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Newbury

"Let it not be said,
and said unto your shame,
That there was beauty here,
before you came".
Sign at Newbury protest site

Dubbed "the next Twyford Down", Newbury was the most publicised 'roads vs people' campaign to date. The 66 million road was to be the most destructive road scheme in England. The six lane 12 mile road ploughed through rare healthland, ancient bogs, wildflower meadows & the River Kennet (one of England's most beautiful & unpolluted rivers). We lost twelve archaeological sites, nature reserves, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty & three Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Even the DoT's own Landscape Advisory Committee admitted that the bypass would be "massively destructive of a largely intimate landscape unable to absorb the impact of a major highway." They stated that:

"The damage to the Lambourne Valley & Snelsmore Common (both SSSI's) would be quite unaccepable."
So, on 19 Dec 94, Transport Secretary Brian Mawhinney postponed the scheme, promising a year-long review "to explore other options".

But the road got built anyway. Just 30 minutes before quitting as Transport Secretary to become Tory Party Chairman, Mawhinney gave the scheme the go-ahead, cynically terminating the review after just 6 months. The sane question is why?

The answer is revealing because Newbury's traffic problems show a global pattern. Like countless other towns & villages in England, Newbury's narrow streets had reached saturation point, choked by a continual flow of thunderous fume-belching traffic. The first bypass, built in the 1960s, simply encouraged the town to sprawl out, which in turn generated more traffic. Unsurprisingsly, independent evidence showed that a new bypass would have little or no effect on local conditions, but the road was never about reducing local traffic. Once the destruction was underway the Govt. announced that the so-called 'bypass' would now become part of the European Traffic Network, linking Glasgow in Scotland with Burgos in Spain.

The people who fought the road knew what it was all about from the start. As Andrew Wood of Newbury Friends of the Earth, said:

"This road is about financial & political gain for politicians, developers & landowners. Arguments for the road simply cloak those vested interests".

Why was the pro-bypass lobby group, 'Bypass Now', provided with 8000 worth of free office space by the local council? Perhaps 'Bypass Now' members David Rendell (Lib-Dem MP), Sir Gerald Whent, (head of Vodaphone), & Lord Caernarvon, helped them reach that decision.

The lobby group received huge corporate donations too, for there was prime building land at stake. Even as the clearance work began, there were over 700 planning permission sought for 'infill' building along the route, covering any remaining bits of green that might survive the road buiding.

The Third Battle

A broad alliance of groups opposed the scheme & 40 legal challenges to the EC were lodged while Friends of the Earth promoted alternative transport strategies. Potential bidders were warned by the DoT to allow 1m extra to deal with protests.

Early on protestors began creating tree-houses, finally growing into 14 highly-organized & well-defended 'sky villages' all along the proposed route.Some tree houses, like the 'Mother Ship' at Kennet Camp, were large enough to sleep 15 people. Meanwhile, underground, lengthy tunnels were been dug by the activists, in preparation for the final battle. Clearance work started in November 1995 backed by the arrival of some 12,00 hired security guards & Brays private detectives.

On day one, campaigners were ahead of the game and used 25-foot, three-legged tripod barriers to block the security access road, a tactic originally developed for anti-logging protests in Australia. The press loved it, & flocked to the area, complete with satellite dishes & 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 the gate of the coach station which was supplying transport to the site for the contractors. It was a good start, but would not be enough to stop the road, and there were patches of site clearance over the next few days.

One of the many joys of being involved at Newbury was the delightful diversity of campaigners. The central core of activists are always at the heart of a campaign, for it is their experience & commitment that holds the network together. But standing & fighting beside them were people from many backgrounds who came together for a common purpose: To stop the road. For many it was the first time they had ever protested about anything, but the overwhelming destruction around Newbury finally made passive obsevers get up from the telly & act.

There are no typical days on a protest site, but a pattern emerges. This was just such day. The contractors wanted to bring in 'cherry pickers', huge cranes carrying platforms to reach high inaccessible places, like tree tops. Our job was to stop them for as long as possible, so we occupied the route onto the site. This was a Public Footpath, so we felt within our rights to walk on it - en mass if we wanted to! The police saw it differently so brought in horses to force us to move. A nasty few hours followed, with the police getting increasingly aggressive with women with young children, old people, & others who were tired, frightened or weak. There were screams & calls to 'stop pushing!' But the police effort to clear the path went on.

Twyford Protest ©

One woman, clearly new to the campaign, whom I took to be from a middle-class Tory background, was in tears. She was crying to me that she couldn't believe that the police could behave like this. Part of me thought, "Welcome to the real world", but I held my tougue & tried to calm her down.

Many of these newcomers were astonished at the agressive police tactics. In my experience, most of the police are reasonable most of the time. But there are times when through circumstance, bad policing or sheer bloody mindedness, they become unreasonable, aggressive & menacing. A few of them seem to lose control when they are under stress & abuse their considerable power. Others act like automata, refusing to reason or even acknowledge you exist.

February 1996 saw 8,000 people attended a mass rally at Newbury, the largest anti-road protest at that time.
 

 

"The protestors were right". Steven Norris, who was a Tory transport minister when work on the Newbury bypass was started, publically admitted that protesters were right to oppose the road.

Mr Norris, who stood down at the last election, criticised the Government's transport policy & said in a BBC TV Panorama programme (17.03.97) that the bypass should never have been built on the chosen route.

He also says that protesters, who were forced from tree houses on the route when he was at the Department of Transport, "were right".

At the time the Department of Transport insisted that the road was essential. But Mr Norris, who was transport minister between April 1992 & July 1996, now says he was sympathetic to the protesters at the time but did not speak out. He blames the Government's flawed transport policy for the bypass being built."I think it's fair to say that the formula was more motorist-based than it should have been & that it didn't apply the same kind of cash values to environmental considerations which it did to motorists' inconvenience," said Norris.Tony Juniper, campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, responded angrily. Politicians, including Mr Norris, had refused to condemn the route publicly at the time of the protest. Juniper found Norris's comments "astonishing" & said they "fully vindicate the fight to stop that unnecessary & highly destructive road".

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related links: Twyford Down, M11 Link Road, Stringers Common, Reclaim the Streets, 100 Days of Protest, A Corporate response
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