M4 project to start as soon as possible.

"The Department for Transport's decision not to share base data with us until three days before publication is the direct cause of the delay to the public inquiry."

Welsh ministers have called the delay to the inquiry "regrettable" but said that the start date for building work would not be affected.

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