The road protesters of the 1990s lost the battles but
won the war. But has New Labour learned from their experience?
The Ecologist, March 2004
It is a hot summer evening in June 1993, and 200 people
are sitting in - or, technically above - a water meadow
in Hampshire. The sky is cloudless but nobody can see
the stars. It's past dark, but the countryside seems
louder than an airport runway. The sky is a brilliant,
unnatural orange, and the air is filled with the roar
of engines and the sounds of hundreds of voices.
This is not going to be a normal night.
It's a stand-off. On one side, dozens of construction
workers and security guards, all fluorescent jackets,
hard hats, yellow machines, arc lamps and overtime.
Backing them up, perhaps 100 members of the Hampshire
constabulary, helmeted and uniformed and not quite sure
what happens next. On the other side, us.
Us, on this occasion, is a motley collection of local
people, students, travellers and ecologists. We are
chained, by various parts of our body, to the girders
of a temporary steel bridge which has been constructed,
for one night only, here on the edge of the Hampshire
downs. And we have no intention of leaving.
The construction workers have built this bridge to
transport their yellow machines and arc lamps from one
side of the A33 to the other. They have closed the road,
just for tonight, to give themselves the time to do
it. On one side of the road is the city of Winchester.
On the other side is Twyford Down; a great, green beautiful
hump of ancient land, ringed with hill-forts and ancient
mazes, dotted with historic monuments and rare plants.
The men and their machines have come to build a motorway
straight through the middle of it. We have come to stop
They have only been given permission to close the A33
for one night. This is why we're here. If we can stop
them moving the temporary bridge across the road - if
we can get in their way until dawn, just until dawn
- then we will have shoved a big, awkward and unexpected
spoke in their wheels. We know this, and they know this.
They have planned this operation with care. They have
even, for reasons best know to themselves, given it
a military-sounding name: Operation Market Garden. This
is fine by us. We have a name too: Operation Greenfly.
Their bridge isn't going anywhere until we do. And we
are locked down.
For hours we stay up there, lit by arc lamps, ringed
by police and yellow-jacketed security guards. We bang
on the steel with wood and metal pipes, chanting in
time to the deafening roar. We paint our faces with
chalk and howl defiance at the moon. Eventually the
police, who have never seen anything like this before,
give up trying to persuade us down through loudhailers,
bring out their hydraulic bolt cutters and climb up
to cut us down.
It takes them most of the night, but they do it. They
cut us down, clear us away, arrest us and - just - get
their machines across the road before first light. Eventually,
with 50 others, I am arrested, chucked into a van and
taken to Southampton police station to spend the night
in a cell.
The next morning, everything was different. Something
happened on that hill which would turn into something
much bigger in the next few years. It had not been seen
before, but it would be seen again, with greater frequency
and in greater numbers. This, though none of us knew
it at the time, was the start of something big.
Over the next five years, direct action protests against
the construction of new roads were to become almost
as common across Britain as motorway tailbacks. The
road protest movement turned the country upside down,
mobilised thousands and probably inspired millions.
It destroyed the Conservative government's multi-million
pound transport policy; it is not an exaggeration say
that it helped destroy the government too. After the
roads protests, the debate about transport and the environment
in Britain would never be the same again.
Roads for Prosperity
It all began in 1989. In that year, the Tory government
published a document entitled 'Roads For Prosperity,'
which was to be the foundation of its new transport
strategy. Its central boast was the creation of "the
biggest road-building programme since the Romans."
In order to meet projected traffic growth, the government
planned to build 2,700 miles of new roads - doubling
trunk road capacity - including 150 new bypasses. This,
said the Tories would give people what they wanted and
the economy what it needed: more space for more cars,
Unfortunately, many of these new road schemes would
involve destroying, damaging or obliterating historic
buildings, ancient monuments, rare ecosystems, sites
of special scientific interest, nature reserves and
other places of rarity and beauty all across the increasingly
beleaguered British countryside. None of this bothered
the Tories, to whom the 'freedom to drive' had become
a mantra which would override all else. They didn't
think anyone would mind - or would do anything about
it if they did. Seldom has any government miscalculated
The first signs of their mistake went unnoticed. In
mid-1992, a ragged encampment of about fifteen people
had set up home on the top of Twyford Down, target of
the first of the government's new schemes - and one
of the most controversial. The Down was to be destroyed
in order to extend the M3 motorway from Winchester to
the coast, thus saving the hard-pressed driver twelve
minutes on his journey from London to Southampton. 'Destroyed',
on this occasion, was no exaggeration - the motorway
was to tear right through the middle of the Down, taking
Iron Age trackways, ancient grasslands, butterfly breeding-grounds
and much of the rural peace surrounding Winchester with
it. For years, a small, determined group of local campaigners
had been fighting the proposals. Now it seemed they
had lost; the road was coming, whether they liked it
But those on top of the Down had other ideas. They
were outcasts: 'new age' travellers, vilified by the
press, looked on suspiciously by some of the locals,
they set up home on the Down with a few old tents, a
couple of fires and a goat, and vowed to stop the construction
of the road. Slowly, their numbers grew. Environmentalists
across the country began to take notice. So did the
authorities. One day in December 1992, before dawn,
a mass of yellow-jacketed Group Four security guards
descended on the camp and beat, brutalised and battered
its inhabitants, destroying their possessions and throwing
them off the hill.
