Its back again…talk of a £100M link road from J34 of the M4 south through the Vale of Glamorgan to Cardiff Airport has resurfaced (they’ll be choking on their ginger beers in Pendoylan).  Sounds familiar? Well it is.  Welsh Government tested and consulted on this option (and others) in a process in 2007/8 as I recall. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now…

I wholeheartedly support better access to Cardiff Airport – which is now a Welsh Government strategic asset.  However, with limited public funds we have to invest, yes strategically, but also proportionately and giving due consideration to wider concerns and opportunities – not least given the expectations of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

If Cardiff Airport handled 10 million or more passengers each year, then a dual carriageway direct from the M4 J34 might make sense.  However, today it is handles about one and a half million passengers per year (which is about the same as Cardiff Bay railway station). It is growing, and may well (I hope) begin to approach 3 million passengers each year in less than 10 years.   Yes, it needs better road access as well as better public transport access (sorry can’t mention Metro until procurement is concluded) – but spending £100M to solve the road problem is, in my view, disproportionate, especially when there are alternatives (which Welsh Government themselves have explored) and other regional projects that would probably have a better business case.

In fact, Welsh Government tested three options in 2007…

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Figure 1 Three  Cardiff airport road access options presented by Welsh Government in 2007/08

I think a variant of Option B in Figure 1 above may still merit investigation.  For example, the current A4232 could be upgraded at its junction (J33) with the M4 and at Culverhouse X (see Figure 2 below) with new slip roads to the A48. If you add in some enhancements to the A48 and on five-mile lane – especially on its approach to the airport you would then have a high-quality road link direct to the airport from the M4 with sufficient capacity given the current scale of demand at the airport.

Even two million passengers per year is only an average of around 5,500 people per day. If we conservatively assume 2 people per car (and ignoring public transport options and the fact they won’t all be headed to or coming from the M4) that is a maximum of 2,250 car journeys per day (yes there will be peaks and troughs).  However, when you consider a good quality single carriageway can handle perhaps up to 700 vehicles an hour then the level of passenger numbers at the airport is more than capable of being handled by a series of more pragmatic interventions.  In fact, the issue of congestion on the current roads to the airport (e.g. Port Road and the A4232) is more to do with our relatively low levels of public transport usage – which should change with Metro.

So, I think there is a series of road interventions that can deliver proportionate benefits for a lot less than say £100M providing headroom (if in fact there was £100M to spend) for additional schemes – for example a better rail station (new/upgrade/relocated) to serve the airport and some major Park and Ride sites across the region?

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Figure 2 – Details of “option B” airport access developed by WG in 2007/08

There are also broader changes afoot in how we move and travel. I gave a presentation last week for Cynnal Cymru setting out a future where personal car ownership falls – to be replaced by autonomous vehicles as part of a mobility service integrated with more traditional and high volume public transport.  Such developments also negate the need for a new dedicated Airport dual carriageway.

This situation is symptomatic, I believe, of the City Deal/Region challenge. There is not enough strategic capacity or resource to develop ideas and proposals fit for the 21st Century.  I know some of the team and I know how difficult this process is.  Years of ten local authorities developing locally focussed projects needs to be replaced; we need the strategic capacity and intent to develop interventions fit for the region as a whole in world that is changing ever more quickly as a result of technological innovation (not least AI & automation).

The current City Deal process risks falling back on the stuff that’s on the shelf and couldn’t get funded “last time around”.  We need to be asking what are the two or three strategic projects that fit in a World and City Region into the 2020s and beyond; we also need to ask what kind of interventions can really work in places like Porth, Tredegar, Ely and Maerdy.  More importantly we need to ask where we should focus scarce resources to ensure selected interventions have a lasting impact.

On the big scale, yes, Metro is one of those, as is Compound Semiconductors.  I also think we could do more on digital infrastructure,  smart cities and especially how that impacts mobility and economic activity.  

On the small scale and in the space of the foundational economy we perhaps need to develop more locally focussed initiatives – maybe my recent article re Ebbw Vale has some merit in this regard  How can we help grow, for example, the Indycube network and eco system.  This is an innovative growing Welsh based Social Enterprise providing low cost infrastructure, desk space and business support to new start-ups and sole traders on a pay as you go basis – a potential antidote to the dark side of the gig-economy.

Given the need to encourage more economic development and regeneration across the valleys then perhaps the City Deal should also be looking to leverage the recent Welsh Government & Rhondda Cynon Taf announcements of a new office development in Pontypridd at the site of the old Taff Vale Shopping Centre that will house Transport for Wales and the new Rail/Metro franchisee, bringing more activity and footfall to the town. This makes sense as post Metro Pontypridd will be better connected to the rest of the region with a larger employment catchment.

Further interventions to help the physical regeneration of Taff Street by removing some of the older tired “1960s” buildings (see Figure 3 below), to clean and open up the Rhondda river on Taff Street with high quality urban realm, some further social housing developments and yes, even student accommodation, would help maintain the momentum. There was also talk some time ago of a Welsh Museum of Modern Art – well let’s consider Pontypridd. Better to focus effort & resources to ensure one place can change for the better and act as an exemplar, rather than fund “old projects” or spread the jam so thinly it leaves no trace anywhere.

So, as well as the big and shiny we need “bottom up” and place/community focussed interventions and a desperate need to avoid what I once called the legacy of incremental, homogeneous mediocrity!

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Figure 3 Some of the old “1960s” developments that obscure the Rhondda River on Taff St

But back to the airport – yes let’s improve access (road and public transport).  But let’s be proportionate with the solution; and in doing so can we develop a more strategic and future proofed programme of City Deal/Region interventions fit for the next 30 years and not the last?

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Mark Barry is Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning. Mark also has his own consulting business M&G Barry Consulting. He led Metro Development for Welsh Government from December 2013 to January 2016 following the publication of his Metro Impact Study in 2013. He is also working with the MTR Corporation.