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M4: Woodland destruction on a governmental scale

People often say that we don’t write letters to each other often enough, preferring to send a quick email, text message or other electronic communication.

It was thus a pleasant surprise when a letter arrived from the Welsh Government this week, even if it was attached to an email. This was of course until we read its contents.

The letter the Government had taken the trouble to send us concerns the proposed M4 relief road around Newport. This is the scheme that involves over £1 billion and rising of taxpayers’ money, and a route that would charge through precious habitats such as the Gwent Levels SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and five areas of ancient woodland.

The Government asked in its letter if the recipient would consider withdrawing their objection to the scheme and gave a number of reasons why the destruction of ancient woodland would be okay.

From the predictable to the alarming

Their reasoning ranged from the predictable – we’ll only take small amounts – to the alarming. Indeed when our ecologist read about their plan to translocate soils from Berryhill Wood described in the letter as “heavily infested with Himalayan Balsam” it had her reaching for a copy of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Himalayan Balsam persists in the seed bank for about two years, so moving it could easily result in a wildlife crime being committed.

The kicker to this all was the argument that as “localised impacts” these must be balanced against the wider economic and environmental benefits of the scheme. Sigh.

Firstly, as a large publically-funded flagship infrastructure project, any proposal should be world-class in terms of delivering environmental outcomes. We shouldn’t be seeing proposals that destroy SSSIs and lead to the loss of irreplaceable habitat such as ancient woodland.

The conversation should not be about questioning the value of the habitat or excuses about how small amounts of destruction are okay. It should be ‘how can we meet the transport needs of the people of Wales in the most sustainable way possible?’

Clearly there is much still to be done and if you are one of the thousands of people that have objected to the current route, the message is clear... Please hang in there.

Not all bad news

It’s not all bad news though. New Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, Ken Skates, has determined that a public inquiry would help, with this now set to go ahead at some point during the autumn (2016). He’s also kindly invited us in for a conversation in early August about the concerns we and hundreds of Coed Cadw supporters have raised.

Both of these events should be welcomed as important developments. A public inquiry will allow the Trust alongside many others that have concerns (from Associated British Ports whose access to the local harbour will be severely impacted, to major wildlife conservation groups such as the RSPB) to have their say to an independent inspector.

A meeting with the new cabinet secretary also shows a refreshing level of commitment to understanding the plight of ancient woodland and an interest in our supporters concerns. A promising step forward.

We’ll keep everyone updated as things progress.