The National Transport Plan - Roads

Now that I've had a chance to read it (sadly, I don't get an advance copy) it's time to comment on the National Transport Plan that Ieuan Wyn Jones announced yesterday.

As I listened to what he said, I punched the air and let out a shout loud enough to disturb my neighbours—or at least give them grounds to think I was disturbed—when he confirmed that the Gwent Levels motorway had been ditched. I was half-confident that it would be, simply on the basis of the principles that were laid out in the previous document. But the sustained pressure over the past few weeks from those elements that think road building is the only thing that matters made me wonder if he would fold.

He didn't. In fact I was very impressed with the confidence of his performance in yesterday's debate. He came across as a man who knew what he was doing and, more importantly, why he was doing it.


Now of course all the news in the morning papers is about the M4. But I want to start by saying that the Plan is much more than that. It is about building an integrated and sustainable transport system. What is groundbreaking about this is that it is the product of new and better thinking about what transport is for. For some decades we have had governments, of all political hues, that have seen road building as the prime, if not only, means of improving transport infrastructure. Only very recently have governments started to think in terms of a more balanced transport mix: something which has either been motivated by gridlock in large cities such as London, or by concerns for the environment.

So the emphasis of this plan is not about what we are not going to do, but about the better things we are going to do instead.


Now it seems that some people just can't get their heads round this. Not only did we see this from the Tories in the debate yesterday, but it was repeated by David Rosser of CBI Cymru in this clip from the news last night:


He seemed to think that it was:

... too big a project for the Welsh Assembly Government's budgets. What does that say about devolution? ... how do we take forward Wales' infrastructure needs in the decades to come?

He's got hold of completely the wrong end of the stick. The money would not have come directly from the block grant. When the new motorway was proposed, it was always intended to be financed by PPP/PFI, which would in the long term have cost us maybe twice as much as traditional funding through borrowing. But let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

First, the problem that needs to be solved is relatively minor. There is some peak hour congestion, which is mostly the result of private car commuter traffic. If the whole emphasis of transport policy is to try and get people out of their cars and onto public transport it makes more sense to solve the problem by developing park and ride facilities linked to new rail stations, as I noted here. IWJ has confirmed that this is indeed what is going to happen. That is very welcome news.

Second, the cost is obscene. It is not a question of it being "unaffordable" ... it is a question of this particular scheme being a bad thing to spend this amount of money on. £1bn is out of all proportion to the benefits it could ever be expected to bring. True, that cost would have been funded by PFI/PPP ... but that would of necessity have involved tolling. A "shadow" toll (such as operates on the A55) would have cost the Welsh Government a lot of money. A user-paid toll could only have been made to operate on the same financial basis as the new Severn Crossing: in order to avoid switching, both M4s would need to have matching tolls. I don't think many people would put up with that. The tolls would certainly have had a negative rather than positive effect on business.

Finally, it is not the only route across Newport. What IWJ proposed today is exactly what I said should be done a few years ago, after one of the accidents that closed the motorway:

What I find strangest about incidents like these is how they have "knock-on" effects to the rest of the political agenda.

So, for example, because this crash caused delays to motorists, the news story quickly becomes, "What's happening with the new Gwent Levels toll motorway"

     M4 relief road 'could open 2013' - BBC, 20 September 2007

My reaction to this is that people have been killed ... and if that means a few hours delay, and even if this happens say four or five times a year, so what? Inconvenience doesn't compare with lives.

We need better solutions to our transport infrastructure than building new motorways. We built a parallel M4 for the new Severn Crossing. Now the ball just rolls along a few miles. If we double the M4 to get past Newport, are we then going to double it to get past Cardiff too? Make no mistake, we'll have to, because we'll just create a new bottleneck a few miles further on.

