Campaigners have expressed hope that controversial plans for an M4 Relief Road in Newport are to be altered or shelved following the Welsh Assembly election results in May. The proposed route (known as the black route) will run through environmentally sensitive and wildlife-rich areas of the Gwent Levels wetlands.
The new Labour-led coalition Government contains a Liberal Democrat minister, Kirsty Williams, who openly opposes the plans, and is without former Business Minister Edwina Hart, a key supporter of the so-called black route. The long-serving Gower representative stood down as an Assembly Member (AM) last month.
While First Minister Carwyn Jones is still understood to favour the idea, and reiterated his support for it a fortnight ago, his chances of implementing the plans may potentially be reduced by the election outcome. Labour dropped from 29 AMs to 28, and did a deal with Plaid Cymru, which also opposes the road, to enable Jones to be relected as First Minister.
The Welsh Conservatives, who have largely supported the relief road, lost three seats. And UKIP, which would seek to vote the idea down, made a breakthrough, moving from having no representation at all during the last parliament to seven Assembly seats. Several Labour backbenchers are also against the proposals.
Speaking to BBC Countryfile Magazine, Gareth Clubb, Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, said “Kirsty Williams’ entry into Cabinet certainly introduces a new dynamic. She’s publicly opposed to the black route, and [new Economy Secretary] Ken Skates, who now has responsibility for it, is unlikely to want to invest a load of political capital in the project either (his constituency is in north-eastern Wales).”
Clubb believes the lack of advocates still in Government could lead to construction not going ahead.
Several environmental groups maintain that the £1bn road would threaten the Gwent Levels and go through or over lots of greenfield land and five Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
But the Confederation of British Industry Wales (CBI Wales) remains “optimistic” that the project will go ahead. Leighton Jenkins, its Assistant Director for Policy, told BBC Countryfile Magazine that “the First Minister said on 22 May that the M4 was the biggest traffic problem we’ve got in the whole of Wales and the problem is not going away”. Jenkins said Carwyn Jones “confirmed the Black Route will go forward to public inquiry”, which could take a year to approve the plans.
While the South Wales Chamber of Commerce joins the CBI in supporting the black route, the Federation of Small Businesses Wales (FSB Wales) says that another option would “allow the Welsh Government to square the circle”. Rather than press on with what it describes as the “expensive and time-consuming black route”, it has encouraged Jones to follow the alternative “blue route” proposed by transport expert Professor Stuart Cole. This would cost an estimated £380m. FSB Wales claims the blue route is “practical, deliverable and would leave money to tackle other transport bottlenecks”.
But Jenkins says the blue route is “a short term sticking plaster that won’t provide a long-term solution to congestion around Newport. It is not a motorway, it will have over a dozen junctions and parts of the route will go very close to people’s homes.” He claims the First Minister is against such a route.
Opponents of the black route also believe the need for a relief road will be lessened by the impact of the South Wales Metro scheme, an integrated transport network combining heavy rail with development of light rail and bus services. But Jenkins claims Government estimates indicate that “only 5% of traffic” will be diverted from the motorway to a future metro system.
“This is insufficient to make an impact on the heavily congested M4”, he said.