It was a bad mistake. 'Yellow Wednesday', as it became
known, had the opposite effect to that intended; it
radicalised and infuriated many people to whom the idea
of building a road across the Down was already an outrage.
People from all over Britain began arriving at Twyford,
joining the camp, and the fight. Local residents joined
in. Big national green NGOs, which had been keeping
their distance from the potentially illegal actions
of the hill-dwellers, began to express support. The
campaign began to snowball.
By the time construction began the next year, it was
a force to be reckoned with. For the next eighteen months,
thousands sat in front of bulldozers, tied themselves
to trees, set up and were thrown out of camps, invaded
offices, disabled machines, took to the streets. Students
at Winchester College, one of the country's most exclusive
private schools, joined hands with travellers living
in vans. Second World War veterans gave their medals
to crusties camped out on the hill, telling them they
were the inheritors of their fight to protect the land.
Security guards resigned in protest at what they were
expected to do to peaceful dissidents. Thousands took
part. Hundreds were arrested. Media coverage was huge.
National support for the protesters was high and rising.
The government was shaken.
And the road was built anyway.
Battles and wars
In other words, we lost. Drive down the M3 today and
that huge, white chalk-sided cutting you pass through
just outside Winchester is what remains of Twyford Down.
We lost, and the government won. At least, that was
how it seemed at the time. In fact, though, the struggle
to save Twyford Down was just one of the battles that
the road protest movement would have to lose before
- unexpectedly and quite massively - it won the war.
For, over the next three years, what began at Twyford
would grow into a national environmental crusade and
then, even more unexpectedly, a national political movement;
one that still has echoes today. Inspired by the fight
for Twyford, protest camps began to spring up at other
sites across the country. At each one, the pattern was
Local protests, which had often been going on for years,
were ignored by central government or overruled by biased
public inquiries. Protest camps sprang up, inhabited
initially by those with nothing to lose: unsung heroes
who never looked the part. Middle England would overcome
its suspicion of nose rings and marijuana and join them.
National NGOs would see this as a sign that their members
would not be offended if they did their jobs and supported
the protests. The alliance would grow. The machines
would come. Alerts would be sent out. Hundreds of supporters
would descend from across the country, willing to do
whatever it took to stand in the way of the road-builders.
Battle would be joined.
Each time, tactics would grow more sophisticated. At
Jesmond Dene near Newcastle, the first treehouses were
built, in 1993, to try and prevent the Cradlewell bypass
tearing its way through a conservation area and taking
180 trees with it. By the time a camp sprang up on top
of Solsbury Hill, outside Bath, a few months later,
to try and stop the construction of the Batheaston bypass,
they were almost homely affairs, which people lived,
ate and slept in, with only a minimum of danger (though
it never seemed that way when the wind blew). Alarm
systems and lookouts developed, lock-ons grew in sophistication.
Tunnels were built, growing in length and complexity.
Every time the police and the security men came to clear
the camps it took them longer and longer; cost them
more and more. And every time they came, they found
more people waiting for them.
By now, things were getting unpleasant for the government.
The direct action against the construction of the roads
had been accompanied by an equally determined political
assault on the very basis of their transport policy.
When they had set it out, a few years earlier, few had
questioned the fundamental thinking behind it: that
road traffic was set to increase, and that the increase
must be provided for. Now, the questions were coming
thick and fast. How could the government be sure that
its predictions were right? Even if they were, calculations
done by organisations including Transport 2000 and Friends
of the Earth showed clearly that even if all the planned
new roads were built, they would ease congestion for
only a few years at best; then the roads would clog
up again. What would happen then?
The entire 'predict and provide' approach to transport,
said growing numbers of people - including the Labour
opposition - was flawed. Instead, the government should
be managing demand; getting drivers out of their cars
with a combination of improved public transport and
measures like congestion charging and increase in fuel
prices. Opinion polls showed that consistent majorities
of the public agreed with them.