Yes, I do accept that this bit of the M4 is problematic, particularly because of the Brynglas tunnels. But there are better ways of increasing road capacity than a new toll motorway. Why not simply improve the road from the Magor Junction (23a) that runs through the old Llanwern site (Queensway) then go over the new road bridge built just a few years ago? Turn the single carriageway sections to dual carriageway. Maybe tunnel under a few of the surplus roundabouts. Judicious minor works to improve traffic flow. Not a complete new motorway ... and certainly not a restricted access, private toll motorway!


Ultimately, though, the problem is the number of people using cars to get to work and lorries to carry goods. The way to solve that problem ... the only way ... is to make a coordinated shift from road to rail.

Quite rightly, the proposed new motorway needs to be subject to a number of planning, environmental and legal procedures. The public enquiry is due in a two years. Of course the Tories want to rush it forward to get a new private toll motorway as quickly as possible. No big surprise.

     First questions on M-way safety

The political task for Ieuan Wyn Jones is to get a rail improvement plan (both passenger and freight) into proper form by then, so that it (together with minor road improvements as outlined above) will form a convincing alternative to the new toll motorway.

WalesOnline forum - 20 September 2007

Reading the Western Mail's version of the story at the time, it would appear that IWJ was still thinking in terms of building the new motorway. According to yesterday's BBC story, what is now proposed is pretty much exactly what I suggested back then:

[IWJ] said the assembly government would instead spend between £64m and £110m improving the existing M4 network.

Measures would include improvements around Tredegar Park junction, the Brynglas tunnels and the Coldra roundabout, bringing into public use a seven-mile dual carriageway through the Corus site in Newport, and improving the southern distributor road through Newport.

BBC, 15 July 2009

Now of course I'm not taking credit for that. To my mind it was just stating the obvious, and I'm sure others reached the same conclusion long before I did. I'm only glad that the argument has been won. Just in case it isn't clear, this is the route that is now likely to be developed. Click the map for an enlarged version.


It does exactly what it is meant to do: relieve pressure at one pinch point on the perfectly good motorway we already have. Building a brand new six lane motorway would be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is overkill.


I suppose I can't really avoid commenting on the Cardiff Airport link road, either. For once I'm going to give some credit to David Jones, because at least he can see the bigger picture, even though he sees it the wrong way round. What he wrote is here.

Most of the plans for a new road from the M4 (probably J34) to Cardiff Airport were based on it also serving the development at St Tathan. A road that would serve both is more feasible than a road that would serve the airport alone. It might even be justifiable, but that depends on the extent of the development.

Now of course St Tathan itself is a completely different issue. It's something I've mentioned before, but not on this blog, so I'll put it on record that I am not against the development of a large defence establishment on the site. If the MoD want a centralized facility, it is better for this part of Wales that it's here than elsewhere. However, what I do have very grave reservations about is the private nature of the proposal and the particular multinational arms companies that will develop and run it.

I am not particularly impressed with "School of Death" labels. Any military training establishment is by definition a place where people learn to kill other people. That is what war is all about! I believe that Wales should retain an effective military after we become independent; the issue is not about us having armed forces, but about what we do with them. So the development itself will serve us very well when we get to run it.

But at present it is far from clear how "on track" the proposed development is. David Jones seems to want it both ways at the same time. For example he quotes Vale of Glamorgan MP John Smith as saying, "If that road is not built, the college will still open ... " but then goes on to say, "The announcement [about the link road] will undoubtedly cause uncertainty over the future of the St Athan project."

My view is that we should wait and see. If the development does go ahead on the scale planned, then it might well make sense for the road to be built; in which case it would serve Cardiff Airport too. Win win. But the airport alone certainly does not justify it.

What is ridiculous, not to say foolish, is the idea that the Welsh Government should build the road first in order to try and swing the balance on whether St Tathan goes ahead. Tails do not wag dogs.


Let's move on. Because the next thing to note is that this Plan is not some sort of vendetta against road building. We need good roads. But we need put them into a larger context. It is very easy for a local AM like Huw Lewis to think that the A465 is the most important road in the world ... but it is only the most important road for him and his locality. The same goes for John Smith's view on a new road to Cardiff Airport. The job of the Welsh Government is to do what is best for Wales as a whole.

