Monday 15 December 2008

Roads for Wales

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, economic development in Wales was seen primarily as a question of attracting large inward investments. In that context, transport links - especially road links - were seen as an absolutely key element, by myself as well as many others. A good, dualled, road network across Wales from West to East as well as North to South was seen - almost universally, I think - as a good thing, even if there were some issues about affordability.

But times and attitudes have changed, and policy needs to adapt, although it seems that not everyone can see or understand that yet. Our future need is to move away from over-dependence on large inward investment schemes and rebuild a more localised economy with a range of smaller, indigenous enterprises serving more local areas, and that implies a very different approach to road planning.

It does not mean that we do not need good, efficient transport links, but it does mean a change of emphasis. In Pembrokeshire, for instance, I am convinced that the idea that economic salvation rides in on the back of a dual carriageway right across the county is an outdated and irrelevant concept. We certainly need a good network of major roads across the county, but we also need some significant improvements to the county's internal road network if we are to build a sustainable and localised economy.

In that context, I believe that Ieuan Wyn Jones took the right decision last week, in his announcement that the A40 improvements will proceed according to current plans which include key by-passes for Robeston Wathen and Llanddewi Velfrey. The proposed solution will be cheaper, and will be delivered sooner than the alternative dual carriageway proposal suggested by the Tories and the County Council, and will provide an adequate backbone for the network in the north of the county.

I'd like to see the Llanddewi Velfrey by-pass element delivered sooner than currently planned, of course; as well as improvements to the main road through the south of the county to Pembroke, but that's a debate about timetabling and relative priority rather than about the design solution.

Both the County Council and the local Tory AMs have done their best to obstruct progress by insisting on an unnecessary dual carriageway solution. Clinging to outdated concepts of economic development, they have attempted to present a dual carriageway as an essential element of the county's prosperity, conveniently forgetting to point out that, if they had their way, the result would be not only a massive increase in cost, but a consequential serious further delay in providing much needed relief to villages currently split in half by a major trunk road.

That would be bad enough if they had done their homework; but the county council attempted to use a little-known procedure of the National Assembly to press its case without properly preparing in advance. The result is that they had no solution to the question of the extra costs involved (and certainly weren't prepared to offer any money from their own coffers), they produced no evidence of any economic benefits which would stem from their proposal, and couldn't even justify their proposal on the basis of a need for extra capacity. The net result was that they simply wasted time and money in a useless piece of grandstanding.

The Tory AMs have described the decision by the Assembly Committee as a 'bitter blow'. Their claim that the attempt was thrown out by the Assembly Government is however a complete misrepresentation of the situation. Pembrokeshire's petition was heard by an all-party committee, which agreed its decision unanimously. Even their Tory colleague member was completely unconvinced by the arguments presented.

The Tories have also been on a little jaunt to Ireland to help them prepare a 'business case' for dualling, apparently. Of course, a major part of the traffic on the A40 is Irish lorries coming off the ferry – and then driving all the way across Pembrokeshire (and Wales!) without stopping, and there is no doubt that a dual carriageway would benefit the Irish businesses involved. I'm sure that those businesses would be delighted to see the Assembly Government spending its scarce resources on building a super highway so that they can get their lorries through the county even faster – but how does that benefit Wales, let alone Pembrokeshire?

A sensible, planned transport strategy would be aiming to get that traffic off the roads completely, and onto the railways, and that's an area where I'd certainly like to see a more pro-active approach from the Assembly Government. Scarce Welsh financial resources should be used to build a transport infrastructure which is low carbon in its construction and operation. Last week's announcement by Ieuan Wyn Jones is a good start in that direction.


Anonymous said...

Do you know if there are any long term plans to build a North South Railway line which completes the journey by travelling within Welsh borders eg a link between Swansea and Aber and from there to Porthmadog?

John Dixon said...


As far as I am aware, no. I have blogged before about the need for a strategic plan for railway investment, something which doesn't exist at the moment. Investment is driven, rather, by responding to estimates of future demand, which themselves seem to be manipulated so that they do not call for more investment than is planned.

Whether remaining within Welsh borders when travelling from north to south is a priority or not may be another issue. It needs to be considered, along with a range of other possible options; but I'm not primarily concerned about staying within territory. A fast efficient link by any route would be a good start.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting article:

John Dixon said...


Thanks for the link. It's an interesting article, and the suggestion for a north-south link deserves to be explored more fully. The fact that the possibility has emerged in the way that it has serves only to underline the way in which rail policy in the UK, including Wales, is set largely be reacting to events rather than by an attempt to drive them.