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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 14th November 2018.

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

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.