Magor Marsh Gwent Levels

Why we must protect the Gwent Levels for future generations

A new road to ease congestion on the M4 in south Wales was first proposed in the 1990s. The incoming Welsh First Minister is set to decide on whether it should be part of a sustainable Wales for years to come.
Celeste Hicks
By Celeste Hicks    |      Published:  29 Nov 2018    |      Last updated:  19 Dec 2018    |      6 minute read

The Gwent Levels has a particular beauty on a grey November morning. Under heavy skies a murmuration of starlings twists and turns over vast reedbeds where dazzling white little egrets are feeding.

Water voles live here but they're shy. Perhaps they're taking refuge from the drizzle under the bullrushes.

A water vole eating a leaf in shallow water
A water vole eating a leaf in shallow water
Credit: iStock/MikeLane45

This is one of the UK's most unique landscapes, sweeping the Severn Estuary coastline from Cardiff to the Severn Crossing. A series of fenland habitats is made up of land reclaimed from the sea during Roman times. Distinct field patterns are shaped by a network of reens, or drainage channels. Closer to the sea are salt marshes and mudflats.

It's a landscape loved by local people.

Catherine Linstrum, Chair of CALM, in a country lane facing camera
Catherine Linstrum, Chair of CALM, in a country lane facing camera
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

"I love the bleakness, especially on a day like this," says Catherine Linstrum, joint chair of the Campaign Against the Levels Motorway (CALM).

Catherine lives at St Brides and Wentlooge, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The proposed M4 extension would cut it in two.

Unique birdlife

"There's such a diversity of birdlife here. We've seen everything from sparrowhawks to bitterns. This shows how healthy the landscape is," says Catherine.

In 2018 a pair of common cranes was spotted at Barecroft Common nature reserve. It's thought the cranes had come from a population released into a neighbouring reserve in Somerset between 2010 and 2014. Native common cranes died out in the UK more than 400 years ago.

Neighbouring Magor Marsh is the last relatively intact area of fenland on the Gwent Levels. It's owned by Gwent Wildlife Trust and is a fantastic haven for nature. It's home to one of the UK's few remaining shrill carder bee populations. This tiny bee is now found at only a handful of sites.

Shrill carder bee feeding on flower
Shrill carder bee feeding on flower
Credit: Ivan Leidus

A long road

In 1991 the Welsh Office, the then government department for Wales, proposed a new section of road to take traffic off a heavily-used section of the M4 at Newport. Proponents argued that it would promote economic development in south Wales.

Friends of the Earth first began campaigning against the road in 1993, fearing it would cause irreparable damage to the Gwent Levels landscape and wildlife. The original scheme was also expected to be extremely costly.

Following a major campaign by local residents and environmental organisations, the deputy first minister of Wales finally rejected the plans for a new road in 2009.

The evidence is there that new roads create more traffic. These plans fail to take into account induced demand – if there is more road space demand for road space will increase.Catherine Linstrum, joint chair of CALM

But in December 2011 chancellor George Osborne revived the project. He announced that he would discuss options for improving the M4 with the Welsh government, including new options for finance.

In 2014 the Welsh transport minister approved plans for the so-called black route, a 23 km bypass running south of Newport.

Decision time

A public inquiry into this proposal ended in March 2018. Although the report has not yet been published, the Welsh government has promised Assembly Members (AMs) a vote before a final decision is taken.

Outgoing First Minister Carwyn Jones did not make a decision on the M4 before he stepped down in December 2018. The new First Minister Mark Drakeford has said he will look at the recommendations of the planning inspector as well as policy and legal advice before making a decision.

If you live in Wales and haven’t done so already, please take our online action to let your AMs know that Wales does not want or need this hugely damaging infrastructure project.

Irreparable damage

If the road goes ahead, it will cut across several important fenland areas, including a total of 4 SSSIs.

Sections of Barecroft Common, where the cranes were spotted breeding, are subject to a compulsory purchase order.

"The motorway would snap the protected habitat like a cracker in two, isolating wildlife populations on either side of the divide," says Ian Rappel, Chief Executive of Gwent Wildlife Trust. "This will devalue the habitat on both sides of the motorway making both populations smaller and more vulnerable to local extinction.”

Wales's own environmental regulatory body, Natural Resources Wales, has objected to the scheme. Its submission to the public inquiry concluded that "the impact on the Gwent Levels is too great."

Common crane on grassy area spreading wings
Common Crane on grassy area spreading wings
Credit: Istock/MikeLane45

Well-being of Future Generations Act

The decision on the M4 relief road is an important test of Wales's ground-breaking Well-being of Future Generations Act, which came into force in 2016.

Friends of the Earth Cymru was instrumental in drawing up this legislation. It requires all public bodies to consider the impact of their decisions on the future prosperity of people, environment, culture and communities.

"At a time when we need to be dramatically cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, opening up huge swathes of precious countryside to roadbuilding will not put us on the path to a sustainable future," says Haf Elgar, director of Friends of the Earth Cymru.

The Future Generations Act would be totally undermined if this road goes ahead.Haf Elgar, Director Friends of the Earth Cymru

Magor marsh, Gwent Levels. Stream, grasses and trees.
Reens at the Magor marsh, Gwent Levels. Stream, grasses and trees.
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

The Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, who was appointed in 2016, has been a vocal critic of the plans. She said the route around Newport will not cut congestion and is a "20th century solution to a 21st century problem".

We already know that building more roads creates more traffic. It's time to start spending money on better public transport and making walking and cycling easier.

Please consider taking part in our online action to protect the Gwent Levels from this damaging and myopic roadbuilding scheme.