M4 Upgrading: South Wales — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 14 November 2018.

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[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire 2:30, 14 November 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered financial support for the upgrading of the M4 in South Wales.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms McDonagh. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I appreciate that this subject is slightly off-topic for him, but in the absence of a Wales Office Minister or a Treasury Minister, we appreciate his presence. I ask that he feeds thoughts, remarks and insights from the debate to relevant colleagues.

I want to return to a subject that has been discussed many times over the years, in this place and the Welsh Assembly. It is a subject that every Welsh Secretary in the past 30 years and every First Minister of Wales during the devolution era has had to consider at some point. It is probably the largest and most controversial infrastructure project on the table in Wales; it is certainly the longest running. I am talking about the proposed upgrade of the M4 motorway around Newport to tackle severe congestion on a part of our road network that is vital for the whole south Wales transport corridor.

Most recently, the M4 project featured in last month’s Budget statement, when the Chancellor stated that he was willing to consider increasing Welsh Government borrowing powers to support the delivery of a new M4 relief road. That decision should receive scrutiny in the House.

Overall competence for road improvements in Wales lies with the National Assembly in Cardiff, and the decision on whether to go ahead at all with the M4 proposal is for the Welsh Government and Assembly Members alone. However, given the ongoing discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury about the Welsh Government’s financial powers in relation to the scheme, the announcement in the Budget, and the UK Government’s overall responsibility for the health of the UK economy, it is right that our Parliament—especially Members from Wales—has an opportunity to comment on the matter. This is certainly a timely moment to do that.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He rightly mentioned the long history of this matter, but does he agree that, given that tolls are about to be taken away from the Severn bridge, it is imperative that a solution is found on the issue of the Brynglas tunnels?

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point, which I hope to make myself later. He is absolutely right. There is an urgency to this issue that certainly seizes the business community and that we in the House should all be aware of, too.

I am told that we are just weeks away from a binding vote on the scheme in the Senedd, with the Welsh Government due to announce their response to the public inquiry that ran from February last year to March this year. Members of this place have no reason to be neutral on the outcome of that vote. We are not disinterested bystanders. Every single current Labour and Conservative Member of Parliament from Wales stood on a manifesto commitment to fix the M4 problem. My party’s 2015 manifesto stated that a Conservative Government at Westminster

“will continue to work with the Welsh Government to deliver major improvements to the M4”.

Our track record of willingness to work to give new financial powers to Wales demonstrates that we are indeed doing that. My party’s Assembly election manifesto in 2016 contained a pledge to

“start work on an M4 Relief Road within 12 months of forming a government.”

Welsh Labour’s manifesto at that election stated:

“We will deliver a relief road for the M4”,

and its general election manifesto just last year repeated that promise to deliver a

“new relief road for the M4”.

Politicians from both major parties and at both ends of the M4 have campaigned for and made promises about the upgrade project. Furthermore, the UK Government’s responsibility for the Prince of Wales bridge, which connects this section of the M4 to the wider UK motorway network, and our decision to remove the tolls on that bridge next month, which the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, mean it is important for the House to debate this matter.

Just so we are clear, we are not discussing a project of special interest to just one or two constituencies. Indeed, my constituency is about as far from Newport as Newport is from London. Even so, numerous businesses in my constituency rely on being able to get through the M4 bottleneck. It is hard enough for a business to stay competitive when it is on the geographic periphery and faces additional transport costs anyway without congestion problems undermining its position further.

Mansel Davies & Son, which is probably Wales’s most important road haulage firm for the dairy industry and is the largest employer in north Pembrokeshire, runs 40 lorries each way through this section of the M4 every day. Every one of its drivers would be able to describe far better than I can the problems they face negotiating that section of the motorway. Such is the strategic importance of the M4 corridor, which links Wales to the rest of the UK, to Ireland via the ports of Fishguard and Pembroke Dock in west Wales, and, crucially, to the continental mainland, that this should be considered a project of true national significance. I am pleased that we have the opportunity to discuss it today.

The key issue is that this vital section of the M4, which is one of the most heavily used roads in Wales, is not for fit for purpose. It does not meet modern motorway design standards, and the resulting congestion causes unreliable journey times. That has direct economic impacts on south Wales. The M4 between junctions 28 and 24 was originally designed as the Newport bypass, and design amendments in the 1960s included the first motorway tunnels to be built in the UK, which are now known as the Brynglas tunnels.

