‘Black Route’ is only vi­able way for­ward for eco­nomic well-be­ing

Lead­ing en­ter­prise aca­demic Pro­fes­sor Brian Mor­gan on why the Welsh Gov­ern­ment just has to get on and de­liver the M4 re­lief road

Western Mail - - SATURDAYBUSINESS - Blue v Black Route What is the cur­rent po­si­tion? The eco­nomics The M4 v the Metro

BACK in the sum­mer of 2009 then Econ­omy Min­is­ter Ieuan Wyn Jones cited “ris­ing costs” as a rea­son to axe the planned M4 re­lief road.

How­ever, his state­ment con­tin­ued: “We will be im­ple­ment­ing a se­ries of prac­ti­cal im­prove­ments to en­sure those us­ing this route will ben­e­fit from im­proved traf­fic flow at con­sid­er­ably less cost.”

Un­for­tu­nately, 10 years later, and af­ter ap­ply­ing var­i­ous “stick­ing plas­ters”, no-one has ben­e­fited from “im­proved traf­fic flow” around Newport. The prob­lem of con­ges­tion has sim­ply got worse. Even the main pro­po­nent of the al­ter­na­tive (and cheaper) Blue Route agrees that.

Last year trans­port ex­pert Pro­fes­sor Stu­art Cole, an ad­vo­cate of the Blue Route, said: “There is a con­sen­sus that ad­di­tional ca­pac­ity is re­quired to cope with peakpe­riod traf­fic con­ges­tion on the M4 around Newport.”

No-one is ar­gu­ing that the cur­rent con­gested state of the M4 is ac­cept­able. It is out-of-date, per­forms poorly and it will re­quire sig­nif­i­cant and costly up­grades over the next few years – re­sult­ing in more chaos and dam­age to the rep­u­ta­tion of Wales as a place to in­vest.

Firstly, it is worth em­pha­sis­ing that the Blue Route op­tion us­ing the ex­ist­ing South­ern Dis­trib­u­tor Road (SDR) around Newport is dead in the wa­ter.

Lo­cal MP Paul Flynn said: “The Blue Route ‘so­lu­tion’ would be worse for Newport than no change. It would de­stroy the func­tion of the SDR by pil­ing M4 traf­fic on to a route that’s al­ready full to ca­pac­ity at peak times. The M4 Black Route is the only game in town. The pub­lic in­quiry will have to give a straight for­ward yes or no to this – no-one will be fooled again by po­lit­i­cal state­ments like ‘we will im­prove traf­fic flow on the M4 at con­sid­er­ably less cost’.”

Three broad el­e­ments have emerged from the pub­lic in­quiry

The Welsh Gov­ern­ment has put a ro­bust case in favour of the Black Route. It ad­mits that the new road would cost around £1.4bn (although this could change if it suc­ceeds in ex­empt­ing it from VAT) but it in­sists that the “costs of in­vest­ment will be more than off­set by the im­prove­ments in trans­port, eco­nomic ef­fi­ciency, safety and car­bon emis­sions”.

The Welsh Gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion has been sup­ported by most of the busi­ness com­mu­nity, from Pem­brokeshire to Mon­mouthshire (with the CBI and IoD in par­tic­u­lar call­ing for an early com­mit­ment in favour of the Black Route).

The Welsh Gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion has been op­posed by the Fu­ture Gen­er­a­tions Com­mis­sioner, So­phie Howe and many oth­ers (but by hardly any busi­nesses) both on en­vi­ron­men­tal grounds and with the claim that the Black Route is not con­sis­tent with the Fu­ture Gen­er­a­tions Act (FGA).

Re­cently the Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer raised the stakes by propos­ing greater bor­row­ing pow­ers (a fur­ther £300m) for the Welsh Gov­ern­ment to en­able the M4 re­lief road to be built.

With most of the ev­i­dence in place, we are told that the First Min­is­ter will make an an­nounce­ment be­fore he steps down from of­fice in De­cem­ber.

For the Black Route op­tion to pro­ceed, we must en­sure that the wider eco­nomic ben­e­fits are fully ap­pre­ci­ated and ex­plain why the ben­e­fits out­weigh the costs.

In my opin­ion, both the eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal ar­gu­ments in favour of the Black Route have been made very con­vinc­ingly. The eco­nomic ar­gu­ments are par­tic­u­larly strong.

Few con­trib­u­tors to the in­quiry have ar­gued against the propo­si­tion that im­prove­ments to the M4 would help raise Welsh eco­nomic per­for­mance by pro­vid­ing bet­ter ac­cess to mar­kets. There is a con­sen­sus that the new M4 would ease con­ges­tion and bring sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic ben­e­fits. There are very few eco­nomic ar­gu­ments against it. The long list of ob­jec­tions to the in­quiry (around 400 let­ters) pro­vide al­most no ev­i­dence of eco­nomic dis­ben­e­fits (other than com­ments that the money might be bet­ter used else­where). The vast ma­jor­ity of ob­jec­tors high­light en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues.

This is un­sur­pris­ing – the eco­nomic ar­gu­ment that im­proved trans­port links and less con­ges­tion would worsen the Welsh econ­omy is il­log­i­cal. It would lead to the con­clu­sion that the best way to im­prove the Welsh econ­omy would be to worsen trans­port links. Which is non­sense.

In gen­eral, the greater the cost of com­mut­ing within a re­gion, the lower is labour pro­duc­tiv­ity. The M4 Black Route would re­duce com­mut­ing costs, pro­vide bet­ter ac­cess to mar­kets – both in­side and out­side Wales – and give rise to a larger and more ef­fec­tive labour mar­ket. Th­ese im­prove­ments in con­nec­tiv­ity taken to­gether would lead to an in­crease in pro­duc­tiv­ity and un­lock fur­ther em­ploy­ment and in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. It would cer­tainly in­crease the at­trac­tive­ness of Wales as a busi­ness lo­ca­tion.

Cur­rently, 100,000 peo­ple com­mute ev­ery day to Cardiff and Newport, most of whom com­mute by car and are in­con­ve­nienced by con­ges­tion. The South Wales Metro, by en­cour­ag­ing a modal shift from cars to pub­lic trans­port, has an im­por­tant role to play in re­duc­ing con­ges­tion. But the Metro is com­ple­men­tary to the Black Route, not a sub­sti­tute for it. At best, the Metro would achieve a modal shift of around 10%-20% and it would do noth­ing to im­prove ac­cess to mar­kets in Eng­land and wider afield. Both projects should def­i­nitely go ahead,

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