By now everyone’s aware of the decision announced last week by the ‘Welsh Government’ not to proceed with the planned M4 ‘relief road’ through the Gwent Levels and Newport docks.
This decision that took most of us by surprise needs to be examined and certain ramifications and possibilities considered. For last week’s decision might have significance beyond a single road project.
When Carwyn Jones was First Minister it was understood that the relief road would go ahead. So for a start, the decision announced last week means that things have changed under his successor, Mark Drakeford.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of last week’s decision is that Mark Drakeford, and the ‘Welsh Government’, have gone against the wishes of their superiors in London. It’s impossible to over-stress that what happened last week was a form of insubordination.
For make no mistake, London wanted this road. The Planning Inspectorate for Englandandwales backed the plan, with inspector Bill Wardrup waxing lyrical about the relief road while being almost insultingly dismissive of alternatives.
Our Secretary of State, Alun Cairns, that most London-loyal of individuals – and, we now learn, a Boris Johnson supporter – was “hugely disappointed” by the decision. It may have come as a bit of a shock to him, for Cairns knew long ago what the inspector’s recommendation was, and he probably expected the new management team in Cardiff docks to follow Compliant Carwyn’s lead and do as the inspector (and London) recommended.
So maybe any consideration of this shock to the system political boils down to two questions:
- Why has Drakeford refused to do London’s bidding in this instance?
- Is this a one-off act of rebellion or does it herald a fundamental change of course for ‘Welsh’ Labour?
One possible explanation might lie in the fact that despite all the criticism of London-centricity, and the disproportionate amount of infrastructure spending in London and the south east of England, for two decades Wales has followed exactly the same course.
Because a curious feature of devolution is that those areas that voted against devolution in 1997 have been the areas to benefit most since 1999. Maybe this is related to the phenomenon that has seen successive Labour administrations in Cardiff Bay neglect those areas that vote Labour.
So, to be generous, this decision not to proceed with the M4 relief road might mark the beginning of attempts to ‘rebalance’ the Welsh economy.
Even if I’m being too generous there, on a purely financial level, it would have been difficult to justify expenditure of £1.5 bn (at the very least) in a country of just over 3 million people unless the benefits are widely enjoyed. That would obviously not have been the case with the M4 relief road, and further, expenditure on that project would mean fewer infrastructure projects elsewhere in the country.
It’s even being suggested that areas of England – notably Bristol – would have benefited more from an M4 relief road than areas of Wales just twenty or thirty miles away, such as the Heads of the Valleys.
This is how Alun Davies, AM for Blaenau Gwent, put it in a couple of tweets.
Weighing up cost and benefit, the M4 relief road would have meant the ‘Welsh Government’ borrowing a great deal of money for a project that at best would only benefit one corner of the country, and at worst, might have been of more benefit to adjacent areas of England.
On those grounds alone, no body claiming to be the ‘Welsh Government’, serving the whole of Wales, could have given the go-ahead for the M4 relief road.
But that consideration has never before stopped an administration in Cardiff Bay from pouring investment into the city at the expense of the rest of the country. So there may be other explanations.
THE PLANNING INSPECTORATE FOR ENGLANDANDWALES
Having mentioned the Planning Inspectorate this is a good time to remind you of the malign influence this agency has exerted over Wales.
In this example from March 2014 I wrote about the plan to expand Bodelwyddan and how it linked with the Local Development Plan (LDP) for Denbighshire. In this post we see how the Planning Inspectorate was forcing a Welsh local authority to allow housing greatly in excess of any local need.
And even after census findings made it clear that the county would need less new housing than had previously been anticipated, the Planning Inspector insisted on keeping to the now discredited figures:
“Objects and aspirations” can only mean catering for an influx of new residents from outside of the county, and almost certainly from outside of Wales. Which means that in many cases the LDPs that have been forced on our local authorities by the Planning Inspectorate are ‘local’ only in the sense that they affect areas of Wales.
In Denbighshire, the northern part of the county lies within the A55 corridor, which is being developed as a linear commuter belt for north west England. The ‘Welsh Government’ will never admit this – in fact, it might not even be consulted – but others know, and are planning for it.
This is part of a wider and ongoing plan to integrate northern Wales into north west England. This 2019 report from Transport for the North makes the medium- to long-term planning clear, and it goes beyond a narrow corridor.
What’s being done here could be done without devolution – so what’s the point of having a ‘Welsh Government’ if it doesn’t live up to the name? Is devolution just a chimera, a smokescreen?