This section of the M4 has many lane drops and lane gains, resulting in some two-lane sections, and it has an intermittent hard shoulder and frequent junctions. It is often congested, especially during weekday peak periods, resulting in slow, stop-start conditions, with incidents frequently causing delays. It has been like that for many years, and the problems are getting worse.

In the closing remarks to the public inquiry that ended in March this year, the Welsh Government’s QC, on behalf of Welsh Ministers, called the traffic delays a

“pressing problem demanding a solution”.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron used even more graphic terms when he visited a haulage firm in south Wales in November 2013, saying congestion on this section of the M4 acts as a

“foot on the windpipe of the Welsh economy”.

Strong words—but he only echoed the kinds of words that businesses right along the south Wales corridor use about the M4.

The managing director of a major south Wales haulage firm told me recently that this section of the M4 is becoming a “no-go area”. He said:

“From 7.30 to 10 o’clock in the morning, and then from 4 o’clock to 6.30, it’s like a car park.”

He described how it often pays for his heavy goods vehicle drivers to park up at the motorway services for an hour or two to save their stipulated driving hours, so they are not used up crawling along in near-stationary traffic. That is not an efficient way of running a logistics operation. In an economy that increasingly demands just-in-time delivery, a key transport corridor that grinds to a halt twice a day is certainly bad for business.

Ahead of the debate, I received a helpful note from the Freight Transport Association, which backs the need for new investment to fix the M4 problem. It stated:

The Welsh supply chain moves goods by road much more than other modes, and so maintaining targeted roads investment is vital to securing Wales’ economic future.”

It added that

“the M4 in South Wales forms part of the Trans-European Transport Network, which provides connections throughout Europe by road, rail, sea and air. The M4 plays a key strategic role in connecting South Wales with the rest of Europe…It is a key east-west route being the main gateway into South Wales…It is important therefore that development of the M4 around Newport is not viewed as a ‘local’ issue…The strategic importance of the M4 requires that it be viewed in the national context.”

Yet the truth is that this vital route does not have a proper motorway right now. The section we are discussing would not be allowed to be built today, given that it does not meet modern design standards. CBI Wales director Ian Price said business have been “crying out” for a relief road for more than 10 years. He added:

“The M4 is responsible for two-thirds of our national GDP and a relief road is projected to return to the Welsh economy £2 for every £1 invested.”

We could spend all day talking about the different ways in which businesses in Wales are affected by the problems with the M4, and why there is such a strong economic case for investing in a relief road, but I want to flag up one of Wales’s special strengths. We are incredibly good at hosting major national and international events. It is really good for the whole of Wales that the capital city, Cardiff, is increasingly recognised as a fantastic city in which to host events such as the Champions League final, the rugby world cup, Ashes cricket tests and—depending on our taste—Ed Sheeran concerts. I would love to see the Commonwealth games come to Wales, too. We also want more of those events to spread along the south Wales corridor and involve Newport, Swansea and places further west.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the new convention centre. We have all seen it being built while driving along the M4, and we have been encouraged by how it has come on. It is a major new asset for business in south Wales, but if it is to achieve its potential, we need that traffic to flow much better.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee, Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that when that wonderful new convention centre opens, one of its clients might be the Conservative party? It could host one of its next conferences there. Would he welcome that? Perhaps we could invite Jessica Morden along as well.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

Nothing would please me more than seeing Jessica Morden formally open a Conservative party conference in south Wales. I have no particular influence over where Conservative party events are held, but the Minister is listening with wide open ears, and I am sure he will feed those views through to the party chairman.

When it comes to major events, however, everyone knows that our Achilles heel is our transport problems. Of course we welcome the UK Government’s decision to scrap the tolls on the Prince of Wales bridge, which is estimated to save regular commuters up to £1,400 a year. We want that to attract new investment, jobs and tourism to Wales. The Welsh Government’s report suggests that our action on that will boost the Welsh economy by £100 million. However, as Nick Thomas-Symonds said, modelling predicts an increase of up to 20% in traffic as a result of the tolls being removed. The congestion issues around the Prince of Wales bridge and Newport are already severe, and the increased traffic will create further problems, without there being additional infrastructure in place. As the Freight Transport Association says,

“This places greater emphasis on ensuring that the M4 upgrade is fit for purpose.”

The UK Government have shown that they are committed to boosting the Welsh economy, helping commuters and businesses, and increasing investment. We need the Welsh Government and the Assembly to step up and deliver the M4 upgrade.

