Do We Have to Set England
The proposed building of new airports
shows that nothing has changed since the road protests
New Statesman, 30th June 2003
One long night, ten years ago this
summer, my life changed forever. It was gone sunset,
but I could see no stars because it wasn't dark. I was
in an ancient water meadow in Hampshire, but the night
seemed noisier than if I'd been sitting by a Heathrow
runway. I was chained to a steel girder fifteen feet
above the ground and, along with 200 other people, I
had no intention of coming down.
The girder was part of a temporary
bridge being built across the A3 outside Winchester,
to allow heavy construction machinery to cross from
one side of the road to the other. On the other side
stood Twyford Down; a beautiful calm, green hill dotted
with historic monuments and rare plants, rabbit holes
and twisted copses. The machines had come to drive a
motorway straight through the middle of it. We had come
to stop them.
For hours we stayed up there, lit by
halogen arc lamps, ringed by police and yellow-jacketed
security guards. We banged on the steel with wood and
metal pipes, chanting in time to the deafening roar.
We painted our faces with chalk and howled defiance
at the moon. Eventually the police, who had spent hours
vainly ordering us down through loudhailers, gave up,
brought out their hydraulic bolt cutters and climbed
up to cut us down.
It took them most of the night. Eventually,
with 50 others, I was arrested, chucked into a van and
taken to Southampton police station to spend the night
in a cell. The next morning, as I stepped back out onto
the street, the sun was shining and everything had changed.
It had changed for me and, as it turned
out, for the country. Twyford Down was the first of
the unprecedented road protests that spread across Britain
throughout the 1990s. At Solsbury Hill near Bath, in
Pollok Woods outside Glasgow, in the self-proclaimed
'Republic of Wanstonia' in east London on the route
of the M11 extension, in camps along the nine mile route
of the Newbury bypass and on other sites across the
country, people fought not just against destructive
new roads, but against the assumptions behind them.
Those assumptions were summed up best
where it all began - in the Conservative government's
1989 policy document 'Roads For Prosperity.' Its central
boast was the creation of "the biggest road-building
programme since the Romans." In order to provide
for projected traffic growth in coming decades, the
government would build 2,700 miles of new roads - doubling
trunk road capacity - including 150 new bypasses, many
destroying historic and protected sites. This, said
the Tories would give people what they wanted and the
economy what it needed: more space for more cars, ad
This single policy announcement was
to radicalise a generation and lead to a furious debate
about transport policy. As the increasingly insane new
roads were built, against furious and inventive grassroots
opposition, doubts grew about the principle on which
it was all based - a principle known as 'predict and
provide.' Why, people asked, were we prepared to build
on the best of our countryside to provide for projected
and unnecessary traffic growth, rather than controlling
that growth? Why wasn't money instead being spent on
public transport and curbing car use? And wouldn't building
more roads simply encourage people to drive on them?
The debate intensified throughout the
1990s, with the Tory government increasingly on the
defensive. 'Roads for Prosperity' was finally dealt
a deathblow in 1994, when the government's own 'Standing
Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment' concluded
that what environmentalists had been saying for years
was correct - building more roads encourages more traffic.
The way to ease congestion and pollution was not to
accommodate more of it, but to take measures to control
car use. Tory transport policy collapsed.
When Labour came to power, the talk
was different. Most of the road schemes were suspended.
Ministers publicly scorned the 'predict and provide'
approach, talking instead about reducing traffic growth.
'I will have failed' said John Prescott famously in
1997, 'if in five years there are not many more people
using public transport and far fewer journeys by car.'
It seemed that the road protesters could at last roll
up their sleeping bags and go home. We may have lost
Twyford Down, Penn Wood, Solsbury Hill - we may have
lost those battles and those landscapes but we seemed,
in the end, to have won the war.
