The biodiversity crisis often feels intangible. It unfolds before our eyes as a steady process of environmental degradation – a phenomenon of subtle but relentless momentum – driven by the combined forces of agricultural and fisheries intensification, pollution, climate change and unsustainable development. There are, however, occasions when a wildlife-conservation campaign perfectly captures the zeitgeist.
If you drive into Wales along the M4 you will cross the Second Severn Crossing. As you near the Welsh end of the bridge, look left and you will see a flat expanse of land wedged between the estuary and the hills that rise to the north. Look south as you continue your journey and you will catch occasional views of this unique, low-lying, and ancient field-and-ditch system: the Gwent Levels.
As you arrive at the suburban outskirts of Newport, at Brynglas, you will come to a set of long road tunnels where the motorway drops from three lanes to two. As local kids we were always told to hold our breath when going through these tunnels, a parental tactic for in-car crowd control that recently came to mind when David Cameron described the Brynglas Tunnels as a ‘foot on the windpipe of the Welsh economy’.
Arguments for a bypass for these tunnels have raged for more than 20 years until finally, in order to ‘relieve’ the traffic pressure and congestion ‘caused’, the Welsh government announced plans in 2015 to build a new stretch of six-lane motorway across the Gwent Levels. After a period of alarmingly brief reflection, the Welsh government selected its favoured option – appropriately labelled the Black Route – the most expensive and the most ecologically damaging of all the routes it could have gone for. This 15-mile length of motorway will cut through four SSSIs, breaking the hydrological and ecological connectivity across the landscape, and will assuredly bring further development in its wake. In short, it will demolish the Gwent Levels, their biodiversity and their history. As I write, we are almost six months into a public inquiry expected to end early in the autumn.
During the inquiry we have witnessed pretty standard arguments in favour of road-building for jobs and inward investment – degraded and simplistic euphemisms that hide the structural, deep-rooted causes of economic stagnation. We have listened to Welsh government contractors as they advocate the necessity for new road schemes to relieve old road schemes with a logic that would tarmac the world. We have nearly wept as our so-called ‘independent’ statutory environment body, Natural Resources Wales, capitulated and withdrew its very reasonable ecological objections to the Black Route through a statement of common ground – final confirmation of the process of ‘regulatory capture’ that has been underway across the UK since the 2008 financial crash, as statutory agencies have switched to their new ‘enabling culture’. We have listened to ecological consultants rattle off a series of inadequate and inappropriate mitigation measures that will do nothing in the face of permanent destruction for the beautiful and species-rich watercourses and landscape that have co-evolved with human settlements since the Romans started reclaiming the Gwent Levels from the estuary. And, to ice this unfortunate cake, we have heard QCs state with Orwellian grace that this 15-mile, six-lane motorway is consistent with the Welsh government’s shiny new sustainable-development legislative framework (the Well-being of Future Generations Act and associated Environment Act).
In the face of these crude arguments Gwent Wildlife Trust and others have maintained a principled objection to the scheme in its entirety. Together with partners and the local community, we have brought in expert witnesses from the top of their disciplines to counter the case for a new road, the simplistic economic assertions and the poorly evidenced ecological mitigation. We have done so because the Gwent Levels are unique and the Black Route will destroy or damage 125ha of SSSI habitats, including grazing marsh and reedbed. It will also destroy more than six miles of SSSI-feature waterways (‘reens’ in the local dialect). It will threaten the remaining waterbodies with pollution and will fragment and redirect a local hydrology that is poorly understood even by farmers whose families have worked the land for generations. All this damage threatens the superb wetland habitat for 144 Nationally Notable or Red Data Book aquatic invertebrate species that have been recorded from the Gwent Levels. But ultimately, we have resisted this scheme because, when the final hammer blow hangs over an entire ecosystem and there is nowhere else for wildlife and human communities to retreat, we must stand our ground or lose everything.
If you are an average-speed reader (like me), this editorial will take you about four minutes to read. Oddly enough, that is about the same amount of time the proposed Black Route could save you on your journey past Newport by 2022. If you can stomach it, read this article again, and you will have spent as much time on this article as you will save in travelling past Newport on the proposed M4 Relief Road by 2051. What kind of society have we created that would exchange ten minutes of a hypothetical car journey for a landscape and waterways that have been fizzing with a density of life comparable with the rainforests for hundreds of years?
In the politely adversarial atmosphere of the former steel workers’ social club that has hosted this whole sorry saga, I have watched the Welsh government’s legal team scurrying to and fro, whispering and passing papers back and forth. To draw myself away from the sight of the government’s QCs alternating between aggressively ripping into our expert witnesses and gazing up at the planning inspector with canine servility, I have often found myself looking out of the window at the traffic ploughing past. Deeply disturbed that this scheme may be approved despite our efforts, and searching for parallels, I have been unable to resist adapting T. S. Eliot:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang… but with a public inquiry.
Ian Rappel is Chief Executive for the Gwent Wildlife Trust
To find out how you can support the campaign to save the Gwent Levels, go to: http://www.gwentwildlife.org/how-you-can-help/m4-relief-road-help-us-protect-gwent-levels