Cross-border co-operation is one thing, and desirable, it happens all over the world; but it must be done on a basis of mutual respect with both sides benefiting. The map you see above is Englandandwales in operation. Anyone arguing otherwise would probably describe Tryweryn as a mutually-beneficial project.
Without labouring the point I hope you get the gist – the Planning Inspectorate has done a lot of damage to Wales over the years. Which explains why the agency’s relationship with the ‘Welsh Government’ has always been a source of confusion for Welsh politicians and others.
The truth is that the Planning Inspectorate for Englandandwales has a desk in Cardiff but takes its orders from London, with the ‘Welsh Government’ allowed to pretend it has some control.
The truth is driven home when we see an inspector adjudicating on a Welsh case one week and being in Yorkshire or Devon the following week. (Though of course, never in Scotland.)
It was no surprise then that the Planning Inspectorate wanted the M4 black route. Because that’s what London wanted.
Though if Mark Drakeford can see the problem with the Planning Inspectorate for Englandandwales then he must also be aware that this is only the tip of an iceberg. That ‘iceberg’ being the problem of ‘Welsh’ civil servants relaying orders from London.
PLANNING FOR A WELSH FUTURE?
The fact that the ‘Welsh Government’ went against the recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate, its London masters, and a number of powerful lobby groups (perhaps even . . . whisper it – Deryn!), means that Mark Drakeford has really stuck his scruffy neck out.
Which leads me to suspect, or hope, that this decision might be about more than the explanations we’ve been given on cost and environment damage. There might be things bubbling below the surface that could prove to be more important in the medium term than the M4 decision itself.
First off, I am convinced that the M4 decision links with this announcement from a month ago that Wales will soon have its own planning inspectorate. Let’s look at what the article in The Planner says.
“Currently, the Planning Inspectorate for England and Wales is responsible for making decisions and recommendations on planning-related land issues and appeals. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the Welsh Government fund it.
Based in Cardiff, the inspectorate’s Wales Division manages casework on planning and related applications and appeals, including developments of national significance. It examines local development plans, which set out land use planning policies and form the basis of local planning decisions, using a team of dedicated Welsh inspectors and administrators.
The new planning inspectorate for Wales is expected to be fully operational by the end of the current assembly term, which is May 2021.”
This move was explained by the ‘Welsh Government’ thus: “planning law and policy has diverged and continues to diverge at an accelerating rate from England”. Which makes a certain sense, but if that’s the real reason then policing, broadcasting and many other powers would also be fully devolved.
Though a cynic might suggest that Drakeford is launching the new agency because he’s burned his bridges with the Planning Inspectorate after giving them two fingers over such a high-profile project as the M4 relief road.
Whatever the reason, I’m hoping Drakeford and his cabinet want a separate Welsh planning inspectorate to do things differently in future and for the right reasons. Otherwise, why set up a new and separate agency?
IN CONCLUSION . . .
Does the dropping of the M4 relief road coupled with the announcement of the new planning inspectorate herald a change of direction for the ‘Welsh Government’?
The cynic in me thinks, ‘Nah, this leopard ain’t gonna change its spots, Jac. After twenty years of screwing up on devolution Labour’s only pretending to do things differently now because it’s slipping in the polls. Any change will be purely cosmetic.’
But then, the optimistic side to my nature (long dormant) asserts itself and says, ‘Wait! Maybe from now on they will put the interests of Wales and Welsh people first. Perhaps they’ll realise that there are communities within twenty miles of Corruption Bay approaching third world standards of deprivation. And that our rural areas need more than zip wires and granny farms.
‘Perhaps it’ll mean no more insane legislation to encourage hippies, ‘rewilders’ and other enviroshysters; no more grants showered on multinationals’ branch factories and con men with ludicrous ‘projects’; no more red carpet treatment for exploitive ‘celebs’ such as Bore Grylls; no more funding and other encouragement for the third sector to import England’s problems so as to maintain thousands of unnecessary jobs with our money.
‘Maybe, at long last, Wales will be treated as a country, in which the interests of those who belong here are considered more important than kudos gained from playing to galleries that only seek to exploit and marginalise us. Perhaps our kids will be given a decent education to prepare them for better jobs than scurrying around an Amazon warehouse or desperately waiting for Easter in the hope of some low-wage tourism job.’
Over to you, Mark Drakeford.
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