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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:11 pm on 14th November 2018.

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Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 3:11 pm, 14th 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.