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The M4 and the Internal Market Bill

13 October 2020
Professor Daniel Wincott

This article was originally published in Welsh by BBC Cymru Fyw on 09/10/2020

Relations between the governments in Wales and London are worse than they have ever been. There have been episodes of close cooperation over the Covid-19 pandemic. Increasingly, though, sharp disagreement marks key policies, including over whether people from areas of England with high infection levels and local lockdowns should be allowed to travel to low-infection tourist destinations in Wales.

The Welsh Government and Boris Johnson’s administration are deeply divided over Brexit and its internal implications for the UK. The two governments don’t simply disagree; each has a basically different understanding of the situation. They are talking past one another, each speaking to a different audience. Mark Drakeford has described the UK Government’s Internal Market Bill as an enormous power-grab, while Michael Gove called it a power-surge for devolution.

In Wales, the M4 relief road around Newport, to bypass the Brynglas Tunnels, has become a totem of the deeply fractious quality of relations between Cardiff and London today. The Internal Market Bill’s proposed new financial powers would give the UK Government additional scope for spending public money directly in Wales – and in the other devolved territories. New spending is envisaged on matters that include policies devolved to the Welsh Government – such as the M4 relief road.

The dispute over the M4 relief road is different. There may be scope for legitmate debate about whether a new motorway through the Gwent Levels – or indeed some other way round the bottlenecks created by the Brynglas Tunnels – is a good or bad thing. But there is no room for debate about which government has the legal capacity to make the decision. It is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. The new spending powers that the UK Government is proposing for itself probably make it easier for Boris Johnson to allocate funding directly to the relief road. But, quite properly, the Internal Market Bill itself makes no mention of the M4. It is an issue that the UK Prime Minister has chosen to promote around the Bill. He has made a political choice to reopen debate about the decision Mark Drakeford has already taken not to build the by-pass.

Even if the proposed new powers become law, they wouldn’t allow Johnson to build the bypass. Any directly allocated UK funding would still require agreement from and collaboration with the Welsh Government over, for example, planning permission for the new motorway. Unless Johnson chose to up the stakes still further and use Westminster’s ‘sovereign’ powers to legislate it into being from London.

There is of course a partisan dimension to this political dispute: no love is lost between Johnson’s Conservatives and Welsh Labour. Yet Johnson’s choice to bring public spending onto the foreground of debate reminds us of the core issue of what will replace EU funding streams after Brexit. So little has been heard about the so-called Shared Prosperity Fund that even some of Johnson’s Conservative MP colleagues from Wales are complaining. Stephen Crabb has called the lack of progress and information ‘simply unacceptable’.

More fundamentally, priorities for transport infrastructure investment look different from London and in Wales. One option is to strengthen the existing corridor from Southeast Wales to Bristol and London as well as the A55 link from North Wales to the Northwest of England. Investing in improving links within Wales is another possibility. Connections within Wales – and perhaps also across the Anglo-Welsh border – that break the domination of the travel corridors along the north and south coasts could be transformative.

Drakeford at one end of the Brynglas Tunnels and Johnson at the other with daggers drawn makes for dramatic politics, but poor public policy.