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07 June 2019

829: M4 relief road refused

Today’s entry reports on the decision on the M4 corridor around Newport project.

It’s not a Development Consent Order project because the thresholds for DCOs are different in Wales (it would have been had it been in England), but I thought it nevertheless interesting to consider the decision on Wednesday to refuse the M4 relief road around Newport in Wales. The application was instead made under the Highways Act 1980 and the Acquisition of Land Act 1981.

The project was for a 23km relief road for the M4 at Newport running to the south of the existing M4.

The decision letter is here and was issued by the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford AM. Just as with a DCO, there is also a lengthy inspectors’ report. Effectively there were two inspectors, Bill Wadrup and Aidan McCooey, who recommended approval, but the First Minister overturned their recommendation.

The Inspectors were persuaded by the need for the project, that consultation was an ‘examplar’, and that the high cost (£1.4 billion) was justified by the benefits that they considered were understated. The main objection was that the new road would run across the Gwent Levels, which contain Sites of Special Scientific Interest. However, the inspectors were satisfied as to mitigation given that Natural Resources Wales said that the proposed mitigation was ‘the best that it could be’. The impact on Newport Docks was subject to further mitigation to reduce it to minor.

So why did the First Minister refuse the application? Mainly because the cabinet of the Welsh Government decided on 29 April 2019 not to fund the scheme. Consequently there was no justification for granting either the highway orders or compulsory purchase orders.

However, the First Minister went on to say he wouldn’t have granted the orders even if the money had been forthcoming. The only reason given is in two sentences in paragraph 6.12, that he gave more weight to the adverse impacts on ecology and heritage than the inspectors did. Make of that what you will. There is much talk of the ‘reen network’, which I thought was a misprint for green but is a dialect word meaning ‘a running waterway that links a ditch to a river’.

DCO contrasts

The application was made by the Welsh Government and decided by the First Minister of that government, in contrast with all DCOs except the early ones made by the Highways Agency. There can clearly be no suggestion of bias given that the application was refused, but it makes it a bit tricky to challenge the decision as the Welsh Government would be challenging itself.

A total of 14 applications for Highways Act and compulsory purchase orders were made between 5 September 2015 and 22 August 2017. That contrasts with the single application that could have been made under the Planning Act 2008 and is reminiscent of the 36 applications that were made for Heathrow Terminal 5, the catalyst for the DCO regime. In this case there were 319 bespoke objections and 5870 campaign-type objections, the largest orchestrated by the RSPB.

There were two pre-inquiry meetings, on 18 July 2016 and 20 March 2017, and public inquiries between 28 February 2017 and 28 March 2018. The Inspectors’ Report was issued on 18 September 2018. That part of the project therefore took just over three years from the first application to the inspectors’ report. It then took over eight months for the decision period, contrasted with the fixed three months for DCO decisions. The whole period, then, took three years and nine months, considerably longer than a DCO would have taken.

Lack of funding sank a DCO too (the White Rose CCS project), so being a DCO wouldn’t have cured the main issue with this project. Nor would the ecological and other impacts outweighing the benefits, although only one DCO has been refused following a positive inspectors’ recommendation – that same CCS project.

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