Suspension of new roads in Wales ‘very brave’ call, says Future Generations Commissioner
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
The suspension of new road building projects in Wales and the rejection of an M4 relief road were “very brave” calls, Wales’s Future Generations Commissioner has said.
Sophie Howe said Wales, along with other countries, had major decisions to make in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels agreed in a binding international treaty agreed in Paris in 2015.
The Welsh Government announced this week it was freezing new road-building projects as part of its plans to tackle the climate problem. An external panel will review all proposed schemes, which include the long-awaited Llandeilo bypass in Carmarthenshire. Welsh ministers scrapped an M4 relief road plan in 2019.
“Yes, I think they were very brave,” said Ms Howe, referring to these two decisions. People in Wales are used to using their cars, even for short distances.”
Building new roads like an M4 relief road, she said, “just perpetuates that old model”.
Ms Howe added: “We’ve got to find a way of breaking that cycle. Any change like that is not widely welcomed. But we have got to change at some point.”
She said public transport had to be more viable and attractive for people, in tandem with more investment in cycling and walking infrastructure.
Ms Howe said 100 cities globally provided free bus services to its citizens, and felt there was merit in a phased approach in Wales, starting with free bus travel for the under-25s. This could be subsidised, she said, with a congestion charge.
Electric cars and trains and the rise of home-working could reduce transport emissions and improve air quality, while digital networks and apps could be the catalyst for on-demand minibus services.
Ms Howe recalled a trip to Germany a couple of years ago when she hailed a minibus with an app.
“As you got on it, it picked up your signal and knew where you were going, and the minibus picked up other people going the same way,” she said. “We have the technology to do these sorts of things.”
‘No one size fits all’
Rural parts of Wales have lost bus services which commercial operators have found unprofitable to run, concentrating instead on popular urban routes. The issue was due to be debated in the Senedd on June 23.
Ogmore MS Huw Irranca-Davies told BBC Wales this week that bus travel was the only public transport option for most people in his constituency, most of which had no rail line.
He has instigated a debate calling on the Welsh government to “turbo boost” its proposals to change the regulation of bus services across Wales.
Swansea Council’s Labour administration has repeatedly said it would consider setting up a council-run bus company.
Ms Howe said there was “no one size fits all” answer, given contrasting rural and urban needs.
But she said the bigger picture was important, namely that more use of public transport and cycling and walking improved air quality and people’s health, thereby reducing the overall cost to the public purse.
Ms Howe said more decisions which jarred with many people’s lifestyle expectations were likely in order to meet climate change targets.
Julie James, Swansea West MS and Minister for Climate Change, said this month that Wales needs to do twice as much on climate change in the next decade as it’s done in the previous 30 years.
Wales is aiming to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Asked if interventions over flying might be in the headlines in a couple of years, Ms Howe said: “My own view is that there should be a frequent flyer ‘supertax’ – the more you fly the more expensive it is.”
This wouldn’t affect a family who’d scraped enough savings to afford an annual holiday in Spain, she said.
Ms Howe said fairness was key.
“We have got to make sure there is a just transition,” she said.
Conservative politicians have criticised the Welsh Government’s road-building freeze and M4 relief road decisions.
MS Natasha Asghar, the Conservative shadow minister for transport, the Labour Welsh Government had let drivers down.
“Road transport corridors are the arteries of domestic and international trade,” she said.
But, addressing the Senedd this week, Deputy Minister for Climate Change Lee Waters, said: “These aren’t easy issues, they throw up tensions. We have to confront that.”