M4 Newport relief road scrapped: environment v economics
24 June 2019
Listen to Alaisdair Henderson on Episode 85 of Law Pod UK
Plans to build a fourteen mile, six lane motorway through the Gwent Levels south of Newport to relieve congestion on the M4 have been scrapped by the Welsh government. The announcement by first minister Mark Drakeford was welcomed by environmentalists, local residents and small businesses who opposed the scheme at last year’s public inquiry. Alasdair Henderson, Dominic Ruck Keene and Hannah Noyce from 1 Crown Office Row with other barristers from Guildhall Chambers (Brendon Moorhouse) and Garden Court (Irena Sabic and Grace Brown) represented Gwent Wildlife Trust and an umbrella of other environmental objectors in the proceedings which lasted from February 2017 to September 2018. All these barristers acted for free. Environmental NGOs such as the Environmental Law Foundation, should be particularly pleased by Drakeford’s acknowledgement the campaigners’ efforts:
I think we need to pay tribute to the campaigners, both locally and nationally, who urged the Government to safeguard one of Wales’s greatest treasures, the Gwent levels.
Evidence from the witnesses Alasdair and his team called may not have convinced the inspector, but had a persuasive effect on the First Minister. You can listen to Alasdair discussing the inquiry and the outcome with Rosalind English on the latest episode of Law Pod UK. As you will hear, Alasdair is much encouraged by the implications of the Welsh government’s latest move for other big infrastructure schemes where the environment is pitted against the economy.
it’s probably one of the biggest environmental success stories in terms of challenging a major infrastructure project on environmental grounds.
The announcement came as a welcome surprise, given the Inspector’s firm conclusion that the benefit of the project to the Welsh economy was not only evident but indeed “unchallengeable”:
there is an overwhelming need for the scheme on traffic grounds and, in being very effective in accommodating M4 corridor traffic well into the future, on the existing motorway and new one, would be sustainable on traffic grounds.
Whilst he acknowledged the significant impact of the road on the Gwent levels sites of special scientific interest and the impact of the road on biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, his conclusion was that the road should go ahead.
The problem of congestion on the M4 around Newport has been discussed for decades, and various solutions have been shelved.
There is plenty to get stuck into over the 500+ pages of the report, and obviously a certain amount of overlap between the objections and the Welsh Government’s replies. But it is so well written (the Inspector, Bill Wadrup has since sadly died) that it reads as a primer on many points of controversy in modern life, such as the future of the motor car, climate change, pollution, flooding, biodiversity loss, local businesses and the role – if there needs to be one – of a minister for future generations.
Of all these topics, the future of traffic is one of the most important. It is a sombre thought that, whilst there has been a reduction in car use due to the internet in recent years for shopping and commuting, motorway growth has continued to rise in accordance with the growing population. You can’t transport livestock over broadband any more than you can transfer building materials from one end of the country to the other. Furthermore, there is the problem of induced traffic with the building of ever more roads. When a new road opens the temptation to use it is overwhelming and congestion inevitably follows. Covering ever greater stretches of the countryside with tarmac and concrete arguably creates more problems than it resolves.
Alaisdair called traffic expert Professor Whitelegg who pointed out that each time you build a new bypass or extension, you have initial capacity. But then you encourage more people to use their cars, even for short journeys. So once you’ve just done that, everyone does that and you’re back where you’re started.
The Welsh Government’s decision to put a stop is a unique opportunity to escape this cycle
There’s also degradation of the land. Once you build a motorway, the hypermarkets follow. One of the strongest objections to the M4 extension was the severing of the landscape that would then be open to development pressure. Whilst the proposers of the project countered this argument by pointing to the normal planning pressure any such development would have to go through, the opening up of countryside to further exploitation is an inevitable consequence of road expansion.
All parties agreed that the M4 going through Newport is very congested; there is no shortage of of data for that. But, as Alasdair points out in my interview with him, the real fundamental disagreement was what about how to address this problem. The approach that the Gwent Wildlife Trust and the umbrella group he and others were representing (including Cycling UK and Friends of the Earth) was not only to make the point about environmental damage of the scheme but to challenge the assumptions of the scheme. One of Alaisdair’s witnesses for the Trust was Calvin Jones, Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School. He challenged the evidence that the congestion had adversely affected South Wales. Autonomous vehicles in the near future was a strong part of his argument against the scheme.
The Gwent Wildlife Trust (also represented by Hannah Noyce) argued that any mitigation measures proposed by the relief road project to its impact on biodiversity would be unlikely to succeed under EU environmental law. The sort of mitigation measures proposed were otter passageways, eel passes, owl boxes, specific planting to guide bats to culverts and other crossings over the proposed road, minimisation of light spill and so on.
Dominic Ruck Keene, for Cycling UK, contended that cultural significance of the car is changing and the traffic forecasts and that the modelling used to justify the scheme took no account of this.
The current modelling systems for “ecosystem services” are similarly inadequate. This is a term designed to capture the benefits imparted by the natural environment, such as tranquility, pollination and carbon reduction. But so far only lip service has been paid to ecosystem services in debates involving measures that stack up in real economic terms.
That is why the decision to overturn the Inspector’s conclusion and think beyond the M4 extension is so inspiring. As Alaisdair Henderson says, even where money prevails,
some things are of unquantifiable value, the wetlands and biodiversity of the Gwent Levels being some of them. Money isn’t everything, and it’s really exciting to see high level government ministers making that choice.