The Welsh Roads Review

Speech to the Senedd, 14th February 2023

Today we are publishing the final report of the independent roads review panel.

This is a landmark report of international significance. I’d like to thank Dr Lynn Sloman and her fellow panellists. Their report is detailed, authoritative and compelling, and the Welsh Government accepts its core principles and the new approach it sets out.

When we published the Wales Transport Strategy two years ago, we committed to start upon a llwybyr newydd - a new path.

The publication of this Roads Review, along with the National Transport Delivery Plan, and our new Roads Policy Statement, represents a major step forward on that journey.

Let me be very clear at the outset, we will still invest in roads. In fact, we are building new roads as I speak - but we are raising the bar for where new roads are the right response to transport problems.

We are also investing in real alternatives. Today’s National Transport Delivery Plan sets out a five-year programme of investment in rail, bus, walking and cycling projects.

Modern successful economies have modern successful public transport systems. Ours has withered on the vine of privatisation and that must change.

Of course, doing that in an age of austerity is very challenging. Not only are we not getting our share of High Speed rail investment, but the UK Government is pushing many bus services over a cliff edge, as well as slashing our capital investment budgets. Even if we’d wanted to keep progressing all the road schemes in the pipeline we just do not have the money to do so. Our capital budget will be 8% lower next year in real terms as a result of the last UK Government budget. So when the Conservatives criticise us they should remember the financial reality of their making: the roads programme is simply unaffordable.

With fewer resources it becomes even more important to prioritise. The Roads Review helps us to do that.

Road schemes take many years from the first plan on a page to the first shovel in the ground. This means most of the schemes currently in development in Wales were conceived before we declared Nature and Climate Emergencies, and before we set stretching policy commitments in the Wales Transport Strategy, the Programme for Government and Net Zero Wales.

The Roads Review looked at each of the 55 schemes in development and tested them against our current policies. The panel sets out their detailed view on each one in their report, along with a set of purposes and conditions for future road investment.

They report says we need to do more to look after the roads we already have and pay more attention to supporting the movement of freight. I’ve today published a Written Statement on a review of our approach to road maintenance, and we will also be publishing a Freight Plan later in the year.

We need roads, but we need to remember roads are not just for cars. The panel said we need to give greater priority to buses and active travel networks in road schemes.

The report also says that where there are road safety concerns we should be looking first to reduce speeds in collision blackspots. And when we do take forward a new scheme we should opt for the one with the lowest environmental impact.

About a third of the carbon generated from road schemes comes from the materials used in constructing, lighting and maintaining it over its whole lifecycle: Steel, concrete, asphalt, water; everything that goes into a road scheme has a significant carbon footprint of its own. We need to reduce this embodied carbon, through innovation, but mostly by making the most of what we have.

The central argument presented by the Roads Review Panel is that we can’t build our way out of congestion.

When looked at in isolation there is often a case to be made for a by-pass or an extra lane, but cumulatively it exacerbates the problem.

In the short-term creating new road space often speeds up a car journey and makes it more attractive than a public transport alternative. This encourages more people to drive. But over time this generates more journeys, with people travelling longer distances. This then creates extra traffic and congestion.

It also results in retail and residential developments popping up close to the new junctions, as we have seen right across Wales. These places usually have few public transport or active travel options and so people have little choice but to get to them by car. This produces even more traffic.

As people drive more, fewer people use public transport, which results in fewer services being viable, leaving people with even fewer alternatives.

This disproportionately disadvantages women and people on low incomes who we know from the data are most dependent on public transport.

For those who feel forced into running a car to access work the costs can be punitive. Studies have shown that the poorest households can spend up to a quarter of their income on transport costs, putting them into transport poverty. Not only have our transport policies been running counter to our climate policy, and our planning policy, but they have also been running counter to our social justice policies and that has to change.

Our approach for the last 70 years is not working. As the review points out the by-pass that was demanded to relieve congestion often ends up leading to extra traffic, which in time brings further demands for extra lanes, wider junctions and more roads.

Round and round we go, emitting more and more carbon as we do it.

This is an internationally recognised trend which academics call induced demand. The panel report says very clearly that schemes that create extra road capacity for cars should not be supported. Instead, they recommend greater attention should be given to schemes that focus on demand management, coupled with improvements in public transport and active travel. “This”, they say, “will help to reduce non-essential traffic and make capacity available for essential road users including freight operators”.

We have accepted the report’s case for change.

We will not get to Net Zero unless we stop doing the same thing over and over.

Where we can create an easier alternative to driving let's do so; it is an approach that will bring multiple benefits and it will help those who have no alternative to the car to go about their business.

That’s the best way to address congestion and costs for businesses in the short term. And in the longer term, economists have warned us that the knock-on consequences of rising temperatures will trigger annual falling rates of GDP, bringing profound harm to jobs and investment. There is no long-term conflict between the environment and the economy, our policies will help both.

The National Transport Delivery Plan we are publishing today lists the road schemes that we will continue to develop over the next five years. Where the Roads Review Panel has recommended a scheme should not proceed we will not be progressing with that scheme as planned. But where there is an agreed transport problem we will work with scheme sponsors to identify a solution that meets the new tests for investment.

Our roads policy statement makes clear that we will continue to invest in new and existing roads, but to qualify for future funding the focus should be on minimising carbon emissions, not increasing capacity; not increasing emissions through higher vehicle speeds, and not adversely affecting ecologically valuable sites.

For those roads that are designed to link to sites of economic development, the report made a series of suggestions, and I have asked Cllr Anthony Hunt, the Leader of Torfaen Council, and Cllr Llinos Medi, the leader of Ynys Mon Council, to work with us to find a practical way of allowing for growth sites that is consistent with our planning and transport policies.

Let’s remember what Julie James and I said when we took up our posts: in this decade Wales has to make greater cuts in emissions than we have in the whole of the last three decades combined. Greater cuts in the next ten years than the whole of the last 30 - that’s what the science says we need to do.

We know what’s coming. Our task is to future-proof Wales.

I would urge members to read the Roads Review Panel report in full. None of this is easy, but neither is the alternative.

The UN General Secretary has warned that unless we act decisively now we face a “climate catastrophe’.

If we are to declare a Climate and Nature Emergency, legislate to protect the Well-being of Future Generations, and put into law a requirement to reach NetZero by 2050 - we simply have to be prepared to follow through.

I am very grateful to the Roads Review Panel for helping us set out a way to do that.


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