Wednesday, 4 October 2017

An M4 fit for future generations

Speech in the National Assembly on October 4th 2017

Let me just start by saying that the M4 can be horrendous. At rush hour I have regularly been sat in endless queuing traffic.

This isn’t just a problem at the Brynglas tunnels but at several points along the motorway. And if there’s ever an accident, the whole thing can grind to a halt.

People are rightly fed up with the situation - in particular the fact that we have been talking about taking action for 15 years, and yet nothing ever seems to get done.

And I agree with them.

But we need to fashion a solution that will last, an M4 fit for future generations.

And I don’t believe the proposed M4 relief road will be anything more than an expensive stop-gap.

In fact as a policy approach it manages to do something quite remarkable - it succeeds in being both outdated and premature at the same time.

Outdated, because the evidence of the last 50 years of transport policy is that building new roads - increasing capacity - only leads to more people using their cars, quickly filling up the new space.

And premature because it pays no attention to the game changers coming our way.

I think it was Einstein who is meant to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result.

In transport planning we continue to do just that. We’ve become wedded to the so-called ‘predict and provide’ approach. Simply put, engineers predict traffic will grow in the future so they build more roads to deal with it.

This is a model of never-ending traffic growth, first set out more than 30 years ago, which frankly is nonsense.

Think about it,  if you take it to its logical conclusion and and you follow the trends, this approach has each of us earning an income of £1million by the year 2205, and a lorry on the road for every man woman and child.

Now aside from the pay rise, I don’t think this is a future any of us want to live in. And it's certainly not the type of future we created the Future Generations Act to try and shape.

Yes, there’s a problem at peak time around the Brynglas tunnels. Yes, something must be done about it. But we cannot build our way out of this problem.

We’ve been trying that for generations and it doesn’t work. Traffic builds up, roads once again seize up and we rapidly find ourselves back at square one. If we’re not careful, we could end up with a £1bn car park.

Already the Freight Transport Association - the haulage industry lobby body - are saying a new three-lane motorway at Newport will be inadequate to meet demand and we ought to be creating four lanes.

Trying  to relieve congestion by engineering ever bigger roads is no more than a short-term fix. And an expensive one at that.

The new stretch of M4 is currently estimated to cost £1.1 billion pounds for just 15 miles of tarmac. And - bearing in mind two years ago people were insisting that the cost would be “way below” a billion - it may go up even further.

Yesterday the Finance Secretary outlined the grim economic picture we face, and how money will get even tighter in the coming years.
Is it wise to tie up all our borrowing capacity in one scheme, in one corner of Wales?

If the government was to offer any of us £1.1 Billion to spend on something that would make Wales better, how many of us can honestly say that a six-lane motorway over a protected wetland would be the way we’d choose to use it?

Our entire line of new credit will be blown on a project that in economic terms will barely repay the investment over 30 years.

Even using a formula that has been manipulated to exaggerate the benefits of road schemes, we will only see a return on investment of just £1.60 for every £1 spent - which the Treasury classes as Low Value for money.

And in that time-frame rapid technological development and a fully functioning Metro project may well transform the way we travel.

Which brings me to my second point. We are trying to fit a fixed solution to a rapidly evolving problem.

We are so blinkered in our approach to transport management, that we’re failing to take a look at the bigger picture. And there are some substantial changes coming at us fast.

If you speak to business people they acknowledge the world of work is changing quickly. Soon, we won’t need to be shuttling people back and fore between desks every day.  

Rapidly evolving technology means that we need to be developing digital - not transport -infrastructure. But the roomfuls of Highways Engineers in Cathays park are never going to voluntarily face up to that.

The formula used to justify a road as the best way to deal with congestion at the Brynglas tunnels takes the most optimistic view of the possible benefits.

Meanwhile the projections for the Cardiff Metro take the most pessimistic view. Transport officials have suggested to the public inquiry that of the 11,000 journeys made every hour in peak times on the M4 the metro will - at best - only take 200 off the roads.

I don’t buy it.
But if this really is the case - if it will only have a minimal impact on rush-hour traffic - why are we not setting out to develop a public transport system that will tackle peak hour M4 demand?

I fear the project is being set up to fail.  It is being starved of investment, by the UK Government cancelling electrification and by the disappearance of EU grants because of Brexit, and by the road building lobby who are trying to minimise its impact.  

It is for policy-makers to tell engineers what society needs, not the other way round.

The other innovation that is upon us is the development of autonomous vehicles.

We simply do not yet know what the impact of driverless cars will be, but it is highly likely that this new technology - which will see cars driving side by side and bumper-to-bumper - will allow us to use existing road-space much more efficiently - making the extra capacity unnecessary.

But perhaps the biggest development this approach fails to factor in, is the law this Government passed just two years ago.

The Well Being of Future Generations Act.

On 13th September the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales -  the person this National Assembly empowered in law as the watchdog of the Act - made a significant intervention.

She said the Welsh Government - in its approach to the M4 - was setting “a dangerous precedent” in its interpretation of one of our newest pieces of legislation.

In its evidence to the public inquiry, the Government admitted the new motorway will cause harm, but argued this harm is justified because of the immediate economic benefits it will bring.

A good old-fashioned trade-off. Or as the Government's QC put it, a “balance between different desiderata”.

This is the standard line. There are four elements to Sustainable Development,  the argument goes, and one of them is economic.

And so a project that brings economic benefits is by definition helping to bring about  Sustainable Development

Sophie Howe’s challenge to the Government is that this is wrong as a matter of law.  One pillar of Sustainable Development cannot override the others.

Trade offs are no longer lawful in Wales.

Under the Future Generation Act we can no longer bargain the long-term interests of future generations for short-term benefits today.

I don’t see how an initiative that not only builds in traffic growth, and rising emissions, for generations to come - whilst also saddling them with the cost of it - can be labelled as anything other than harmful for Wales’ future.

This is a substantial challenge, one I believe that should not be confined to a debate amongst lawyers at the Public Inquiry, and this intervention was a key catalyst to me bringing this debate to the Chamber today.

Once the Future Generations Act became law, the Welsh Government should have looked afresh at the problem of congestion around the Brynglas Tunnels and developed a solution consistent with all the principles of the Act - not just the one that suited its predetermined plan.

And there are solutions to the problems of congestion. There's lots of evidence of how improvements in public transport, and for short everyday journeys active travel, can cut car use.

On top of an ambitious Metro project congestion can be cut by a battery of interventions - for example, prioritised bus lanes, traffic signals that give precedence to sustainable transport, park & ride, workplace car parking charges, targeted and tailored information about bus routes and times.

Combining policies to encourage behaviour change with hard infrastructure to improve public transport has been proven to work.

This is not revolutionary.

This happens in successful cities all the world. It's just that for 50 years we’ve turned our back on it, and now we are paying the price through poor air quality, congestion and the highest levels of child obesity in Europe.

There is a way of tackling the problems on the M4 which does not harm the needs of future generations, in fact it can help a whole range of policy interventions that we are trying to make work.

And I would ask the Cabinet Secretary to quickly set up an expert group to find a solution to congestion issues on the M4 which doesn’t involve trading off the needs of future generations with short term aims.

The public inquiry isn't doing that, it is looking at a series of roads based options to deal with the problem of congestion.

And who have we asked to adjudicate the best answer: a civil engineer!

I would urge the Government not to reject the independent Commissioner’s judgement on this. If they fight her in the courts they risk undermining their very own landmark legislation.

We created this Act. It requires a new approach - not a retrospective defence of what we were planning to do all along.

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