Ifan Morgan Jones
Hugely expensive infrastructure projects seem to be in vogue at the moment.
Not only is Boris Johnson about to greenlight HS2 – the cost of which has ballooned to over £100bn – but is now exploring the possibility of a bridge between Ireland and Scotland.
It’s 21 miles between the two countries at the narrowest point but it’s another 100 miles to Glasgow across very poor roads that would presumably have to be updated to make the bridge in any way worthwhile.
That’s another £100bn or so spent on a huge project of dubious value.
Of course, while an emergency magic money tree always seems to exist when No 10 needs it, Wales never seems to benefit from this largesse.
Even modest proposals such as electrifying the railroad between Cardiff and Swansea seem to fall foul of the ‘little economic benefit’ argument – while we are expected to fork out or share for HS2, which is projected to actually harm the economy of Wales.
Do voters really want hundreds of billions spent on huge new infrastructure projects? I doubt it. I suspect they would much rather see the money spent evenly across the UK on maintaining and upgrading the creaking infrastructure we have already.
And a prime candidate would be Wales’ north to south roads, particularly the A470 which meanders dangerously up from Cardiff to Llandudno like a drunken snake. It takes four hours and almost 200 miles to cover just 130 miles as the crow flies.
It means that making the journey between north and south is torture that few look forward to. It’s an arduous, stressful, boring journey.
Let’s be clear: I’m not calling for a motorway. I’m not even calling for a dual carriageway. Just a decently straight road with regular passing places would be nice.
For Wales, however, this seems to be too much to ask.
On paper, of course, if the Welsh Government wanted to go about improving Wales’ economy through investment in transport the solution is obvious: invest in the south-east of Wales.
Over half the population of Wales live within a 20 miles radius of each other in Cardiff, Newport and the surrounding valleys.
I’m not arguing that this shouldn’t be done – it should obviously be done. So obviously in fact that it’s incredible that after 20 years of devolution that plans for a south Wales metro are still parked in the depot.
But there is more to consider when investing in transport than the economy alone. Just thinking in terms of units of population to be shifted here and there misses the point.
The fact is that the geographical chasm between the north and south of Wales is also very quickly becoming a political one.
Following the General Election on 12 December there is only one Labour constituency in Wales north of Merthyr Tydfil.
And after 20 years there is a growing sense in the north that devolution has served Cardiff and environs very well but that they’ve yet to see much benefit there.
In many ways Wales has repeated the UK’s mistake of over-centralising political and economic power in one place – the very problem devolution was supposed to fix.
But in Wales’ case the problem is worse because while good transport links with London exist across the UK it’s very difficult for a good chunk of Wales’ population to even get to Cardiff.
With 33% of the population still backing scrapping devolution altogether, and the figure at its highest in the north [although the usual caveats about one poll and a small sample size apply] this is something Cardiff Bay should be very concerned about.
Brexit should be a warning of the political ramifications when part of a nation feels ignored or left behind. Politicians who ignore it will ultimately pay the price for it.
And if the political support for devolution goes so will the economic and political power to invest in improving Wales’ transport network in the south-east too. Westminster, as we have already seen, certainly won’t show any interest in doing so.
Very often when I suggest that a decent road is needed between north and south people argue that it’s not possible – the terrain is too tricky, or that it’s too far.
As for the terrain, well, tell that to Switzerland, the United States, Nepal, China or any other nation which has successfully crossed far more challenging terrain to link two centres of population.
As for the distance, it’s easy to forget however that it’s actually only 100 miles from the top of the valleys to the north coast of Wales.
For reference, the tip of Llŷn Peninsula and Manchester and further away from each other than Llandudno and Merthyr Tydfil. Yet one feels far away and the other a day trip.
In the context of larger nations, it’s a short stroll. Los Angeles to San Francisco is over three times the distance.
Brasilia is six hundred miles from Rio, yet a dual carriageway will get you from one to the other.
The spatial distance between the north and south of Wales is more a psychological one than a geographical one. Because it takes us a long time to get from one to another, if feels like further than it is.
Yesterday an airplane flew the 3,500 miles from New York to London in under five hours. It would have taken about as much time on Wales’ creaking transport infrastructure to get the 130 miles from Holyhead to Cardiff.
But why improve the roads between the north and south Wales, I hear you ask? In this age of climate catastrophe wouldn’t it be better to build, say, an electric-powered train track up through the mountains?
Ideally yes, but in practice, a train running up the spine of Wales would be largely useless to the residents of mid-Wales because they would have no way to get to it without a car anyway.
If I needed to get from Cardiff to Dolgellau and this hypothetical new train track swept past Bala, it wouldn’t be much help in me completing the last leg of my journey. I’d stick to the car instead.
A road meanwhile would improve transport for all of Wales because it would become part of an already existing network.
It’s fine therefore to argue for a train – if it came alongside huge investment in public transport in mid-Wales that made it a viable alternative to the car.
More realistic would be to invest in roads and make certain that they are suitable for electric vehicles, with regular charge points on the road for public use.
As for the environmental cost of a new road over the terrain, improving the A470 needn’t require destroying any new habitat. If diversions are required then old sections of road could, where possible, be rewilded.
Let’s face it, any nation with a modicum of gumption would have built a decent road from one end of the country to another a long time ago.
Over such a short distance, and terrain that is comparatively unchallenging compared to infrastructure projects tackled 100 years ago by other countries, there’s no real excuse.
It needn’t even get done all at once – the road could be improved in segments over 20-30 years.
With Wales expected to pay for white elephants like HS2, and Johnson ready to break the bank for a 20-mile vanity project, there’s no real excuse anymore for Wales to put up with such poor pre-Victorian transport connections.