Guest blog – 15 miles of What?! Where? by Ian Rappel

Photo: Lee Parsons

Ian Rappel is a conservationist and activist of 25 years. He’s currently Chief Executive for Gwent Wildlife Trust, and lives in Talgarth on the northern fringes of the Black Mountains.

Arriving at the Gwent Levels after travelling south through upland Wales it’s the intensity of the light and the sense of big skies that hits you first. As you work your way into the Levels it’s the network of ditches (locally known as ‘reens’) that further enrich your sensory journey. These slow-flowing waterbodies – lined with a rich diversity of bankside vegetation pulsating with water voles, birdlife and dragonflies – pull the sky’s reflection down to earth and on a sun-kissed day send golden streams across the landscape like benign forked lightning. Peer into the reens themselves and you’ll see how the sunlight cuts through a rich soup of aquatic life – the water fizzes with diving beetles, fish and snails. This simply wonderful corner of Wales is profoundly rich in life.

The Gwent Levels is one of the largest surviving areas of ancient grazing marsh and reen (drainage ditch) systems in Britain, and is the largest of its kind in Wales. Stretching from Chepstow all the way west to the edges of Cardiff, the area has been registered as a Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest, and its biodiversity significance is recognised nationally and internationally – especially through its jigsaw of SSSIs.

The richness of the wildlife of the Gwent Levels is legendary: otters, water voles, huge starling murmurations and jackdaw clatterings, various wading birds and 25 species of rare plants including rootless duckweed, Wolffia arrihiza, the smallest vascular plant on Earth. Over 150 Red List and rare aquatic invertebrates, including the impressive king diving beetle live on the Levels.

The wildlife is special, but it’s the relationship with humans that makes it even more so. Since the Romans first started draining and ditching the land to establish a secure breadbasket for their Caerleon garrison, the wildlife and human settlements of the Gwent Levels have co-evolved over two millennia. In these misanthropic ‘rewilding’ times, the biodiversity benefits of humans are often ignored but the Gwent Levels stand as testament that fellow humans can act as keystone species for the benefit of wildlife. Unfortunately, as elsewhere and throughout history, this positive interrelationship between nature and humanity is vulnerable. All it would take to destroy this special place is for one group of humans to apply a destructive, short-term mentality to the landscape. They could, for instance, build a dubious shortcut for the M4.

The planned new 15-mile section of the M4 motorway will slice the Gwent Levels in half, cutting through 4 SSSIs (as well as Gwent Wildlife Trust’s 50-year old Magor Marsh Nature Reserve). Alas, this motorway proposal is not an isolated attack. By 1995, 50% of the Wentloog Levels and 30% of the Caldicot Levels had already been lost to development and this chipping away has only continued over the last twenty years. If the plans for the motorway go ahead, habitats and species isolated to the north of the road will be vulnerable to further development. This is typical of the trends revealed by the State of Nature Reports – increasingly fragmented and hemmed-in biodiversity with the slow death by a thousand cuts that is driving much of the extinction crisis across the developed world.

The Welsh Government’s favoured route is the most damaging option available. Dubbed the ‘black route’ (rarely has a development proposal been given such an honest Mordoresque nomenclature), this £billion plus road proposal is in response to the M4 congestion at Newport and the alleged effect this is having on the Welsh Economy. The proposal to build the M4 ‘relief’ road is now the subject of a very expensive and lengthy Public Inquiry.

Gwent Wildlife Trust and others will be taking an unapologetic oppositional line at the Public Inquiry. We will present the case that the ‘black route’ is built on historically unreliable traffic forecasting models and a blend of political stubbornness and narrow mindedness, that the ecological ‘compensation’ proposals are woefully inadequate, and that this reliance on motorway building alone is a 1960s solution to a 21st Century problem! Above all, we will argue that the wildlife and people of South Wales deserve better because other options are available.

As conservationists, we are used to fighting these kinds of development proposals – and there’s certainly a dreaded familiarity to the proceedings so far. But there’s an additional, higher consideration at play this time. The Welsh Government has introduced some fantastically progressive legislation over the last few years. The “Well Being of Future Generations Act” (WBFG and its related Environment Act) has applied the original meaning of ‘sustainable development’ in a legal framework. As such, they have received plaudits from the United Nations: “What Wales is doing today, we hope the world will do tomorrow – action more than words is the hope for our future generations”.

The building of this motorway is the first real test case for the WBFG. But, by way of “action” this threatens to be the exact opposite of the definition of sustainable development that underpins these progressive laws – as the Welsh Government’s own Well Being Commissioner, Sophie Howe, has pointed out in her evidence to the Public Inquiry. The wider consideration for this case then is the standard one – words must be measured against deeds.

There was a time when we thought they’d got it. Twenty-five years ago, in the rosy afterglow of the Cold War at the Rio ’92 ‘Earth Summit’, our political leaders stood together and proclaimed their conversion to ‘sustainable development’. That was the spirit embedded within the Welsh Government’s new Well Being of Future Generations Act, but their legal team at the Public Inquiry has already made the case that the M4 relief road is consistent with sustainability and the interests of future generations.

If someone at the 1992 Earth Conference had stood up and proclaimed that their vision of sustainable development could be realised through a 15-mile stretch of 6-lane motorway – slicing through 4 SSSIs and breaking the ecology of a landscape that has witnessed a positive co-evolution of human settlement and biodiversity over two thousand years – they would have been laughed out of Brasil! Yet, here we are, a quarter of a century later – in a former social club for Welsh steel workers in Newport – listening to just that argument. And possibly witnessing the final 15-mile long nail being hammered into the coffin of meaningful ‘sustainable development’.

To help us with our campaign for sanity, and to save the wildlife and communities of the Gwent Levels please follow this link:


5 Replies to “Guest blog – 15 miles of What?! Where? by Ian Rappel”

  1. Thanks Ian for this well-argued case to save such an important part of the historic landscape. Thanks too for the great way you describe this area in your opening paragraphs.
    Who can resist making a donation?

  2. Tragic that this motorway is going forward. Hopefully the Inquiry coupled with political and public pressure can turn it around, but it is so telling that we are still in the position of these disastrous megaprojects.

  3. Just to let everyone know that we won (incredibly)! Although the high cost of the motorway scheme was cited, Mark Drakeford, the Wales First Minister, made the following significant comment in his report: “I recognise the Inspector’s conclusions as to the advantages and disadvantages of the [M4 Relief Road] Project. However, I attach greater weight than the Inspector did to the adverse impacts that the Project would have on the environment. In particular, I attach very significant weight to the fact that the Project would have a substantial adverse impact on the Gwent Levels SSSIs, and their reen [aka ditch] network and wildlife, and on other species and a permanent advers impact on the historic landscape of the Gwent Levels”. This is a pretty astonishing response. What the Wales First Minister is saying is that he disagrees with the Planning Inspecto’rs conclusion that the road was good value for money and economically beneficial (despite its £1.4bn price tag) because of the INTRINSIC VALUE of the Gwent Levels and its wildlife. That is not only a very courageous conslusion… it is also progressive to a degree far in advance of many ecologists and even some conservationists who are running around the place claiming that we should submit nature to economic valuation. What a credit to the campaigners involved. What a fantastic result for wildlife and the local communities of the Gwent Levels!!!

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