As many hon. Members will be aware, a solution has been on the table for more than 20 years. In March 1989, the then Secretary of State for Wales commissioned the south Wales area traffic survey of possible solutions. The subsequent 1990 report identified the need for substantial improvement to the M4. As a consequence, a proposal for a relief road around Newport, a new dual three-lane motorway to the south of Newport, which was later known as the new M4 project, was included in the Welsh trunk road forward programme in 1991. An M4 relief road preferred route was published in 1995 and amended in 1997.

There were further iterations of the relief road plan over the years once responsibility for the road was devolved to the Welsh Assembly, but essentially the plan has followed the original work done in the mid and late ’90s. A draft Welsh Government plan was published in September 2013 and was the subject of public consultation from September to December that year.

Five years on, we are still waiting for a decision by the Welsh Government. That brings us to the question of financial powers and the limits on Welsh Government capital borrowing, which was referenced in the Budget. I am aware of the argument that occurred immediately after the Budget between Welsh Ministers and UK Ministers about whether an extension of borrowing powers should be linked to the delivery of the M4 relief road. I have no interest in getting involved in that, other than to note that the use of the M4 upgrade as a justification for securing new powers from Westminster has been a long-running feature of the devolution debate.

Indeed, upgrading the M4 may have been used as an argument in the original referendum campaign for why an Assembly was needed in the first place. It was certainly used as an argument in the debate in 2013 about full law-making and financial powers that led to the Silk Commission, in which the First Minister said:

“We literally could not do things. We could not improve the M4 without borrowing powers—it will not happen.”

The 2013 deal between the Welsh Government and the UK Government was to give the Welsh Government early access to those original borrowing powers precisely so that the M4 project could get going.

The project is now being used as an argument for securing even more borrowing powers. I can understand the need to extend the capital borrowing limits, given that the projected costs of the M4 upgrade are now higher, but part of me is starting to question whether some are using the project as a fig leaf to enable agreement on more powers and debt for the Welsh Government, without there being any serious intention of getting the M4 fixed. Given the passage of time, I can understand the considerable scepticism in some circles about the project. I hear the phrase, “It will never be built”, quite a lot around Cardiff.

Photo of Guto Bebb Guto Bebb Conservative, Aberconwy

My right hon. Friend is making an important speech about the importance of the M4 to the south Wales economy, and his point about the Welsh Government is well taken. Is the A55 in north Wales not also an example of an issue on which promises have been made consistently? It has been promised for years that two roundabouts in my constituency, which are on a recognised European expressway, will be dealt with, but we are still waiting. Are the same excuses not being used in north Wales as in south Wales?

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

I agree with my hon. Friend. The A55 project is overdue, as is the M4 project, and I will go on to make the same point about the dualling of the A40 in my constituency. There is a shopping list of projects that need to happen for the Welsh economy’s benefit.

I recognise that big infrastructure projects are challenging, costly and controversial, that they require difficult trade-offs with other priorities, and that important environmental and conservation issues have to be taken into account, but they are still essential for improving the productivity and economic wellbeing of our nation. Two things are vital for any nation that wants to throw off the shackles of poverty: investment in skills and investment in high-quality infrastructure to boost economic performance.

I am fed up of seeing Wales languishing towards the bottom of all UK economic league tables, and of the fact that parts of Wales are known for being poorer today than parts of the former Communist bloc. That does not have to be our future, but changing it requires making choices and taking action. Spraying grants around to attract trophy projects to Wales, or to prop up certain companies that enjoy particularly good insider relations with the Welsh Government, does not amount to an economic strategy, and is no substitute for choosing to take difficult decisions about investing in long-term infrastructure assets.

As we all know, the truth is that the M4 relief road should have been built by now and we should not be here today talking about this. It is almost 30 years since the late Peter Walker, then Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, commissioned that original south Wales area traffic survey to look at solutions for the M4. It is a full quarter of a century since a public consultation was launched on possible solutions. It is 23 years since another Secretary of State for Wales, William Hague, announced his preferred route. It is five years since former Prime Minister David Cameron and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg went to Cardiff to announce new financial powers for the Welsh Government to enable the M4 upgrade to happen. Everyone knows that it should have been done by now, and that we should look at other key projects, such as the A55 upgrade, mentioned a few moments ago, and the dualling of the A40 between St Clears and Fishguard. Those are important infrastructure projects too, but they are stuck in the queue because of the lack of progress on the M4.

