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Guest blog – The (new) M4 is no more! by Ian Rappel

Ian Rappel is a conservationist and activist of 25 years. He’s currently Chief Executive for Gwent Wildlife Trust, and lives in Talgarth on the northern fringes of the Black Mountains. In March 2017 he wrote a guest blog here entitled ‘15 miles of What?! Where?

This might sound like a strange recommendation at first, but campaigning conservationists seeking inspiration should go into any garage or service station and pick up a copy – any copy – of a 2019 UK road atlas. Look at the sections covering South Wales, particularly the area between Newport and Cardiff, and you will find a dotted motorway line on the map. This ‘proposed’ new section of the M4 runs from Magor across the Gwent Levels, over the mouth of the River Usk at Newport Docks, before it rejoins the existing M4 at St Mellons to the East of Cardiff.

Showing proposed roads on road atlases that have yet to be approved through Public Inquiry and political decision is possibly just the mundane reality for cartographers in the trade. But it also says something of the confidence of the roadbuilding lobby, the CBI and pro-M4 politicians that a controversial road, subject to such high profile campaigning, can just be thrown down on paper with the expectation of completion.

Their confidence was understandable. Welsh authorities had been promising an M4 Newport bypass for three decades. In its latest iteration (the Black Route) the actions of Welsh Government looked certain to produce the result demanded by the pro-roads lobby and big business. From purchasing property along the proposed route, to sending out survey ecologists and engineers on the ground; from hiring a team of expensive QCs for the 18-month Public Inquiry to offering a cash incentive to Associated British Ports at Newport to upgrade their facilities and drop their objections; Welsh Government invested £114 million in preparations for the Black Route’s approval, and indicated that they would be prepared to fund this 15-mile scheme to the tune of £1.4billion+ of public money. Such fair winds are surely rare.

Despite those efforts the Black Route has been comprehensively defeated. The direction of history has been altered. The road atlases have been proved wrong, and their relevant pages should be torn out, placed in a frame, and displayed in the offices of every conservation organisation worth its salt (not to mention every primary school) in the land.

This astounding victory is, like all campaigning victories, the product of hard working principled activists, some genuine political conviction and policies, a broader political environment of environmental awareness, and a wee bit of luck and circumstance[i]. But there is a vitally important nuance in this wonderful outcome too that has serious implications for today’s debates that are rumbling – sometimes openly, sometimes hidden – through the field of nature conservation.

The Welsh Government First Minister, Mark Drakeford, justified his rejections of the Planning Inspector’s favourable recommendation of the M4 Black Route scheme, the aggressive lobbying of the CBI and their political allies within the Welsh Assembly/Senedd, the arguments of his cabinet colleagues, and the pro-M4 media pundits, with the following statement:

 “I recognise the [Planning] Inspector’s conclusions as to the advantages and disadvantages of the [M4] Project. However, I attach greater weight than the Inspector did to the adverse impacts that the Project would have on the environment. In particular, I attach very significant weight to the fact that the Project would have a substantial adverse impact on the Gwent Levels SSSIs and their reen [ditch] network and wildlife, and on other species, and a permanent adverse impact on the historic landscape of the Gwent Levels”

In other words, Mark Drakeford rejected the M4 on the basis of the intrinsic worth of the Gwent Levels, its landscape, its ecology and its species. Drakeford was simply appalled at the horrendous damage that M4 Black Route would have entailed for the Gwent Levels; for its amazing 900-mile network of water courses; its ancient grazing marsh mosaic; its breeding common cranes; its otters and water voles; its 150+ species of Red Data Book aquatic invertebrates; its human communities; its archaeology and cultural history; and its landscape character.

This victory for intrinsic valuation sheds some interesting light on Dieter Helm’s rather cynical comments made in favour of nature financialisation in The Guardian in 2015: ‘Some environmentalists claim that nature has an intrinsic value, and that somehow this undermines the natural capital approach. The claim is either harmless, or dangerous.‘. The defeat of the M4 on the basis of the qualitative ecological, aesthetic and moral values that Mark Drakeford assigned to the Gwent Levels is testament to the accuracy of George Monbiot’s counterpoint to Helm in 2018: ‘Never underestimate the power of intrinsic values. They inspire every struggle for a better world.‘.

Much has been made of Mark Drakeford’s courage to come down so heavily on the side of nature and future generations against the business-as-usual short-termism of motorway lobbyists. And, if you had sat watching him deliver that verdict in the Senedd in the face of vitriol and scorn from all sides, you would have concluded that this advocacy of intrinsic worth was indeed a courageous act.

But I suspect that the First Minister, from his political tradition, would be the first to admit that his courage was backed up by that shown by campaigners; of the community members who stood up to defend their landscape against aggressive QCs in the Public Inquiry; of principled conservation organisations like Gwent Wildlife Trust that rejected the political and financial temptations of so-called mitigation opportunity; of the pro-bono lawyers and expert witnesses who stuck their heads above the parapet to argue for ecological sanity and sustainable transport solutions in our culture of carphilia; of the thousands who signed petitions or wrote to Assembly Members; of the thousands of Extinction Rebellion activists that had taken to the streets to force the Welsh and UK governments’ declaration of Climate Emergency; and of the diverse eco-social movement behind the Campaign Against the Levels Motorway (CALM) that has done so much to protect the Gwent Levels from this motorway threat for a generation. That courage, in its totality, has been derived from a campaign infused with the necessary, enduring optimism – what the author Julian Hoffman describes as ‘radical hopefulness’.

Our victories in this dark age may be few and far between, but what chinks of light they throw on the transformative road towards ecological sanity that we now need to embark on!


[i] Fuller details of the campaign’s success, its methods and its lessons will appear over the coming months. As a starting point readers may be interested in my forthcoming column for The Ecologist online in July 2019 entitled “The Ecology of Victory”.

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