Dark side of the roads

Why must we pay five times more for roads to be built privately? Because ministers claim it's more efficient. One year on from the Newbury protests, Paul Evans hits a wall of official silence.

The Guardian, Wednesday January 15 1997

When the phone rings at four in the morning it always means trouble. This Sunday it's Trollheim. «It's under attack. They moved in at three o'clock,» says Rob, «and they don't seem to be interested in safety; they've got machinery very close to the tunnels.» Allercombe fell before Christmas. By mid-afternoon, Trollheim has been overcome.

These modern-day hill forts on the A30 look out over rolling Devon countryside where Coleridge, who lived in nearby Ottery St. Mary, and his pal Wordsworth once wandered cloudily, composing poems about its wonderful trees. A truly Wordsworthy oak stands within the ramshackle walls of the Fairmile camp. Within its magnificent spreading boughs are tarpaulined tree houses; beneath its roots, a warren of tunnels. The Fairmile camp is now all that stands in the way of the A30 Honiton to Exeter «improvement».

When it is built, the road will smash through woods and copses, shear through rolling hills and, supported on concrete pillars, will cut across the water meadows, with their Saxon burial grounds. It's hard to imagine a more devastating testimony to the 20th-century folly in this landscape.

The arguments for the road are about reducing travel time and congestion and making the existing roads in the area safer. Despite proposals which would solve these local problems without building a huge new road, in the dark, Kafkaesque logic of Britain's road-building programme, the A30 extension has manoeuvred its way through all the planning stages, the public inquiry and all the opposition.

But on the A30, the anti-roads lobby finds itself in an additional labyrinth, every bit as dangerous as the tunnels under the camps but inhabited by the shadowy, powerful Minotaurs of international big business. The A30 extension belongs to a new breed of roads: known as a DBFO, it is part of the Government's private finance initiative (PFI), a road that is privately Designed, privately Built, privately Financed and privately Operated.

In the 1994 budget, the Chancellor reduced public spending and borrowing on new roads, a much-heralded U-turn for the roads programme. What actually happened was that many of the proposed new roads put on hold were diverted to the PFI to become DBFOs. The A30 DBFO is run by a consortium called Connect. This international group will foot the bill for the road's design, construction and maintenance, an initial outlay thought to be £75 million, and will be paid back by the Government for 30 years through a system of «shadow tolls», based on the amount of traffic using the road.

John Watts, the roads minister, says the Government finds it cheaper to procure roads under DBFO, which provides better value for money. Shadow tolls, he claims, will ensure that the road is paid for as it is being used, and the design part will allow the consortium to incorporate «efficiencies» and a 30-year commitment to low maintenance, which conventional construction can't.

An AA report on DBFOs is sceptical and claims that they could actually cost the taxpayer five times more than the Government says they will. Critics of DBFO claim that because it costs the private sector more to borrow money than it would for the Government, these roads will inevitably cost far more. According to Emma Must, of Transport 2000, the DBFO scheme is a (quite legal) scam: «This is road building on hire-purchase,» she says. «It is destroying the environment for future generations and asking them to pay for it.»

But these are much more than roads. Despite John Watts' assurance that a ceiling on the shadow tolls will control the volume of traffic, environmentalists are concerned that the DBFO roads will only make money for their investors provided there is sufficient ribbon development along them to induce more traffic to use their sections of the roads.

Transport 2000 and others claim that international legal experts are now advising their clients to induce more traffic onto DBFO roads by lobbying for housing and supermarket developments along their routes. Contract Journal advised construction companies that they should maximise traffic using their stretch of road by influencing road signs, running down public transport and promoting in-fill development.

Along the A30 Honiton-Exeter corridor, there is already talk of a new town and 3,000 new houses, a power station, an extension of the industrial estate at the junction with the M5, a technology park, an extension to Exeter airport and a services area at Stanway Head, with shops, a motel and woodland leisure complex. The local authority for East Devon refuses to comment.

Indeed, getting any information about DBFO schemes in notoriously difficult because they are cloaked in «commercial confidentiality». Neither the Government nor the consortium will release figures about costs and shadow tolls. The Connect consortium declined to take part in a recent BBC Radio 4 Costing The Earth programme because it did not want to be involved in any dialogue with road protesters. What is known is that Connect is 47 per cent owned by BICC, the parent of road construction company Balfour Beatty; 47 per cent by Holzman, the giant German construction company; and 5 per cent by WS Atkins, the consulting engineers. The Bank of America arranges the finance with other international banks and there is a bevy of traffic and legal advisory companies who have fingers in many privatisation pies.

Connect refuses to answer questions about how many vehicles will use the road, how much vehicles will be charged through shadow tolls, and what number of vehicles make the road a viable proposition -- again on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, even though this is a road being paid for by public money. Neither Connect nor government departments will tell taxpayers how much they will be charged for DBFO roads.

Connect admits that the DBFO is «more expensive» because it costs more to borrow money and it is designed and built to last longer. When asked how much Connect is having to pay for security from, or the removal of, the protesters, a prepared statement says «both the Highways Agency and Connect are responsible for the smooth completion of the job and appropriate arrengements are in place to manage all aspects of the job, including protester risk».

Now, «appropriate arrengements» have begun to remove «protester risk». Risk? The protesters are risking life and limb, trying to arouse public passions to get these roads stopped. There are currently six DBFO contracts signed around the country and more are on the cards.

«I think if people knew what was being done in the name of solving Britain's transport problems they'd be outraged,» says Rob. «They're [the Government] effectively mortgaging our future and we're going to make it bloody hard for them.» It's a bloody hard road.

Tales from the Trollheim bunker

WE HAD a few minutes notice, and Brid, Lovelee and I had just enough time get in our hole and lock on. We were in the «bunker» underneath the tree trunk, about three feet down in a hole dug between the roots. We had pieces of steel cable round our wrists. This was clipped to a bar which went through the tube into a concrete box. There was just enough room for the three of us to sit there. We had food enough for several days. We drank our ginger wine and ate chocolate.

Then they started using power tools within inches of our heads. The whole bunker shook. They got the reinforced steel door off in just a few minutes. They must have chipped away at the concrete surrounds. One of us was blocking the door. She was shoved and kicked around a bit when they came in, but we tried to keep it «fluffy».

Then they used saws and equipment which came within millimetres of our flesh. It's a miracle we only got scratches. All I could see was the edge of our flag on the battlements. We came out after eight hours, with a mixture of relief, sadness, numbness. We were fried and confused. It didn't hit me until much later that I am homeless now.

   Protester Joy