When I was an Under-Secretary of State at the Wales Office—I think it was in 2013—I was asked about the M4 upgrade. William Hague, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, was sat next to me on the Front Bench. After I had taken the question, he leant across to me and said, “Are we still talking about that? It was an issue when I was Secretary of State.” It would be a huge shame if in 20 years, when Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, is retired and in the House of Lords, a question was asked about the relief road around Newport, and Lord Jones of Bridgend leant across to whoever he was sat next to and said, “Are we still talking about that? I thought it had been dealt with during my time as First Minister.” It would be such a shame if nothing was done and people were still talking about the need for an urgent solution in 20 years.

My friendly message to colleagues of all parties in the Assembly is that we recognise that this is their decision to take, but I urge them to be bold and make a decision that is right for future generations, so we are not still talking about this decades from now. If we are not going to get the relief road built, and if the outcome of the current process is that the collective decision of the Welsh Government and Assembly Members of all parties is that it is too difficult and too controversial, and that they are going to kick the decision even further down the road, they need to be honest about that and about the consequences of that decision. Someone will probably have to walk up to the Prince of Wales bridge and plant a sign that says, “Wales is closed to future new business for the time being.”

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Opposition Whip (Commons), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee) 2:50, 14 November 2018

I apologise for needing to leave early, but I have to be in a Committee at 3.30 pm. I am really sorry that I will not be here for the winding-up speeches. Other hon. Members from Wales are upstairs in a Delegated Legislation Committee at the moment, and I am sure they will come down when that is finished. Thank you for letting me contribute, Ms McDonagh.

I commend Stephen Crabb for securing this debate, not least because the issue is devolved to the Welsh Assembly, and therefore no hon. Member in this Chamber will have a vote on or a direct say over it. If we respect devolution—and I do—we must respect the fact that the Assembly and the Welsh Government will make the decision on relieving congestion on the M4. Although the UK Government grant borrowing powers, that borrowing will ultimately need to be repaid by taxpayers.

I have a close constituency interest in this issue. The right hon. Gentleman rightly spoke up for businesses in Preseli and for wider Welsh interests—it is clear that the whole of south Wales has an interest in this issue, and the solutions found in Cardiff to the well-documented and horrendous traffic issues will directly affect Newport and Severnside.

As all hon. Members will agree, the M4 around Newport is a route of strategic importance and critical to the Welsh economy, but it is also an absolute nightmare for many of my constituents and businesses to navigate. If there are serious incidents—and there are, frequently—they bring our part of south Wales to a halt, causing misery for people trying to get to and from work, and resulting in a big cost to business. I have constituents, family members and friends, as well as colleagues working in my office, who commute, so I understand the cost all too well.

The M4 motorway between Magor and Castleton does not meet modern motorway design standards, yet it carries a greater volume of traffic than it was designed for. Some sections of the motorway—particularly the Brynglas tunnels and junction 29 Castleton—regularly approach near-peak capacity. That does not just cost time and money, but has a big impact on air quality.

These long-standing, continuing problems need a solution that delivers an integrated and sustainable transport system in the long term. We have been discussing solutions for 30 years. The most recent public inquiry was held up because the Department for Transport changed the way it calculated traffic forecasts. We have had a public inquiry, and we are now waiting for Government officials to finish analysing the report. Everyone has had the chance to have their say about whether this project, alongside the south Wales metro, is a long-term sustainable solution. Bodies such as the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the South Wales chamber of commerce, the haulage industry and many more have made their views clear.

My constituents, businesses and campaign groups have also set out their positions. CALM—the Campaign Against the Levels Motorway—has argued against the M4 proposals on the grounds of cost, damage to the unique environment and climate change. For businesses such as Roadchef, which runs outlets at services, the problem is that there will be no westbound access if the black route goes ahead, which means no services for nearly 50 miles. Groups such as the Gwent Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which have reserves in my constituency, describe the proposal as massively damaging for the unique wildlife and landscape. They say it is totally unsuitable and uneconomical, and that the route will destroy an irreplaceable and precious area of the Gwent levels forever.

The option outlined in the Welsh Government’s proposal is not easy and is costly. It will affect communities such as Magor, which have been blighted for many years, and run across sites of special scientific interest, but I recognise that alternative routes would bring even more traffic close to communities in the city of Newport.