How wrong we were. What seemed in 1997
to be a peace treaty now turns out to have been a temporary
lull in fighting while the enemy sent behind the lines
for more ammunition. Today, new roads are springing
up all over the country - soon, in the latest instalment,
we can expect an announcement confirming £6bn
worth of new 12-lane 'freeways' based, as ever with
New Labour, on the American model. Prescott failed,
and very publicly: traffic growth, far from falling,
has risen by 7% since 1997, and it keeps on rising.
Scared by fuel protests and the powerful roads lobby,
the government has given up.
But Labour's broken promises on road
traffic reduction pale beside something that is about
to hit this country like a tornado. Something which
shows that 'predict and provide' is alive and well,
and which suggests that the battles we fought ten years
ago might have to be fought all over again: airport
Air traffic is growing with enormous
speed, fuelled by artificially cheap fuel (airline fuel
is untaxed), government subsidies and the rise of budget
airlines. Transport minister John Spellar summed up
the problem in April last year: 'we forecast for 2030
500 million passengers (a year), of which 300
million will be in the southeast. These are very big
numbers.' He was right there: those numbers represent
a tripling of the current number of air passengers.
Today's airports have no chance of being able to cope.
To provide for such a vast increase, in fact, would
require the equivalent of six new airports the size
of Heathrow. It must be obvious to everyone that it
can't, and shouldn't, be done.
Obvious, that is, to everyone but the
government, and the air transport lobby standing so
closely behind them. Their solution? Simple, and miserably
depressing: they have predicted - now they must provide.
We are still awaiting an air transport
white paper later this year which will explain exactly
how it will be done; but it is widely expected that
it will involve a whole raft of new airports and runways
on some of Britain's best countryside. 'UK airports',
says John Spellar, 'have a major role to play in maintaining
the health of our national economy as well as our international
competitiveness.' And when international competitiveness
is at stake New Labour, like the Conservatives before
them, will make whatever sacrifices are necessary.
This time around, the sacrifices look
likely to be every bit as painful. Options being considered
by the government include the expansion of up to 17
airports, and the construction of two entirely new ones
on virgin countryside. Research carried out by the Campaign
for the Protection of Rural England shows some of the
likely effects: an area the size of Cheshire, most of
it rural, newly polluted by aircraft noise that will
affect over 600,000 people - double the current figure.
The loss of 73 square km of agricultural and green belt
land, 44 sites of special scientific interest, 7 areas
of outstanding natural beauty, 319 listed buildings,
49 scheduled ancient monuments. The construction of
almost 200,000 new houses and - irony of ironies - lots
of new roads to service the terminals. And all of this
is without even considering the wider impacts on climate
change, to which air-travel is one of the fastest growing
contributors, and which Tony Blair insists he wants
It seems to me that I've stepped back
in time; that those in power have learnt nothing from
the road wars. We are right back where we began, because
this government, like every other before it, has given
up trying to tame the machine. We are, once again, sacrificing
the future for the present, and once those ancient villages,
those steeples and copses and lanes and barrows, those
hedgerows and meadows and hillsides and still, silent
ponds are gone, they are gone for good.
Today, we spend our weekends in Barcelona
as unthinkingly as our grandparents spent theirs in
Margate, and we enjoy it. But everything has its price,
and the price for experiencing so easily the wonders
of other countries is the destruction of the wonders
of our own. If the airports are built it may be that
we will wake up again, as we did in the 1990s, to what
is happening and why. It may be, though, that this time
it will be too late. 'That', as Philip Larkin wrote
thirty years ago, 'will be England gone.'
And yet it doesn't have to happen.
This time, perhaps we could stop it before it even gets
going. There are heartening signs already: all across
the country, local protests are rumbling into life,
and communities are organising to try and protect their
landscapes. Perhaps, as a society, we have our chances
and our choices all over again. Perhaps our growth-obsessed
government will even wake up and take responsibility
Perhaps, though, in the end, there
will be nothing for it but for those who have seen the
future in the recent past to dig out our old climbing
harnesses and headlamps and take to the trees, the tunnels
and the fields again, to help fight a war that we thought
we had already won.