Features & Reports
Comment & Opinion
Interviews & more
  About Paul
  Links and Campaigns

Road Rage

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 them.

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, ad infinitum.

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 so badly.

Something stirs
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 or not.

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 similar.

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.

Urban warfare
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 entirely.

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 it.

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.

All change?
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.