The public inquiry has gathered all that evidence, and the inspector’s report is with Ministers. The Welsh Government have committed that the report will be open to scrutiny, debate and a vote by AMs before the final decision is made. It will then be up to those elected to the Welsh Assembly to make the decision. I do not envy them that, but that is the process. If the decision turns out to be no, alongside the no there will need to be a comprehensive plan, as demand for private and public transport is set to increase by at least 150% by 2030. We need something like the metro, but more of it and quickly. The south-east Wales metro can certainly help the process by providing the basis for modern, forward-looking and integrated public transport infrastructure for Gwent.

In my constituency, there has been a 103% increase in demand at the Severn Tunnel Junction railway station in the past decade. Services are overcrowded and unreliable, and commuters are frequently not able to board trains to work. Ministers can support the economy of south Wales and help my constituents get to work by addressing the issues they are actually responsible for and sorting out rail capacity on cross-border services. This issue is devolved, but cross-border services are in the Government’s hands.

On the question of addressing growing demand for public and private transport in south Wales, my Newport East colleague in the Assembly, John Griffiths, has spoken of the need for better traffic management to accompany new, better public transport. My other Newport Labour colleague, Jayne Bryant, AM for Newport West, rightly said that inaction is not an option and that doing nothing would be hugely costly for residents, businesses and commuters. They are both right.

People who regularly use the M4, and people who do not, want politicians to make an informed decision with all the facts at their disposal. I do not envy Assembly Members that decision, but I know they will make it with integrity after careful consideration.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee, Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee 2:56, 14 November 2018

I commend my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb and Jessica Morden for the way they put their points across.

No less a figure than the late Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister of Wales, described the M4 as the great infrastructure project in Wales of the 20th century. He recognised that the M4 is not just a matter of local convenience for people living in and around Newport; it also has a huge impact on the whole Welsh economy. Those of us from the Newport area know what it has done for that area. We have seen the development of Severnside, and my right hon. Friend mentioned the major sporting and musical events that now take place in Cardiff. I very much hope that the convention centre will host the Conservative conference sometime soon—I am told that it is the largest conference, and the one that generates the most income locally, so I am sure the whole of Newport would welcome it. We want to see that happen. We have also seen the development of the haulage and warehousing industry along the M4, particularly in the Severnside area.

The M4 has wider implications as it is one of the European Union’s critical routes. Although it is not labelled as such, it is part of the E30, which stretches all the way from Cork to Omsk, so even the European Union recognises its importance. As a great fan of the European states—it is important that we trade with all of them—I very much hope that, if they are going to tie us up in red tape, they insist that we maintain that critical piece of infrastructure.

We all know that there are many problems with the M4—other hon. Members have highlighted them—and this is not just about the Brynglas tunnels area. There are massive and unnecessary delays westbound, towards the Coldra roundabout—unfortunately, right where the convention centre is—and eastbound, coming out of Cardiff towards Tredegar Park, which has an impact on residents of Cardiff.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate. I was in a Delegated Legislation Committee. The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. Clearly, the road infrastructure around the east of Cardiff has a huge impact on my constituents. I consider myself an environmentalist. I want more investment in rail, cycling and pedestrian opportunities, but we have to recognise that there is an environmental consequence to all that traffic queuing into the east—particularly around Rover Way, Splott, Tremorfa and those eastern links. Does he agree that that can have a serious impact on air quality?

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee, Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee

Absolutely, I do agree. I am also an environmentalist who recognises that to protect the environment we have to generate the funds, and to generate funds we have to have a thriving economy. That is why, generally speaking, the western European and wealthier nations have a better environmental record than some of the poorer nations in the rest of Europe. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point.

I am concerned not just about the increase in traffic that we will see as a result of the Conservative Government’s welcome decision to end the tolls on the Severn bridge—we will see the benefits of that only if this road is upgraded—but about the possibility of a major problem happening in the Brynglas tunnels, which would effectively shut the M4 and close off one of Wales’ major pieces of infrastructure. We need to have that alternative because the day will come when major work will have to be carried out in the Brynglas tunnels, and if there is no M4 relief road there when that happens the result could be absolutely devastating for the whole economy.

I very much hope that the Government in Wales get on with this. They have been given the powers and the money to do it. If they decide to go ahead I hope they will learn a few lessons from what has been going on slightly to the north where we have seen, I am afraid to say, a practice of Ministers turning up to be photographed in hard hats and high-vis vests for the dualling of the heads of the valleys road—a very welcome project—but not wanting to meet with residents who have been negatively affected by the work that has taken place.