A month or so back, I made this post in response to what Huw Lewis had written. He was feigning ignorance about why the Heads of the Valleys road should not be Wales' number one transport priority. I reminded him that the One Wales Agreement had made improving North South links a priority:

• We envisage a Wales where travelling between communities in different parts of Wales is both easy and sustainable. We are firmly committed to creating better transport links, both road and rail, between the North and the West of Wales and the South.

• We will develop and implement a programme for improved North-South links, including travel by road and rail.

• We will press ahead with improvements to major road links between the North, the West and the South of Wales, investing over £50 million for this purpose over the four year Assembly term.

One Wales Agreement, 27 June 2007

To allay Huw's fears, dualling the A465 is still going to go ahead. That was confirmed, once again, yesterday ... and perhaps it's worth noting that this road will provide a better alternative to the M4 for traffic from south Wales to the Midlands and North of England via the A40 and M50, thus in itself reducing the long term need to increase capacity on the M4. But the Plan lists a number of improvements to the main North South road link, namely:

We will:

c. Start work on the programme of proposals, by 2011, to the north-south road corridor to address sub-standard alignment, journey reliability, safety and local environmental issues:

• A470 from Penloyn to Tan Lan, Llanrwst;
• A470 from Cwmbach to Newbridge;
• A470 at Gelligemlyn;
• A470 from Maes yr Helmau to Cross Foxes;
• A470 at Alltmawr;
• A470 from Pentrefelin to Bodnant West Lodge;
• A487 at Porthmadog, Minffordd and Tremadog;
• A483 at Four Crosses.

d. Start work on the programme of proposals, by 2014, to the north-south road corridor to address sub-standard alignment, journey reliability, safety and local environmental issues:

• A470 at Rhayader;
• A470 at Plas Maenan and Bodhyfryd;
• A470 and A483 through Builth Wells;
• A487 from Caernarfon to Bontnewydd;
• A483 in Newtown.

Some of these schemes have been around for a long time. One, the Porthmadog bypass, was given the go ahead only a few weeks ago. But what this Plan does is to bring the proposals together as a co-ordinated set, so that we finally—after years of talking about it—get a half decent road linking north and south Wales. This is an enormous step forward for Wales as a whole.


Anyway, this post is quite long enough. I've concentrated only on the headline issue of roads because that is the main focus of debate and comment in the media today. I've got plenty to say about the public transport that runs on roads, the rail network, and short distance local transport, including cycling and walking. These elements are every bit as important, but I'll have to address them later.

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Anonymous said...

Superb post, very fair and well informed.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I wish I had the time to read the reports in detail, never mind comment in such depth afterwards!

The Cardiff Airport Access Road was a red herring, though. The reason that John Smith was so much in favour was because it was a way of getting the Assembly to fund something for the increasingly financially fragile St Athan Training College.

The Airport themselves said it had no purpose, there was no economic benefit to Barry and villagers on every possible route were up in arms at seeing the rural Vale tarmacced.

A bypass around Dinas Powys, to remove the commuter traffic between Barry and Cardiff from the village and speed travel time would have been welcomed and made a vast difference to the eastern Vale - the Airport Access road wouldn't have.

Theoretician said...
Great news that airport road is doomed.
reality Check need on loony defence PFI project

Defence College is unaffordable...the NEW LABOUR government is still pouring money in to this project or money pit. The Government has offered Metrix an additional £44m of state guarantees – in effect promising to pay for preparatory work even if it scraps the deal. There is also a requirement for MOD to deliver a clear site at St Athan before construction work can begin.
The Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) have agreed to fund clearance of the site, with a pre-Financial Close maximum expenditure of £12.5M. WAG is, however, unwilling to
start work prior to Financial Close unless this work is underwritten by MOD lest the Defence Training College fails to reach Financial Close.

