The road to prosperity or a road to nowhere?

Over a year on from the Welsh Government announcement that it was freezing all planned road building projects whilst it undertook a review of roads in Wales, Ed Evans, Director of Civil Engineering Contractors Association Wales, calls for greater recognition of the importance of our infrastructure in delivering a greener, better Wales.

Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah”. The words of Greta Thunberg at last year’s Youth4Climate summit. And, perhaps not the words you would expect an article by the civil engineering sector in Wales to quote, but she’s right. As a sector, we’ve always called for delivery, not words; investment, not promises, and her words ring as true here in Wales as anywhere else in the world.

Many may not realise it, but our infrastructure touches every part of our daily lives. From the house you wake up in each morning, the water from your tap, the light from the switch, the heat from the boiler, the path you take during your commute to work, the office you work in, the school your children attend, the hospital you need in an emergency; it’s all based around infrastructure. As civil engineers we build the very infrastructure that supports our communities and allows them to flourish. But let’s be clear, when it comes to climate change, civil engineers are part of the solution not the problem. The only ones who are going to decarbonise the infrastructure that we need to live our lives are civil engineers.

Since the Welsh Government announced a climate emergency in Wales we, as a sector, have worked constructively with Government at all levels to play our part. And transportation, as you would expect, is a key part of those discussions as it is a big contributor to carbon emissions. So the announcement of a Roads Review accompanied by a decision to pause or “freeze” road construction, an important area of work for so many civil engineering businesses, was not unexpected. However, the sudden halt to so many roads projects, and the desperately slow progress made in reporting the outcomes of the review, has not gone unnoticed and caused significant disruption to many in the sector in terms of business continuity and jobs.

Does this mark the end of road building in Wales?

We shouldn’t lose sight of the value of our roads. We will still need them to transport cars and buses in the future, and of course, even electric vehicles need roads. The closure of the Menai Bridge due to concerns over its failure show how important it is for us to maintain our infrastructure. And whilst greater active travel and greater use of integrated public transport is, of course, the aim, for some, this is not an option currently. Many active travel routes are already based on adaptations to our existing network and are incorporated in new routes as a matter of course but, whilst investment in this area has been hugely welcomed, we still need physical connectivity over longer distances where active travel is not practical. This is particularly the case in rural areas, of which Wales has many. Whilst connectivity continues to develop and improve, particularly in our more urban areas as metro plans develop, rural parts of Wales risk being forgotten when it comes to decision making here.

The announcement by Gwynedd Council that they would be bidding for funding from the UK Government’s Levelling Up fund for construction of the Llanbedr bypass, highlights this dilemma for policy makers given that roads are a devolved matter. This project was subject to the Welsh Government’s freeze last year and reflects some of the tensions and also perhaps disjointed engagement as the “freeze” was announced. This impacted a number of private sector businesses who had already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds bidding for this work. That is not good for the Welsh economy. To be clear though, as a sector, we would much rather see all levels of Government working together to achieve their aligned goals rather than, forgive the pun, different levels bypassing each other. And that is a plea from the industry to players at all levels.

So, this shouldn’t be about ceasing all new road building. Those who say new roads contravene the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act are just plain wrong. The Act is about seven goals and these include a Prosperous Wales, a Resilient Wales and a Healthy Wales. It’s about getting a balance between all seven goals not just picking the ones that happen to justify a particular course of action, which is the favoured approach of so many pressure groups. Yes, we do need to rethink why we need this valuable infrastructure and how we can better deliver it with a much lower carbon footprint. We need to think carefully about the role of new roads in reducing congestion and improving air quality as we seek to regenerate our town centres. And we need to ensure good connectivity between our communities and businesses, especially in those often forgotten rural areas.

We need to be far more focused on maximising the social value of the roads network for our communities and how that network should actively contribute to their wellbeing. And let’s see investment strategies joining up proposals with other infrastructure needs such as broadband or flood defences, so that we maximise the economies of scale. Perhaps the Welsh Government’s Infrastructure Consenting Bill will help to drive this change. There’s nothing new here but we need to make it much simpler for different infrastructure providers to deliver collaboratively.

According to the Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans MS, when publishing the Welsh Government’s Draft Budget for 2023/24, Wales is facing a “perfect storm of economic and budgetary pressures”. So now, more than ever, we need infrastructure fit for the future, to grow our economy, to support our communities and to develop our resilience in the face of climate change. And new roads are part of the solution. We know we have the skills, the people and the drive to deliver the Welsh Government’s ambitions when it comes to net zero in Wales. But we need to have that faith matched by decision makers. We’ve seen delay upon delay in publication of the Road Review Panel’s report but we need to ensure that when the findings and recommendations are eventually published and a clear path ahead is agreed, that there is actually a sector left here in Wales to deliver it.

Whichever path is chosen by decision-makers in Wales to tackle the critical issue of climate change, we need to be clear about one thing: the infrastructure sector in Wales will be the ones delivering that change on the ground and making it a reality. Whether it’s decarbonising our built infrastructure, paving the way for easier active travel or building the latest renewable energy projects, our civil engineers will be the ones bringing this to life. We recognise the vital role that we play but we need to see that recognition and support from our key partners as well to make sure our businesses can keep going, growing and delivering Wales’ critical infrastructure.

Ed Evans, Director of Civil Engineering Contractors Association  (CECA) Wales