Obviously, whenever a major piece of road infrastructure is built there will be inconveniences for local residents. It is important that those are recognised and dealt with by the responsible Ministers. I think we have agreed, on all sides, that there is a real problem here and there is a solution on the table. The only solution, I believe, is the black route. We have had experts poring over all the alternatives and we have had various people coming up with all sorts of schemes, involving trams and Lord knows what, but the reality is that there is only one scheme that will do it.

My understanding is that there are three candidates waiting to take over from the First Minister. Of those three, only one has given a 100% commitment to building this route. I hope that the Minister will do everything possible to ensure that the Welsh Government have all the power and money they need to build that road, and encourage them to do so as quickly as possible, given the welcome decision his Department has made about the tolls.

I urge my friends opposite, if I may call them that, to do whatever they can to influence the result of their own election and make sure that the candidate who wins is the one who is going to build this road. I am absolutely convinced that after the next Welsh Assembly election we are going to end Labour party rule in Wales. We are going to get rid of one-party rule and we are going to have a Conservative First Minister, but the M4 relief road cannot wait for that. Since we are going to end up with a Labour First Minister, we might as well have one who is going to take one very useful decision.

Photo of Guto Bebb Guto Bebb Conservative, Aberconwy

I express my support as a north Wales MP. Quite often in Wales, we have the argument that all the funding goes down south, but the view in north Wales is that we will not see major updates to the A55 until this project is off the ground. The view in north Wales is that if we are going to have the improvements to the A55 that we need, we need to see the decision taken on the M4 relief road sooner rather than later.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee, Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee

I thank my hon. Friend and simply add that road building is absolutely vital to the economy. I will certainly be supporting the A55.

Photo of Chris Davies Chris Davies Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

I thank my hon. Friend for giving a superb speech, as always. It would be a pity if mid-Wales were left out, if north Wales is being mentioned. One might wonder why an MP for mid-Wales is keen to see the M4 relief road happen. Last week, a haulier from mid-Wales described to me how, because of the Brynglas tunnels, most of his drivers now have to go up to Abergavenny, across to Merthyr Tydfil and down to Carmarthen, before going back on to the main road to get to west Wales. That is putting extra burden on other parts of Wales. This relief road is long overdue and I hope we will see it come forward very shortly.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee, Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee

A good speech usually requires a good peroration and two of them have now been blown out of the water. I very much hope those drivers are using HGV sat navs, not ones designed for cars, so they are not responsible for driving straight through the centre of Abergavenny, which is causing a separate pollution problem.

What can I say? I have said it all. That road needs building as soon as possible and I very much hope that heads will be put together in all parts of the House—and on both sides of the River Severn—to sort this out as quickly as possible.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:04, 14 November 2018

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate Stephen Crabb on opening today’s debate and enabling a strong debate on the urgent need for transport investment in south Wales.

The right hon. Gentleman represents a beautiful peninsula in south Wales and a vital transport corridor, which I have no doubt will be in more demand following the UK’s leaving the EU; but without the right infrastructure in place, it could result in a massive impact on his constituency and throughout the south Wales corridor. This level of detail has been ill-conceived by the Government. As 29 March next year is rapidly approaching, I urge the Minister to ensure that the risk analysis for all parts of his portfolio, including the impact in south Wales, is clearly attended to.

My fear is that the Prime Minister's plans will not contain anywhere near the level of detail needed, whenever we get to see them—maybe later today. I have also heard a real call for better connectivity to the whole of south Wales, and rightly so, not least from my hon. Friend Jessica Morden. We know that the Welsh economy has been seriously challenged by poor connectivity, and that recent decisions made in Westminster—not in the Senedd—have had the worst impact, not least on rail.

We will never forget how in 2017, the day after Parliament rose for the summer recess, the Secretary of State snuck out the announcement that he would cancel the rail electrification project in south Wales. That would have been a game changer to all communities in the region and would have enabled faster, cleaner and more efficient rail services to the valleys and conurbations. However, in writing off south Wales he has singly made the most detrimental decision to stem the potential of the Welsh economy and sustain a transportation challenge in the region.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

My hon. Friend makes the point about the cancellation of electrification beyond Cardiff. Does she share my concern about the delays that there have been to the electrification as far as Cardiff? We have seen that put off again and again, with delay after delay. People are enduring really poor service on the Great Western main line, which has a huge impact on transport infrastructure.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport)

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. I feel great pain as he speaks about the delays in improving the railway network. The situation is unsustainable. We should be investing in high-quality digital rail, which would build far more capacity across the network, as well as upgrading rail networks through electrification projects. That is why I believe that people in Wales will focus on this issue at the ballot box at the next election.

