The symbolism of the M4 in Wales

by David Clubb | June 5, 2019

The M4 decision

With one tweet, the First Minister Mark Drakeford raised Wales’ aspirations, values, and environmental credentials. The decision was publicly opposed by a range of trade bodies and representatives of political parties, including some from the First Minister’s own party.

The symbolism of this decision is hard to overstate. A project of Carwyn Jones, who would surely have pushed it through despite his own government’s Future Generations Act, this proposal is now where it rightly belongs – on the scrapheap of 20th Century ‘solutions’.

In making his decision, Mark Drakeford stated that the financial position of Welsh Government would not permit him to make the compulsory purchase orders necessary to proceed with the project. However, he also said that he disagreed with the Inspector, and that the environmental considerations were also too great to allow the project to go ahead. 

The latter part of Prof. Drakeford’s reasoning will have given heart to the many thousands of environmental campaigners who have made this a cause célèbre for the wider environmental movement. 

Most interesting for Afallen though was the statement that the First Minister did not think that the Future Generations Act had been insufficiently regarded in the process. 

“The Member has asked me about the well-being of future generations legislation. I want to make it clear, Llywydd, that I read very carefully the evidence that was given by the commissioner, and I read very carefully the way in which the QC, on behalf of the Welsh Government, responded to her interpretation of the Act. My own view is that it was not a reading of the Act that I heard expressed on the floor of this Assembly that proposals for development have to satisfy all seven goals and all well-being objectives, and that they have to do so equally across all the goals and the objectives. It does seem to me inevitable that, in any plan for development, there will be some balancing between the different goals and the objectives that the Act introduces. I did not dissent from the view of the inspector, therefore, that the requirements of the Act had been fairly represented by the Welsh Government in the way that it presented its evidence on the Act to the inspector.”

The wider symbolism

As important – and welcome – as this decision was, there is almost as much value in the symbolism it provides for Wales’ aspirations and its environmental (and fiscal!) credentials. Many campaigners had made the point that were the decision made to press ahead with the project, the Future Generations Act would have been shown to be worthless.

We do not reach that assessment – although it would surely have been a hammer-blow to the Act and to the credibility of the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner which has robustly opposed the project, including several detailed counter-assessments of its efficacy and proposals. However it’s hard to square the spend of billions of pounds on several miles of tarmac, with the needs of Wales’ citizens as yet unborn. In the public discussion following the decision, it is the future generations – the unborn – who have figured least on the part of supporters of the project.

We consider that the First Minister was right to make the decision that he did, and to base it on financial and environmental grounds. But we side with the office for Future Generations, and do not consider that all aspects of the WFG Act had been appropriately considered. 

This decision has highlighted the divide that exists in the public debate about Wales’ future direction. If the battle of today in the UK is about #Brexit, in Wales it is as much about how our economy, environment and culture develops. The battle of ideas – and money – has been waged over the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, electrification of the main railway line to Swansea, and the naming of a bridge. The latest decision would appear to suggest that the struggle is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

To date, it seemed that Wales, in common with standard economic orthodoxy, across the UK and in many other countries, was not sufficiently considering the responsibilities we owe to our citizens, environment and the global community. Perhaps yesterday’s decision redresses the balance somewhat – and there is excitement in the possibility that it may augur the start of a shift from 20th Century thinking more generally in Welsh Government policy.

What’s next?

Mark has convened a group of experts to urgently consider how best to tackle the problems of congestion around Newport. This is a necessary (and minimal) step to take, not least because the genuine concerns of residents of Newport, eloquently and consistently put by Jayne Bryant (amongst others), need to be taken into consideration and acted upon.

We think that Welsh Government could set a higher aspiration. We suggest that they designate Newport as Wales’ centre for sustainable transport, and create an institution, in partnership with industry and higher education institutions pan-Wales, to drive progress on active travel and sustainable transport, in policy and delivery.

This would be a tangible demonstration that the people of Newport have not been forgotten in the larger struggle over budget and environment, and would also start to build on the leadership in sustainability that people are starting to realise belongs with us in Wales.


Our thanks

This decision has helped Wales move on a more sustainable path, but it didn’t take place by accident.

Afallen would like to thank anyone involved in campaigning to reject the M4, including Mark Drakeford and Lee Waters, Sophie Howe and the Office for Future Generations, and most importantly the tireless campaigners behind the CALM campaign. Yesterday was a good day for Wales. I was very proud to be a Welsh citizen when that announcement was made. Talk of leading the world has become cheap in Wales for many years. Perhaps now we’ll be able to start demonstrating actions as well as words.


  1. Avatar

    Well written David. Cydfind gyda bob gaer. It was interesting to hear the case for the defence from Alun Cairns and quoting Ford Motor Companies progressive ideas for electric cars-yet to be revealed.
    Looking forward to “Transport Futures Event” at Cardiff Uni tomorrow to see what ideas emerge for Smart City Living.
    Very hopeful this should start a new way of doing business in Wales.

    • admin

      Thanks Neil. I think it’s important to recognise the bravery in making decisions which aren’t ‘business as usual’ – but also to focus on how to defeat the very real challenges of transport which exist around Newport – hence the proposal for the Institute of Active Travel and Sustainable Transport to be based there.

  2. Avatar

    Clearly stated case, well put. Thanks for the link and best wishes.


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