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New Welsh transport minister signals watering down of Sloman roads policy

Rhodri Clark
10 April 2024
Ken Skates
Ken Skates

Newly appointed Welsh transport minister Ken Skates has said that one of the new criteria which Welsh road schemes must meet has caused difficulties.

Skates was appointed Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport by new First Minister Vaughan Gething. Previously transport came under Climate Change Minister Julie James, with her deputy Lee Waters holding the transport portfolio.

Skates has held various ministerial posts since 2011. As economy and infrastructure minister from 2016 to 2021, he was responsible for transport, and at times for North Wales in addition.

With Waters as his deputy, he oversaw publication in March 2021 of the Welsh Government’s Llwybr Newydd transport strategy, which prioritised reducing the need to travel and modal shift to “sustainable transport”. In their ministerial foreword, Skates and Waters said: “We need fewer cars on our roads, and more people using public transport, walking or cycling.”

The independent review of Welsh road schemes, led by Dr Lynn Sloman, was commissioned to align roads policy with the government’s other goals and strategies, including Llwybr Newydd.

In February 2023, the government accepted the review’s recommendations. Among the revised criteria for all new roads was that a scheme should not increase road capacity (to avoid increasing carbon emissions from generated traffic) and not lead to higher vehicle speeds.

This did not amount to a block on all road schemes. Some bypasses are being redesigned for lower traffic speeds and greater emphasis on active travel, and the recently opened Dyfi bridge near Machynlleth has been held up as a forerunner of schemes to improve the network’s resilience to climate change.

Skates, who is Labour MS for Clwyd South, was asked about road schemes by BBC Radio Wales. He said: “We haven’t stopped building roads but we do need to deal with the criteria for new road building schemes which states that you can’t build them if it leads to extra capacity. That’s caused difficulty in terms of considering schemes, and interpretation.”

He cautioned that future road schemes would depend on funding being available and would need to be “better” than past schemes. He did not expect the M4 Relief Road at Newport, cancelled in 2019, to be revived.

The Sloman review affected a disproportionately large number of schemes in North Wales, in part because the M4 Relief Road had been cancelled and the final section of A465 dualling in South Wales had already commenced. Skates was critical when the government accepted the review’s recommendations, saying that this would stop most investment in roads without putting in place plans for improving public transport. He said there should never be another review that “ignores citizens”. Gething said it was “worth listening” to what previous ministers had to say on the matter.

Julie James has retained her presence in the cabinet, taking the housing, local government and planning brief. Gething has appointed Huw Irranca-Davies, Labour MS for Ogmore, to her previous role. Irranca-Davies is Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs. He was MP for Ogmore from 2002 to 2016, and held junior ministerial posts in Tony Blair’s governments.

When he announced the new cabinet on 21 March, Gething provided three paragraphs of introduction, including a reference to climate change. “This ministerial team will answer the call of the generation in waiting, to create a stronger, fairer, greener Wales. We will take action to strengthen our economy by providing opportunities for everyone and being steadfast in our commitment to a just transition to net zero,” he said.

The Senedd’s subsequent closure for the Easter holidays means that the direction of travel under Gething has not yet started to emerge.

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