I want to put it on record today that Labour, in government, in Westminster, is fully committed to expansion of electrification and digital rail projects in south Wales. We believe in optimising every economic opportunity for the population of Wales. Further, our renationalisation programme for rail will be a serious game changer for all rail operations across Wales, including those in the M4 corridor, both in Wales and leading into England. That connectivity will move forward the economy in that part of the country.

I now turn to the wider transport brief. It was so important for me to start my contribution with a focus on rail because connectivity is not about segregated transport systems, with rail in one silo and roads in another, as the Government place them; it is about a joined-up approach to ensure that business, commuter and leisure passenger movements can be made with maximum ease and minimum expense. Labour has clearly set out how we will put a real emphasis on bringing about modal shift, helping to decongest our roads and create greater reliability. The sheer misery—which we have borne witness to in today’s debate—of those using the strategic road network in Wales has been palpable. It will be important, therefore, for the Minister to tell us how he will provide short-term relief for that, as well as long-term solutions.

In an age when climate change is having a devastating impact on our planet, and when cars are logjammed on our roads, as highlighted by my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty, the current situation is polluting our atmosphere today and causing major air quality problems to residents along the M4 corridor. We know that that hits the most deprived communities the worst. We need an urgent resolve to get quick relief.

The current proposal for a 14-mile stretch of road around the south of Newport is expected to cost around £1.4 billion. Since 2016, the proposal, which has been on and off the table for the best part of 30 years, has been the subject of consultation, with the final decision to be made in the coming months. The pubic consultation closed this spring. The so-called black route has been the preferred route and the Welsh Government have stated that it is vital that the route resolves issues of capacity, safety and resilience along the M4 corridor in south-east Wales. As with any road project, clearly strong arguments will be made on all sides—and I have read them—both on the economic and transportation challenges and on the environmental case.

Some £50 million has already been offered to offset the carbon cost of the project. There is recognition that the project will have a serious environmental impact, as we have heard today. We would be disingenuous, therefore, if we did not all recognise that it is a difficult decision. On the one hand, we have pollution as a result of congestion, delays as a result of queues, and 100,000 vehicles using the route every single day. There is an urgent need for better transportation—better connectivity between sea, rail and active travel—and there is an opportunity to be grasped. For every £1 spent we will see £2 returned to the economy. Perhaps the greatest prize will be the 300 accidents that the project prevents. We cannot wait until 2023 to see that number fall dramatically.

On the other hand, there is serious environmental concern. We are familiar with the evidence highlighting the impact of induced capacity, which draws vehicles on to major routes, causing them to become a source of major pollution and future congestion. The Welsh Labour Government have done more than any other to impact-assess their policies against that, through the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. The figure that perhaps we should all focus on, here in Westminster and in the Senedd in Wales, is that the project is cited as becoming carbon-neutral by 2072. With nations that face catastrophic flood and drought, every decision we take must also seek to enhance our climate and focus on the humanitarian consequences. I know that such concern will be at the forefront of the Welsh Government’s thoughts as they conclude their deliberations.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 3:11, 14 November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb on securing this debate on financial support for upgrading the M4 in south Wales. Given today’s news, I think everyone in this Chamber shares my view that we should salute the integrity and quality of the Clerk of the House of Commons, but we should no less salute my right hon. Friend’s ingenuity in managing to get this debate past the Clerks and into the Westminster Hall Chamber so that we can discuss it.

As my right hon. Friend will know, upgrading the M4 around Newport is the responsibility of the Welsh Government, so I am sure that he and other colleagues around the Chamber will understand my extreme care and circumspection in addressing this issue. It has to be said, and he has said, that upgrading the M4 has been identified by businesses and commuters as a priority for many years. Business organisations have made clear that uncertainty around the project is affecting business across south Wales and, as my hon. Friend Chris Davies mentioned, mid-Wales.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire was instrumental, when he was Secretary of State for Wales, in steering the Wales Act 2014 through this House, providing the Welsh Government with capital borrowing powers to help to deliver improvements to Wales’s infrastructure and the M4 in particular, given their potential to boost economic growth and ease congestion. The Welsh Government have requested an extension to their borrowing powers to fund the M4 improvements, and I am sure hon. Members across the Chamber—we have been a little unclear in some respects about the degree of support from Opposition Members; perhaps they would like to clarify that—will therefore welcome the Chancellor’s announcement at Budget that there will be a review of the Welsh Government’s capital borrowing powers to support the delivery of a proposed relief road.

