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Do We Have to Set England Alight Again

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 infinitum.

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 expansion.

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 to halt.

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 itself.

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.