Let’s scrap the M4 Relief Road and have a Welsh Green New Deal instead

The M4 motorway heading past Port Talbot. CW Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Harry Thompson

When he announced his candidacy for the Welsh Labour leadership, Mark Drakeford took the unusual move of announcing that he if was successful in becoming First Minister, he would only serve for a few short years before handing off to a “new generation”.

It is almost certain, then, that his legacy as First Minister will be framed by his decision on the M4 Relief Road.

It is a huge decision to make. It comes early in the new First Minister’s tenure and proposes to use the entirety of the Welsh Government’s borrowing powers on one project in a single area of the country.

Nothing in politics is black and white, but on most occasions this debate has presented itself as a dichotomy of environmentalist opposition and business support. To side with one or the other, as Mark Drakeford will have to, will be a significant indicator of which kind of leader he wants to be.

If he chooses in favour of the relief road, it will be seen – fairly – as a capitulation against his instincts to the business community, investing the Welsh Government’s entire borrowing capacity in an outdated mode of transport, predicated on the burning of fossil fuels, to be spent only in the south-east of Wales.

He would do so against the advice of his own government’s Future Generations Commissioner, who has called for the M4 relief road to be scrapped and replaced with improved public transport in Wales.

On the other hand, if he scraps the M4 relief road, he will have saved a significant part of Wales’ countryside, and will find himself with £1bn to invest in other areas. He will also have sent a message of rejection to Westminster, who have cynically given the Welsh Government the option to borrow more – on the condition it is spent on the M4 relief road.

Devolution is not about a Welsh Government existing to rubber-stamp the will of Westminster, but for decisions about Wales to be made in Wales.

Infrastructure

There are no shortage of calls for extra funding in an austerity-hit Wales. But Mark Drakeford could send a signal about Welsh Labour’s reinvigorated sense of radicalism by embracing a Green New Deal for Wales.

The Green New Deal – an idea forced into popular consciousness by US Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex – calls for the mobilisation of the state in order to combat climate change.

But it goes further than this. Recognising that climate change will need to be dealt with – either in a rational fashion by governments thinking about the medium term or in a disastrous fashion by paying for measures to mitigate the consequences – it proposes doing so in an equitable way.

Rather than reducing carbon emissions by imposing carbon taxes on the poorest in society, it calls for government to invest in infrastructure projects that both help people’s everyday lives whilst putting wealth in the pockets of workers.

This concept dovetails perfectly with Mark Drakeford’s stated focus on the Foundational Economy and using public procurement to keep government wealth in Wales. In scrapping the relief road, he could embark upon a £1bn spending programme that builds projects aimed at maximising benefit to the public good, whilst keeping wealth in Wales.

And financial backing of the Welsh Government’s effort’s on climate change and carbon reductions are sorely needed.

Austerity

Wales’ public transport is notoriously poor. Human population growth is exponential, and population estimates for Cardiff and Newport are on the high side of that. Car-based transport systems are a notoriously inefficient use of public spending and public space for transporting these people.

We are never going to be able to build roads at the rate we create people, and given the threat of climate change, we would be foolish to try. A more suitable solution would be to invest in public transport – buses and trains which use space far more efficiently and transport far more people than one or two in a car.

This has the added benefit of being the more equitable option. Bus services are often the lifelines of rural communities that make up so much of Wales, and it simply can’t be right that a Welsh Labour Government would invest so much in a big-business orientated project in Wales’ wealthiest and most well-developed region whilst poorer regions, with their transport services suffering under austerity, get nothing.

A major investment in public transport would be more regionally equitable, chime with the Welsh Government’s stated ambitions on climate change, save a piece of Welsh countryside vital to biodiversity, and help address issues of social isolation and loneliness amongst people living in rural communities.

If done properly – and it should be – public transport investment should always come with an Active Travel component.

The Welsh Government has made £60m available for active travel over three years. This is a drop in the ocean compared to the proposed budget for the M4 relief road, and a combined public/active travel alternative strategy for the M4 relief road could alleviate (and then some) the funding bottleneck active travel in Wales has faced.

Enough investment in active travel could be genuinely transformative with regards to carbon emissions and air quality in certain, predominantly urban, areas. Copenhagenising Wales’ cities by converting public space to prioritise active travel over car travel could achieve an element of genuine modal shift in our transport systems, which would bring benefits far beyond an environmental perspective.

Here again we see the M4 Relief Road debate dividing into a stark dichotomy of a project which has narrowly-spread benefits, disproportionately assisting big business and wealthier people and areas, contrasting poorly with greener, more equitable alternatives that not only mitigate carbon emissions and protect biodiversity, but also spreads economic benefit more widely and contributes to people’s mental and physical health, too.

On this defining issue of his premiership, Mark Drakeford has to ask what kind of First Minister he wants to be.

Social justice

On housing, too, there is no shortage of need for funding to mitigate carbon emissions and tackle climate change.

In August of last year, the National Assembly’s Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee laid their Low Carbon Housing: the Challenge report, calling for bold and decisive action from the Welsh Government on this area.

Amongst a raft of other sensible proposals, it called for the retrofit of all houses in fuel poverty in Wales to zero carbon in operation standards. Here again, we can see where the Welsh Government can dovetail its social justice agenda with an environmental one; taking the poorest households in Wales out of fuel poverty, whilst reducing the 8% of Welsh greenhouse gas emissions that come from housing.

The Welsh Government, to its credit, has begun work on this issue through its Warm Homes programme. It has invested £248m into this programme thus far, with its Arbed programme, in particular, contributing to raising the average of energy performance certificate rating in Wales from Band E in 2008 to Band D today.

However, as the Minister responsible recently admitted, more one in five homes in Wales is still in fuel poverty. Clearly, more investment in this area is needed from both a poverty prevention and environmental perspective.

Cancelling the M4 Relief Road, which would rely on outmoded forms of transport and operate as a subsidy for big business, could release funds for housing renovations as part of a Welsh Green New Deal. Tackling fuel poverty and climate change go hand-in-hand.

Benefit

On renewable energy, the IWA’s Re-Energising Wales report – which outlines a partial roadmap towards generating 100% of Wales’ energy from renewables – describes the scale and complexity of the task better than this article could possibly hope to.

But this roadmap has alternative routes. As some Welsh economists have touched on, replacing Wales’ current energy systems with ones owned entirely by and contributing entirely to foreign capital is not a route towards prosperity for Wales.

Mark Drakeford’s own stated preference for an economic strategy that builds on Preston Council’s work on the Foundational Economy gives hope that he will look at Welsh-owned alternatives. A Welsh Government-commissioned report on the economic potential for marine energy in Wales found multitudes of potential benefits.

However, in the rush to develop this technology, the Welsh Government should consider the role of indigenous businesses (as more than just a mandated part of the contracted supply chain), co-operatives, and social enterprises, so that economic benefit is truly felt in Wales rather than just reflected in flawed GVA figures.

These are just a few of many areas in which the Welsh Government has the devolved power, political support, and now financial capability to make a difference.

When he was elected as leader of Welsh Labour, Mark Drakeford said that he wanted to make Wales a beacon of hope in a darkening world. This is a statement true to devolution’s founding principles, and in keeping with Rhodri Morgan’s belief that devolution could allow Wales to be a laboratory for new ideas that the world could follow.

Nowhere is the darkening of the world clearer than in our environment. We know that in his decision on the M4 Relief Road, Mark Drakeford can make Wales the beacon of hope he spoke of – he just has to choose to do so.

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