The Talking Point: Stage set for final laps of Newport M4 bypass race

(Title Image: Welsh Government via BBC Wales)

A public inquiry into the highly-controversial £1billion Newport M4 bypass is still ongoing, but it’s been clear from the start that the Welsh Government are resolute in their determination to plough forward with the project, which would be the single biggest infrastructure investment in Welsh history.

The importance is laid out in the draft budget, where the government made it clear the project was still earmarked to be funded by borrowing, subject to the inquiry’s outcome.

Whether it’s the right investment is another matter. As the route passes through the northern end of the Gwent Levels, environmental concerns go above and beyond those that usually accompany major road projects. There’ve been misgivings over the chosen route, its impact on Newport Docks as well as the lack of attention given to public transport and other alternatives.

One of the few things everyone can agree on is that something needs to be done with the M4 around Newport. In its current state, it falls well below the standards normally set for motorways in the UK to the point of becoming outright dangerous: sharp bends, short slip roads and the infamous narrow two-lane Brynglas tunnels.

For the Welsh Government, these issues make it an open and shut case in favour of the bypass. However, one of their flagship laws could be the element that undoes their plan.

The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015 was drafted to enshrine sustainable development in law, meaning the needs of the planet and future generations have to be considered in decision-making. It’s hard to argue that a six-lane motorway near one of the most environmentally-sensitive parts of the country is in any way “sustainable”.

The law also created £95,000-a-year post of Future Generations Commissioner to uphold the law’s principles.

At the time, the law was hailed as innovative, but even I had my doubts as to whether it’s going to be of any use; the goals were too broad and catch-all and the actual law and conversation around it was so full of sustainability seminar jargon it was hard to see the law as relevant or even enforceable.

The question currently being asked, not just by the Commissioner but indirectly by AMs including Lee Waters AM (Lab, Llanelli) – who has a Short Debate on this subject this afternoon – and Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West), is whether the Future Generations Act could leave the Welsh Government open to a legal challenge if they give the bypass a green light?

Should there be a challenge, it could turn out to be a very powerful test case of the interpretation of Welsh law.

Is it only the government’s place to interpret their own laws?

If a hypothetical legal challenge is successful, would the Future Generations Act go down as the first big mistake of Welsh law-making by restricting the government’s own policy priorities?

If the road goes ahead, are the Welsh Government paying lip service to sustainability, making the Future Generations Act and Commissioner a waste of time?

Ultimately, we elect governments to make big decisions on our behalf and for a Labour government who profess to place sustainable development at the heart of its decision-making – to the point of enshrining it in law – when this decision is made it could be one of the most important since devolution.

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