The Defendant’s environmental assessment was improperly and irrationally premised on the basis that there was no reasonable alternative other than to build a road over a specified route across four SSSIs.
A judicial review begins today in the High Court in London against the devolved Welsh Government's plans to build an M4 'bypass' road across the Gwent Levels, just south of Newport in South Wales.
The new six-lane road, costed at £1 billion, would damage four Sites of Special Scientific Interest along its 14-mile path, ripping through one of Wales's most precious wildlife habitats.
"This motorway would cause massive damage to important and protected wildlife, said Gareth Clubb, director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, which is bringing the case.
"We think the Welsh Government has acted unlawfully, and there are better transport options they've not properly considered. We're now asking a judge to decide whether the government is breaking the law.
"People from all walks of life have joined us in supporting alternatives, from business groups to political parties. Whether it's because of the huge expense, the better transport alternatives, or the environmental damage, many thousands of people in Wales are against this unnecessary and unaffordable road."
Irrational assumption made that there was no reasonable alternative
According to legal papers filed in the High Court, "The Defendant failed to consider the (acknowledged) harm the Plan will cause to Sites of Special Scientific Interest on the basis of a proper, lawful and rational understanding or application of its statutory duties to preserve and enhance those sites and to conserve their bio-diversity."
The Defendant claim that the Plan would cause "minor adverse" impacts to the SSSIs was unreasonable, "inconsistent with the documentary history", and "rests on an irrational and unlawful assumption as to the success of an unprecedented scale of mitigation and compensation."
In addition "The Defendant’s environmental assessment was improperly and irrationally premised on the basis that there was no reasonable alternative other than to build a road over a specified route across four SSSIs."
The plans are also "inadequate and/or irrational in that it did not set out adequately and intelligibly why only alternatives involving roads through the SSSIs had been selected."
The Hon Mr Justice Hickinbottom will now hear the case which is expected to last three days. His main tasks will be to:
- examine whether the Welsh Government unlawfully limited the range of reasonable alternatives, by only considering a new motorway south of Newport and two similar variations.
- consider if the plan's substantial damage to protected wildlife sites is permitted by law.
Among the evidence he will take into account is a highly critical report by the Welsh Assembly's Environment and Sustainability Committee published last June which raises serious questions of fact and procedure which remain unanswered today.
Environment and econony at risk
A broad coalition of environment groups, transport experts and business representatives have all opposed the new motorway, with fears it could damage Wales' environment and economy.
A so-called 'Blue Route', devised by Professor Stuart Cole, would deliver the increased road capacity that is desired at significantly reduced cost (£380m against £1 billion) and with much less impact on the environment.
This route has widespread support, including from the Federation of Small Business and opposition parties. FSB Wales Head of External Affairs Iestyn Davies has described the decision to pursue the 'black route' as "a billion pound mistake" that's "overly expensive, will take too long to deliver, and faces huge opposition from environmental groups."
The decision against the 'blue route' is "deeply disappointing", he told WalesOnline, since it "could provide an effective solution to the current problems on the M4 a full decade earlier than the scheme she is progressing and for around £600m less.
"There are huge question marks hanging over the Minister's plans, not least how she proposes to pay for a £1bn scheme when the Welsh Government will only be able to borrow £500m under the new powers granted by the UK Government."
Ian Rappel, Chief Executive of Gwent Wildlife Trust (GWT), said: "GWT is in favour of this legal challenge because it's absolutely essential that all environmentally sustainable options are fully considered in the face of transport issues.
"This is even more important when irreversible damage may occur on sensitive areas such as the Gwent Levels, which is a greatly valued landscape and complex ecosystem. GWT has been working alongside local communities to enhance and protect the Gwent Levels for half a century. We are determined to continue in that vein come what may."
Twitter: #NoNewM4 / #DimM4Newydd