They also agreed with Dolly Watson, a 92-year old pensioner
who was about to be evicted from the house she was born
in, in Claremont Road, Leyton, east London, to make
way for the M11 link road. Dolly was just one of the
many local residents who joined together with hundreds
of protesters to create an unprecedented urban resistance
zone. Whole streets were occupied by protesters, who
concreted themselves into barrels, tied themselves to
chimneys, built vast scaffolding towers on the roofs,
strung huge nets from house to house, occupied bulldozers.
Two 'Independent Republics' were created - Wanstonia
and Leytonstonia - with their own passports and laws,
in which the residents claimed to have seceded from
the United Kingdom, and refused to recognise the authority
of its laws - or its police force. Chopping down contested
trees had been hard enough for the construction companies;
destroying entire inhabited streets was another matter
By now, the government was in full retreat. Road protesters
were everywhere: up trees, down tunnels, in the papers,
on Newsnight. They had become folk heroes; new Robin
Hoods, protecting the last of the greenwood. So effective
were the protests that they had inspired international
imitators, from Ireland to Germany to Spain. Foreign
protesters came to the camps of Britain to learn about
the best lock-on techniques and how to shore up tunnels.
The Tory transport budget was spiralling out of control.
Worst of all, a government committee charged with rubber-stamping
its transport policy had just concluded very publicly
that what the protesters had been saying all along was
right - building more roads simply encouraged more people
to drive on them. It didn't prevent congestion; it caused
By 1996, the game was up. A general election was in
the offing; it was clearly going to be won by an opposition
that had promised to tear up the government's road-building
plans and start again. Meanwhile, in central England,
the biggest, most sophisticated and most determined
protest of them all was taking place along the nine-mile
route of the Newbury bypass, as the most idiotic and
destructive road scheme yet was fought by thousands
of people. An epic battle was launched from a network
of 26 camps along its route, to prevent three sites
of special scientific interest, an area of outstanding
natural beauty, a stone age settlement, eleven archaeological
sites, two Civil War battlefields, the crystal-clear
river Lambourn and woodland estimated to contain 10,000
trees from being torn apart by a road which even the
environment correspondent of the Daily Telegraph said
he would be prepared to go to prison to prevent.
The Newbury bypass was built. Over-budget and over-time,
but it was built. So were the M3 extension, the M11
link road, the Cradlewell bypass, the Batheaston bypass
and others. Every road that was fought by protesters
on the ground was built, despite their efforts. And
yet, less than half a decade after those first few dissidents
set up camp on top of Twyford Down, the government's
transport policy lay in ruins - and the government with
it. A vast country-wide debate on transport had been
initiated. The incoming Labour government cancelled
most of the remaining road schemes and committed itself
to getting drivers out of their cars instead. The national
atmosphere had changed, and it was entirely due to the
thousands of people who had initiated the protests against
the roads, often risking everything in the process.
Naturally, of course, we did not all live happily ever
after. The Blair government has, since 1997, performed
a perfectly-executed U-turn on road-building, and hopes
that the new government might deliver a sustainable
transport system have been dashed. Its transport policy,
which kicked off in 1997 with John Prescott pledging
to reduce the number of cars on the roads within five
years, now includes £30 billion of road-building,
made up mostly of motorway and trunk road widening,
with a few bypasses thrown in for good measure. Rises
in fuel costs have been checked. Trains and buses have
become more expensive. It can seem, sometimes, that
we are back where we begun in 1989.
Except that the legacy of the road protests is still
there - and so, crucially, is the threat of more. Labour,
unlike its Tory predecessors, has made a great public
show of cancelling the more destructive road schemes
that were being considered - including, in recent years,
bypasses around Salisbury, Hastings and Arundel which
could have seen protests on the scale of Newbury had
they gone ahead (in the case of Arundel, the treehouses
and the tunnels were in the process of being built when
the scheme was cancelled.)
Nevertheless, the current government is effectively
committedto the same roads policy as its forbears: attempting
to build its way out of the problem. Now, as then, it
doesn't work. Now, as then, it wipes out more and more
countryside even as it fails to solve the problem. Now,
as then, protests, locally and nationally, are beginning
to take off again. John Prescott had a fight on his
hands three years back when he pushed ahead with the
Birmingham Northern Relief Road, through 27 miles of
green belt and numerous protest camps. The next flashpoint
could be a new road through the Blackdown Hills, an
Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in Devon.
If this - or any of the other controversial schemes
currently on the drawing board - goes ahead, treehouses
and tunnels could again become a common feature of the
British countryside. If that happens, the chances of
Labour's transport 'policy', such as it is, emerging
intact are as slim as the Tories' were before it. The
problem for the government is that road protesting works.