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Opinion

Why we need a long term plan for Wales’ national infrastructure

16 May 2022 5 minutes Read
Transport for Wales DMU at Milford Haven. Picture by Adam Forsyth (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Gwern Gwynfil Evans

The recent announcement that the Senedd will, at last, be expanding was very welcome. The Senedd has long been in need of expansion to provide better and more comprehensive scrutiny of decision making if nothing else.

But this also feels like another sign that Wales is continuing to reassert its nationhood. A process that has been gathering momentum politically and culturally over the past decades.

Not so economically. There has been much written, of course, about the foundational economy, circular economies, the need for private sector investment and growth to create a vibrant Welsh economy. Even some progress in reducing the role of the public sector as the central pillar of the Welsh economy.

But the reality remains that the south of Wales is tied to the West of England and the Southeast of England, across the M4 to London, whilst the north of Wales is similarly tied to the English North and Midlands.

While this remains the case any attempt to carve out any kind of distinct national economy over which we can assert some control will struggle. The sparsely populated ‘green desert’ of central Wales creates a very physical barrier to a broader-based interconnected Welsh economy, foundational or otherwise.

It is worth rehearsing the logistical challenge:

By road from Cardiff, London is as close as Aberystwyth (and a far easier drive even though the distance is half as much again), Wrexham will only take a little longer to get to from Cardiff but you will have to drive most of the way on the English side of the border, especially if you want a smooth journey. Cardiff to Bangor will take almost twice as long as the drive to London and it is tortuous. By rail or bus journey time comparisons are even less favourable.

Everyone in Wales knows this well enough and we have simply come to accept it. Here lies the challenge. We can not have a strong foundational Welsh economy until Wales has a reasonably effective national infrastructure. The new clarity of our political identity is wonderful to see, the growing awareness and appreciation of the very distinct cultural identity we have always had is long overdue. But until we can properly connect our centres of population with a national infrastructure we will always be economically disjointed.

Cohesion

Like all of the straightest, fastest roads in Wales our railways reach into the country like fingers from an English hand – the North/South connection very visibly missing.

Changing this will require huge investment in road and rail. From the point at which the A470 leaves the Beacons there are no obvious arteries through which to reach the rest of Wales easily and quickly. The terrain is challenging certainly but fast, straight roads are achievable, and railways can be built.

Environmental concerns are rightly being given huge prominence in Wales. New roads do lead to more traffic, building infrastructure has environmental costs, but an interconnected Welsh economy needs that traffic to exist, grow and thrive. The current emptiness of the ‘green desert’ will become less empty simply by being part of a main thoroughfare. Ease of access will increase its appeal as both a leisure and business destination. Movement within Wales, rather than outward into England, will increase significantly.

No doubt leisure travel from England into the currently harder to reach (but beautiful) parts of Wales will also increase, and will not be welcomed by all, but for Wales’ long term cohesion as a political, cultural and economic entity that is something we should be prepared to accept and welcome.

Above all, as our broader sense of nationhood continues to grow and unify the people of Wales, across many of the traditionally perceived linguistic and regional barriers, we will need economic cohesion to match our political and cultural re-emergence.

A Heart of Wales Line train (pic by Stephen Miles)

Precedent

Making up more than 30% of Wales by area with less than 10% of its population, the central massif and coastline of Wales is relatively easy to sideline and ignore politically. Economically Wales does so at its peril – its geography creates a fundamental weakness in the foundation and development of a strong Welsh polity.

It does not matter that plans to create the infrastructure needed may take 50 years or more to implement, what matters is that strategically this becomes a clearly stated goal with broadly based long term political support – the plan and the intent must exist before there can be any hope of fulfilment.

There is precedent for Wales in long term planning, culturally in the target of one million Welsh speakers, initially a goal without a policy framework, over time this has seeped into policymaking and become an increasingly prominent guiding principle across the board.

More broadly, the innovative Wellbeing of Future Generations Act has also shown that Wales can and will take the long term view.

That long term view must also now be applied to our transport network. We need to ask, not just what kind of transport network Wales’ population needs today, but how can we build a transport network that creates the kind of Wales we want to see decades from now.


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David Clubb
1 month ago

I’m a big fan of infrastructure, but not of additional roads unless the need is overwhelming, and unless climate and nature are net beneficiaries of that new infrastructure.

More road infrastructure doesn’t help the quarter of Welsh households with no car access, and (under current tax policy) acts as a subsidy to the people who drive the most.

Very much in favour of improved active travel, bus and train provision though.

Arwyn
Arwyn
1 month ago

Couldn’t have put it better myself. Da iawn 👏

Peter Cuthbert
Peter Cuthbert
1 month ago

There are good long standing plans for an eastern N-S rail link from Rhyl and a similar N-S link from Bangor. Both those sets of plans utilise previous but now closed railway formations so that wholly new sections are small. The opportunity is also there to use electric light rail rather then the full heavy weight mainline standard. That would be less expensive to implement but trains would be no slower and light rail can also carry freight. Sadly what is missing is the share of UK infrastructure funding that Wales should be getting (like Scotland) and the support of… Read more »

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
1 month ago

Wales will never have true interconnectivity within Wales if left to Westminster & Whitehall. We must do it ourselves. Westminster in his history post- industrial revolution have never shown any intention of creating on a similar scale rail or road projects connecting North & South Wales as done in England. In the past both Tory & Labour Governments have lamely cited cost and how Wales is too hilly their reason whilst pumping billions into England. And how Welsh geographical regions in the NE & SE should linkup with the English NW & SW in a political act of pressing our… Read more »

Popsie
1 month ago

About the Welsh language, then.

Thomas Picton
Thomas Picton
1 month ago

After more than twenty years of devolution, the Welsh Government has managed nothing more than to produce a list of railway stations that might get funding to reopen. Wales is undoubtedly in need of improved North-South links (rail and road), but you have to question the competence of Welsh Labour to deliver anything more than reopening of a few stations closed by Harold Wilson.

George Bodley
George Bodley
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas Picton

Tories won’t do it it’s about Westminster funding Westminster has denied Wales infrastructure funding to a reasonable level Scotland gets mor we funding than Wales were not equal partners in in this do called union

Johnny Gamble
Johnny Gamble
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas Picton

Railway Infrastructure is not Devolved.Welsh Railway’s make up 6% of The UK rail network but only receive 1% in total funding from Wasteminster.

Paul
Paul
1 month ago
Reply to  Johnny Gamble

6% of the network but what percentage of the passengers? Passengers v funding will be a lot closer.

This is a genuine question btw, it’s unfair for example to consider Wales as a single entity in this way when a large chunk of the Welsh network (by track millage/km) is the single track Heart of Wales line and the line up the West coast to Pwllheli.

George Bodley
George Bodley
1 month ago

We don’t need more private enterprise what comes with it is poverty wages poor working conditions nor do we need more holiday homes or leisure parks so Wales becomes a playground for the wealthy we have enough English immigrants buying up properties thanks we need more affordable housing mixed with municipal housing for our young people to remain within wales

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