Ifan Morgan Jones
Yesterday I witnessed yet another car crash on the A487.
It was another reminder, if needed, that the poor state of Wales’ north-south roads is more than a matter of inconvenience – it’s a matter of life and death.
There have been 723 accidents on the A487 in 10 years, and 23 people have last their lives as a result.
I use this, one of the main trunk roads between north and south Wales, twice a week to travel from my home on the Ceredigion/Carmarthenshire border to Bangor in Gwynedd.
This journey has to be made by car – there is no railway. Attempting it by bus would take the better part of an entire day.
In the ten years I have been using the road I’ve witnessed several accidents and near-misses. By the time the flowers on the side of the road have wilted another pile of bouquets often appear somewhere else.
I’ll never forget arriving at the scene of an accident near Aberystwyth, and seeing the driver standing in a state of shock near the wreckage of his vehicle, his face slate-gray, looking out at the road with far-away eyes.
The police were already present so I drove on. I later found out that the driver had died. It still gives me chills thinking about it.
There’s no secret to why this road is so dangerous. Winding, narrow roads mean that those who use them have to take greater risks to pass large, slow vehicles.
The site of the upturned car I witnessed yesterday, below, is a prime example. Cars hurtle along at 65mph and then the road suddenly becomes so narrow that they can’t pass each other.
And before you tell me Wales is too mountainous for proper roads – take a visit to Switzerland, where motorways crisscross a country where the peaks are four times the height.
This is down to lack of investment – no more, no less.
There was a joke in the 19th century that Wales was such a religious country because anyone who had travelled between north and south Wales already believed in eternity.
But the joke is now on us – at least then they had a network of rail links that held the country together!
The joke today is that one of the main roads between north and south Wales frequently floods in Machynlleth, making it impassable.
The joke today is that if there’s an accident between Machynlleth and Borth, you have to make a 50+ mile detour through rural Powys.
Our country is the only one I’ve been able to find, after extensive research on Google Maps, where it’s quicker to leave the country altogether if you want to get from one end to another.
Nepal comes closest – but it’s just about quicker to stick to the country’s mountainous roads than use India’s motorways.
I look with envious eyes at the scale of the SNP’s ambition in Scotland compared to Wales.
Since 2007 they have invested over £14 billion on roads and rail – including the £1.4 billion Queensferry Crossing. Projects opposed every step of the way by Westminster parties.
Scotland is a much larger country than Wales with much more challenging terrain. For £14 billion Wales north-south transportation problems could have been solved for decades.
However, the only debate in Wales’ corridors of power is whether we can cobble together the few billion required to make the trip to London a few minutes faster.
Investment in Wales’ north-south transport links is limited to the occasional bypass – concessions that often have to be dragged out of the Government by Plaid Cymru.
The poor state of Wales’ transport links also has an economic cost. It’s impossible for many communities to thrive when travel between them is so difficult.
The UK’s over-centralised economy is due in no small part to its over-centralised transport network – all roads – and railways – lead to London.
Unfortunately, there exists a mindset that the only way for Wales to prosper is to strengthen transport links with England’s capital.
Take the tweet below by the Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Andrew Adonis:
I’m a great supporter of devolution, but Wales will only prosper if it is outward looking and has better transport links with England https://t.co/0Uiv8jORYk
— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) August 25, 2017
This is a mindset with its roots in the colonial liberalism of the British Empire – that the peripheral countries could only prosper with better links to the core.
You could argue that such an attitude is well-meaning, but what it often meant in practice was that wealth is concentrated at the core while the periphery remains poor.
Wales has had excellent transport links with England since the latter half of the 19th century, but the prosperity promised by this ideology continues to elude us.
West Wales is the poorest area in western Europe despite having a direct line via road and rail to London.
The solution is to invest in several economic hubs across Wales rather than allowing a handful of quasi city-states to prosper while everywhere else stagnates.
Our priority should not be to knock five minutes off the journey from Bangor to Liverpool, or Cardiff to London, but to encourage the development of Wales’ internal economy by linking its towns and cities.
Continuing to throw money at the Cardiff-London axis at the expense of everywhere else will create a two-tier nation and further polarisation between the rich and poor. For those who aren’t lucky enough to benefit, it causes despair.
Despair leads to looking for scapegoats and to extreme political solutions.
Unfortunately, while there is a strong economic and social case to be made for large-scale investment in Wales’ north-south transport links, politically it’s just not that easy.
The poor transport links across our midlands have created a sense that ‘North Wales’ and ‘South Wales’ are two different regions with their own sense of community.
Growing up in Gwynedd, I’ve often heard it said that Liverpool is the capital of north Wales. It’s Liverpool – or Manchester and Chester – where people go to do their shopping. Many had never been to Cardiff.
The divide between north and south may be an accident caused by topography and the industrial revolution but it’s one you suspect that Whitehall is in no hurry to do anything about.
After all, as long as the perception persists that the north and south of Wales are two different regions rather than a unified country a separate Welsh identity can be quite successfully contained.
I’m a utilitarian nationalist at heart. My nationalism is about fixing what doesn’t work in a country I feel has been long neglected by the UK Government.
Where I differ from British nationalists is that I’m not ready to see what’s best for the country I live in sacrificed in order to further unfairly concentrate wealth outside of it.
When £2,500 per head is spent on infrastructure in London compared to £100 in Wales, it may be good for overall UK GDP. But what is the point in improving overall GDP when the spoils are distributed so unequally that one in three children in Wales live in poverty?
The lack of investment in Wales’ transport links is a good example of the close alignment between Welsh nationalism and basic fairness.
Yes, it would mean investing an awful lot of money. But that does not outweigh the cost – to the economy and to people’s lives – of not doing so.