‘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
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 It is out-of-date, performs poorly and it will require significant and costly upgrades over the next few years – resulting in more chaos and damage to the reputation of Wales as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,