A Green and Pleasant Land? Anti-Road Protesters Gain a Solid Footing in England

Legend has it that under the hills around Winchester, England’s ancient capital lies a sleeping dragon. Only when the tribes of Britain gather once again upon it’s head at Twyford Down would the dragon awake to protect the land and banish tyranny from the shores.

Now the dragon seems to be awake, and serving as a new focus of green consciousness. When Britain’s Department of Transport (DOT) decided to extend the M3 motorway through Twyford Down and the town of Newbury in 1993, the “Donga” tribe—environmentalists who took their name from the ancient system of trackways that criss-crossed the downs—pledged to fight the new threat to Southern England’s most cherished landscape.

The region’s traffic problem betray a global dilemma. Like countless other towns and villages in England, Newbury’s narrow streets have reached saturation point, choked by a continual flow of thunderous fume-belching traffic. Beleaguered citizens scurry along the pavements, nervously negotiating hazardous junctions.

Newbury’s first bypass, built in the 1960s, encouraged the town to sprawl out, which in turn generated more traffic. Later, a major drugstore chain built a superstore on one of its many roundabouts, canceling out what little remained of the relief road’s effectiveness in easing congestion. And now, planning permission is being sought for the building of 5,000 new homes along the route.

“This road is about financial and political gain for politicians, developers and landowners,” says Andrew Wood of Newbury Friends of the Earth. “Arguments for the road simply cloak those vested interests. Those that support the bypass—instead of debating the facts—are into portraying the opposition as outsiders, troublemakers and welfare cheats.” Wood says that the government needs to use laws and financial incentives to make England more user-friendly for cyclists and pedestrians, not more cars. “If the people don’t feel safe riding bikes, then we need to make the environment more friendly toward that mode of transportation,” he says.

Indeed, the British government predicts a 142 percent growth in car ownership by the year 2025. According to John Adams of the University College in London, the space required to park the projected 27 million vehicles would be the equivalent to a “new motorway from London to Edinburgh 250 lanes wide.”

Since the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution published a landmark report calling for “a fundamental change of culture” in 1994, politicians have been saying little about the issue. Senior government sources say that the British Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, regards the report’s recommendations that gasoline prices should be doubled and freight transferred to the rail network as a “nightmare,” and has successfully blocked a point-by-point response.

England’s environmentalists aren’t waiting for the government to change its mind, and so the DOT has to contend with 14 highly-organized and well-defended “sky villages” run by the demonstrators along the proposed route. Underground, lengthy tunnels have been dug “Viet Cong”-style by the activists. Above, some tree houses, like the “Mother Ship” at Kennet Camp, are large enough to sleep as many as 15 people.

The latest and most significant confrontation in this “eco-war” began early last January, as site clearance work for the bypass was to begin. Campaigners showed up with 25-foot, three-legged barriers to block the security access road, a tactic originally developed for anti-logging protests in Australia. Hordes of press flocked to the area, complete with satellite dishes and radio cars. “It just wasn’t the police’s day,” said the voice-over on the national news.

The next day, protesters locked themselves onto vehicles and buildings outside a nearby bus station. Faced with the prospect of hundreds of children not being able to get to school that morning, the company backed down. Site clearance work did take place, though, in fits and starts, over the next few days.

In Newbury passions are running high. With three Sites of Special Scientific Interest, rare healthland, ancient bogs, wildflower meadows and the River Kennet (one of England’s most beautiful and unpolluted rivers) due to be bulldozed, even the DOT’s own Landscape Advisory Committee has admitted that the bypass would be “massively destructive of a largely intimate landscape unable to absorb the impact of a major highway.”

“It would be in the nature of a desecration to build a road through a site of such profound significance to our national history,” says the actor and battlefield historian Robert Hardy, referring to the two Civil War battlefields that cross its path. Much of the landscape and hedgerows have remained unchanged since 1643, when opposing armies, 15,000 on each side, fought a desperate battle in what was to be a turning point in English history.

Twelve archaeological sites would also be destroyed by the bypass, including an historic Roman villa. The protesters also say that the serenity of the proud and ancient setting of Donnington Castle will be lost forever as traffic pours past within a few hundred yards.

The protests are being heard. Last year, as anti-roads campaigner Emma Must was winning the Goldman Environmental Prize in Washington, road spending in England was slashed by four billion pounds, and 77 planned roads were withdrawn completely, with many others de-prioritized. There has been a growing sense among environmentalists that a determined stand at Newbury could kill off the Government’s 23-billion-pound roads program altogether.

In this, the 100th year of the automobile, anti-road campaigning has arguably become one of Britain’s most successful exports. Similar direct-action confrontations are taking place in Austria, Germany, Denmark and France, with activists coming from as far away as Georgia and Estonia to take part. Even a popular Australian soap opera, Neighbors, has featured a campaign against a road there, with locals sitting in front of bulldozers and exposing fraudulent dealings in the halls of government.

On February 11, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace UK co-ordinated Britain’s largest ever anti-roads gathering. Six thousand people, including television celebrities and members of the British aristocracy, turned out to walk the proposed route. The Third Battle of Newbury looks set to dominate Britains’s environmental protest movement in 1996, with the impassioned defense of every copse, hedgerow and meadow along the route. The determined campaigners say that if the battle is lost, the blood spilt will be that of the land.