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Sustrans budget focus: Investing in active travel part 3: New First Minister to set Wales’ future direction for years to come

By Steve Brooks,
Plaza in Cardiff with people walking ©2017, Jonathan Bewley, all rights reserved

In the third blog in our budget focus series, Steve Brooks, Sustrans Director for Wales, discusses how decisions taken in Wales this month will influence the future of the Nation.

It’s perhaps a cliché to say that politics in Wales is at a crossroads, but decisions taken this month will have a huge bearing on Wales’ direction of travel throughout much of the 2020s.

The Welsh Labour party will shortly elect a new leader, someone who is likely to be appointed as First Minister. While he or she will lead a government midway through delivering a programme of government, there is a huge opportunity to strike a more radical path on sustainable development and transport in particular. 

Despite landmark legislation like the Active Travel Act and the Well-being of Future Generations Act, Wales has still too little on the ground change to show.

Earlier this year, I warned Assembly Members that in transport, like many other subject areas, Wales was facing a ‘delivery gap’. Laudable national policy is not being translated into practice. This is in part down to funding, but it is also about leadership. It is about the Welsh Government demanding and enabling its delivery partners, like local government and Transport for Wales, to raise the quality of what is being done in Wales. 

The new First Minister will have to make some ‘machinery of government’ changes.

Transport, as a portfolio, has generally sat in two departments. Under Rhodri Morgan transport was often part of a wider environment brief, often including planning and sustainability. Under Carwyn Jones, transport has largely sat within the wider economy brief.

Neither is right or wrong, but it is essential that the new government gives proper airtime to transport. That might be a below cabinet level minister taking charge of the issue reporting into a cabinet secretary for the economy or the environment. Top of the in-tray for the new minister should be implementing the recommendations of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee inquiry into the implementation of the Active Travel Act [1].

In the new year, Sustrans Cymru will publish a report outlining how the government can, on a very practical level, take these welcome recommendations forward.

Another subject will occupy the mind of the next Transport Minister, and that is the M4 relief road. 

At the time of writing, Assembly Members will approve or reject the proposal this month.  Earlier this autumn, Sustrans worked with the Commissioner for Future Generations Sophie Howe [2] to model how the £1.4billion earmarked for the road could be better spent to solve Newport and the Southeast’s transport woes in a way that didn’t harm the environment and life chances of future generations.

Unsurprisingly, Sustrans is strongly opposed to the relief road, and I hope Assembly Members reject the plan. But if that were to happen, we cannot repeat the mistake of the then transport minister Ieaun Wyn Jones who rejected the scheme last time it was considered in 2009. Whilst the CBI’s prescription to South Wales’ transport woes is wrong, their diagnosis – that congestion is hurting Wales, is the right one. If Assembly Members reject the M4, an independent task and finish group should be commissioned to identify what measures the new government should adopt to solve congestion, expand public transport and active travel. 

Lastly, the small issue of the Welsh Government’s budget will be decided in December. In many ways, this is a season finale. This will be the last Welsh Government budget before the new UK Comprehensive Spending Review kicks off in the New Year, and probably the last budget before Brexit.

As Sustrans detailed in our evidence to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee earlier this year, Wales has historically underfunded walking and cycling. Thanks to in-year increases and new money from the Wales Infrastructure Investment Plan, Wales is now starting to spend at the lower end of what is needed. And whilst turning the funding tap on is welcome, the new minister must ensure that the plumbing is in working order to handle this. 

Whilst we still need to increase capital spending to bring Wales closer to Scottish levels of spending, additional revenue money needs to be allocated too. This revenue money will help address the lack of staff capacity within local authorities, provide crucial money for maintaining what has previously been built, and invest in ‘softer’ behaviour change measures like Sustrans’ Active Journey’s schools programme, which encourages people to walk and cycle more.

[1] http://www.assembly.wales/laid%20documents/cr-ld11566-r/cr-ld11566-r-e.pdf

[2] https://futuregenerations.wales/news/future-generations-commissioner-for-wales-calls-on-welsh-government-to-be-brave-in-its-investment-on-transport-as-new-report-shows-lack-of-ambition-in-m4-black-route-proposal/

Don't miss the other blogs in the three-part series:

Sustrans budget focus: Investing in active travel part 1: Active travel in rural areas by Councillor Ellen ap Gwynn

Sustrans budget focus: Investing in active travel part 2: An active metro by Councillor Caro Wild