M4 at centre of 'stolen powers' debate

14/09/2020
Rhodri Clark

There are concerns in Wales that the UK Government may use powers ‘stolen’ from devolved nations to build the £1.5bn M4 Relief Road at Newport – which Welsh ministers cancelled last year.

The controversial United Kingdom Internal Market Bill would give UK ministers new spending powers in the devolved nations.

‘Providing infrastructure at places in the United Kingdom’ is one of the areas specified, with infrastructure defined as railways, roads or other transport facilities. Those are currently devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, except for Welsh rail infrastructure.

The Bill has its second reading in the Commons tonight and has several stages to go through before a final vote.

A significant rebellion is brewing, with the prime minister suffering a torrid time defending the proposed legislation after the Government acknowledged that the Bill would break international law. 

In February and July, prime minister Boris Johnson told MPs that his government would build the M4 Relief Road.

Little attention was paid to his remarks at the time, but last week Plaid Cymru said the UK Government was giving itself powers to fund projects, including the M4 Relief Road, against the Welsh Parliament’s wishes.

Jeremy Miles, the Welsh Government’s counsel general, claimed the UK government intended to ‘sacrifice the future of the union by stealing powers from devolved administrations’.

He added: ‘This Bill is an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have voted in favour of devolution on numerous occasions.’

The Infrastructure Act 2015, which established Highways England, relates almost entirely to English roads but mentions Wales under ‘territorial extent and application’.

Could Highways England deliver the M4 Relief Road, if instructed to do so? A Highways England spokeswoman replied to Highways: ‘Our remit is to look after the strategic road network in England.’

The South East Wales Transport Commission, established to advise on M4 Relief Road alternatives, has said rail improvements are the key.

Last week the Welsh Government published a rail blueprint which includes new cross-Newport services and a tram-train line, which would circle the city centre and serve western suburbs en route to Caerphilly.

Transport minister Ken Skates said last week his government would deliver on the commission’s recommendations for buses, road improvements and active travel but, with rail infrastructure not devolved, ‘the UK Government will need to play its part’.

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