The review will consider whether the borrowing cap should be increased by up to £300 million to support this vital project. The UK Government have thus provided the Welsh Government with the levers that they have told us they need to deliver a new motorway. If the Welsh Government wish to deliver that motorway, now is the time for them to do so.

At Budget, the Chancellor also announced that from 2020 to 2025, £28.8 billion will be invested in England’s road infrastructure via the national roads fund, of which £25.3 billion will be spent via the second road investment strategy, RIS2, the rest being invested into large local major road schemes and the newly conceived major road network. This represents a pivotal moment for the future of roads in England, allowing the UK Government to continue to develop a long-term vision for those roads. Part of that vision, of course, must be working with the Welsh Government to identify where our priorities meet, join and can best be collectively exploited. The border between Wales and England, as I know full well from my constituency, is crossed by a number of important road links, and both Governments will feel the need to ensure that their investment decisions in this area take account of the needs of road users on both sides of the border.

I will also discuss the abolition of the Severn tolls from 17 December. The Severn bridge and the Prince of Wales bridge are vital pieces of cross-border infrastructure, which Highways England manages for the benefit of both nations. More than 80,000 vehicles cross the bridges every day. The end of tolling on these bridges will support motorists, local residents and cross-border business across Wales and the west of England. I think I am right in saying that the Welsh Government supported that decision, and I welcome their support.

The decision will help to transform the economy in the region, putting over £1,400 a year back into the pockets of families and delivering a boost to the economies of south Wales and south-west England. It will also alleviate congestion on the bridges. Road users will no longer have to stop to pay the tolls, which can cause queues during busy periods.

However, I do recognise that there are concerns that the removal of tolls will cause an increase in traffic at the crossings and on other roads in the area, as more people will be able to afford to cross the border in both directions to seek job and trade opportunities. I want to reassure right hon. and hon. Members that our analysis shows that the bridges have sufficient capacity to cope with the traffic growth forecast, but if there is a knock-on effect on the M4 at Newport, it can only strengthen the case for a relief road, especially since the Welsh Government have supported the decision to end the tolling. We will also continue to work with the Welsh Government to manage the impact of the abolition of the tolls on the road networks on both sides of the border.

Technical analysis by Highways England, working with other highways authorities and local business organisations, suggests that the initial impact on traffic conditions away from the crossing will be limited. There are a number of congestion hotspots near the crossing, and to some extent the problem there may be exacerbated. As part of the autumn 2016 statement, an additional £220 million to tackle pinch points on the network was announced, of which the south-west has been allocated £32.1 million for this roads period, from 2015 to 2020, but the Government are also looking at the investment needs of the south-west as part of RIS2.

Picking up on some of the themes mentioned today, I must say that there is a need for clarification: if it is true that people in political parties either side of the border wish to support this relief road, then now is the moment for them to make that position public and clear, without equivocation, bearing in mind all the other considerations that have been mentioned in the debate. On the basis of the discussion we have had, I look forward to the Welsh Government’s forthcoming debate on improving the M4, and to hearing how they will deliver the improvements that the people and businesses of Wales seek.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire 3:17, 14 November 2018

I do not intend to take the full 43 minutes remaining in this debate to sum up. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated. I offer my thanks and appreciation again to the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister for their interest in this debate. I particularly thank the Minister for the pragmatic and co-operative approach that I know he takes in his dealings with the Welsh Government, and recognise the way that the wider Department works with the Welsh Government.

This has been a useful debate. We have recognised that the key decision on whether to go ahead with the M4 upgrade is for Welsh Assembly Members and the Welsh Government alone, but we also recognise the key role that the UK Government play in terms of the request for further financial borrowing powers, a decision on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the UK Government will have to take.

In response to the point made by the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson about electrification, I have commented on that issue in another place. On the question of public transport, the truth is that we need the M4 upgrade and better public transport across south Wales; it is not an either/or. The people and businesses in Newport need public transport alternatives, but that strategic transport corridor, which, as my hon. Friend David T. C. Davies said, links the west coast of Ireland with eastern Europe, deserves a decent motorway that meets modern standards. It does not have that at the moment, and that is creating problems for the Welsh economy.

We are at a moment that requires a difficult and challenging decision from the Welsh Government, but my hope is that they will make the right decision in the interest of future generations of Welsh people.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered financial support for the upgrading of the M4 in South Wales.

Sitting suspended.