Far-sighted view from the tripod

The Guardian Tuesday January 30 1996

Commentary: Hugo Young

THE MOST awe-inspiring political figure I've met this year goes by the name of Ballin. At a time when party leaders are hyping their sincerity machines into overdrive, straining to prove the other man the bigger hypocrite, Ballin makes frauds of them all. For 16 days and nights, he lived ten feet above the ground, dangling from a scaffolding tripod, exposed to the bitterest winds of winter, descending only to cook and defecate, available for civilised discussion about national transport policy with anyone who passed by the Newbury crossroads where he perched. One is reminded, first of all, that neither Mr Major nor Mr Blair has ever made a truly personal sacrifice for anything he believes in.

Ballin is 31 and an educated, cheerful man, but his conduct looks like madness. Although he had his few seconds of television fame, he holds no place in the national argument. Like Simeon Stylites, the 5th century saint who lived on a pillar, he sends only a signal against the decadence of certain forms of modernity. And, as is usually the fate of such uncomfortable prophets, he provoked uncontrollable rage. The other night, he was pulled down from his tripod by three local toughs calling themselves vigilantes, who said they would put a pickaxe through his head if he got back up. The police took rather longer to arrive at his squat, whose protection under statute had yet to be challenged, than they would at a burglary in the local manor-house.

Ballin has retired hurt. His vision, however, remains intact. His argument, and that of many other Newbury protesters, can for the first time be said to be winning. He is not, he told me from his eyrie, against people owning cars, only in favour of a public transport system that enables them often to be dispensed with. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the roads around Newbury is displayed to show how this could be arranged. Although he looks like a crank, and is behaving with pitiful lack of respect for what seem to be the economic trends, he is in fact the prophet of the coming orthodoxy. Newbury is the last stand not of the protesters but of the roads lobby. This is a transformation brought about entirely by protest, and as such has put most mainstream politicians to shame.

Hardly anyone expects the by-pass to be stopped. Swampy, another veteran of these campaigns, things the Highways Agency will have trouble recruiting enough expert climbers to do the police's dirty work and evict him from the vertiginous walkways his friends have built in the trees. He's pitching for solidarity among the rock-climbing crowd. There's also a naive idea that EU regulations for the protection of breeding birds, operable from mid-March, will be enforced by the constabulary. But the realists believe that the might of the chainsaw, wielded with political muscle, will prevail. They are oddly content. Their real ambition is a lot more strategic than the zealots of our professional political parties usually dare to be: to raise the cost, both financial and political, of this road so high that similar roads will not in future be built. In this they have perhaps already succeeded.

In the last Budget, roads spending was cut by 30 per cent and Newbury was the only big bypass to survive. Earlier, political protest mediated through marginally threatened Tory MPs stopped the widening of the M25. Beyond that, the philosophy of road-building has gone the same way as the economic certitudes that once seemed to make it incontestable. This has been registered in speeches by the Environment Secretary, John Gummer. It is underlined by the shift in academic analysis, again quietly supported by ministers who want to save money, towards the idea that car-use might be costed, controlled, deterred and prevented, rather than indulged. Thus, the thesis once advanced by Ballin and his kind against a hail of derision -- that large bypass schemes have an inexorable tendency to multiply traffic -- is approaching the status of conventional wisdom.

What's happening at Newbury is, therefore, the acting-out of time-warp politics. It is true there was a planning inquiry. But that was in 1988, before the need was recognised for environmental impact assessments. Alternative schemes, built around traffic control rather than demand, were at a less sophisticated stage of evolution. Updated studies the Highways Agency purports to have made last year are kept, suspiciously, secret. The truth is that the case for the bypass, considered in the light of modern knowledge and understanding, dare not to be exposed to a new test of public judgment. As between the law of the bulldozer, which has shortterm attraction to some local citizens, and the spirit of environmental protection, which we now dimly recognise as speaking a more durable truth, nothing seems able to stop the immediate ascendancy of might over right.

This is not, of course, an easy imbalance for a politician to challenge. Better public transport cannot be instantly arranged, though in Newbury it would cost a fraction of the bypass. Park-and-ride schemes, traffic-calming and car-share bonuses would have limited effect. Upgrading rail freight services requires a national political commitment. All the same, for abject failure over the bypass nothing exceeds the odium that should be heaped on the Liberal Democrats.

Here was a place where the party that is proudly green had the chance to teach other politicians a lesson. Their 1992 election manifesto said road schemes should be approved only where alternatives cost more, economically and environmentally. Newbury doesn't pass that test. Protecting the landscape and sites of special scientific interest bulked large among the promises. Three such sites will be wrecked by the bypass. Yet who is in charge of Newbury council? A Lib Dem majority. And who is the Newbury MP? A Lib Dem, who echoes the councillors in urging the chainsaws on, in the teeth of all protest.

Here was an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to carve out a different path: to apply their general principle to a particular situation they are in a position to influence, to argue for the new orthodoxy rather than assist the old. They flunked it. In power, it seems, they are no different from the short-termist destroyers in other parties. For the vision that gets things changed, look to the man suspended, crazily, from his tripod.