Note this weeks private Eye article DEBT Knell

As experts draw up lists of defence projects to scrap in order to fill the multi-million-pound black hole that is the Ministry of Defence, officials are quietly pressing on with the planned £12bn privatisation of military training even though they know it is unaffordable.

More than 2 years ago the then armed forces minister Des Browne admitted he was privatising
defence training because the up-front investment needed could only be met if it was kept
off-balance sheet by using the private finance initative (even though PFI costs more in the long run - see Eye 1177) . This meant that companies had to buy the buildings and rent them back to the MoD, complete with the training of soldiers, sailors and air crew.

A read out from an MoD meeting seen by the Eye now reveals that the project is looking unaffordable precisely because it is a PFI deal. "Currently there is a £1.3bn affordability issue in the programme," an offical reports. "The problem is borrowing at a reasonable rate for PFI".
The amount needed can not be met from the £2bn "infrastructure fund" the government has already agreed to lend to struggling PFI deals, as this is largely earmarked for schools and hospitals .

The deal, due to kick off next autumn, isn't helped by trouble with one area of military training that is to be brought in but is already privatised: naval training at HMS Sultan. Essential information from there can't be obtained "due to their ongoing political issue with [private consortium] VT Flagship" Not surprisingly the official reports gloomily: "Currently planned programme will be hard to achieve"

But the MoD is determined to press ahead, going back to parliament for approval for a further £44m in "pre-contract allocation" to cover the escalating costs of the Metrix consortium (Qinetiq, Sodexo, Raytheon, EDS, and others), without which "Mx [Metrix] could walk away, although it is anticipated that they will not". Very encouraging.

MH said...

Thanks for the kind comments.

You've said a lot about St Tathan, Theoretician. I don't want to get to involved in that discussion right now, except to note that there is still a degree of uncertainty. Everything depends on what the UK Government chooses to do.

All I am saying is that if St Tathan goes ahead at the scale planned (at one time there was talk of 24,000 people) then that would almost certainly require infrastructure improvments such as a new road link to the M4, and such a road would also serve Cardiff Airport. If it goes ahead, but on a smaller scale, maybe not. And if it doesn't go ahead, then the airport alone does not justify the new road.

It would be stupid to make a decision on a new road until the extent of the development is known. And it is silly for some politicians to call for the road to be built in order to somehow "swing" the decision on St Tathan.

Anonymous said...

CBI have always known that the M4 would be funded via a PPP, they have said so for many years. While costing more than a traditional road, remember that maintenance is built into PPP contracts so please compare like with like.

MH said...

Anon, I was comparing "like-with-like" when I said that a PFI funded road would cost maybe twice as much as a traditionally financed road.

The A55 extension, which operates a "shadow" toll (i.e. the Welsh Government pays the PFI consortium that built and maintains it a toll for each vehicle that uses it) currently about £16m a year. Over the 30 year franchise period that will cost well over £400m. If the road had been built on a traditional borrowed capital model and maintained/operated in the same way as other public roads it would, according to this report, cost only £208m.

Western Mail, 5 Feb 2008

Penddu said...

As usual, the planners have used a relatively simple roads issue - improving access to Cardiff Airport - into creating a high spec mega highway which is just unneccessary!

Much of the expense of the alternative routes considered was in trying to resolve traffic congestion at Culverhouse Cross - nothing to do with the airport, and which could be overcome by adding one flyover to the junction at a cost of around 20 million.

Access to the airport (and Barry) from Cardiff itself would be improved drastically by building the Dinas Powis bypass, which would also take traffic away from Culverhouse Cross, but as I commented before, planners seem obssessed with building big - rather than on focussing on more achievable projects.

david h jones said...

having travelled North-South and yesterday to Llanelwedd for the Royal Welsh Show I pray to God that they're going to straighten these roads and not just put some nice tarmac on them!

There's no need for 'new' roads or dual carriageways, just straighten the bloody things. And if a farmer complains about his land been taken away tell him who pays his grants!

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