Eco-warriors undefeated

The Independent Saturday April 6 1996

Anti-roads protesters may have lost a battle at Newbury. But they are well-equipped for a long war. Mary Braid reports.

Steady Eddie, 28, a self-employed electrician, picks up the phone in the eco-warriors' media centre, an office on a Newbury industrial estate. «Depressed?» he says, raising his voice above the sound of CB radio and mobile phones. «Not a bit. People have just gone off to get their strength back and their heads together. Some went down to Winchester to watch the eclipse.»

The last of 30 tree-top settlements -- Tot Hill and Castle Camp -- was cleard by bailiffs this week on the route for the Newbury bypass and their agile environmental guerillas evicted or arrested. Despite the best efforts of the tree dwellers, an eight-mile scar now slits through forest and across meadow and hills a few miles outside Newbury.

The bulldozers and the hardhats appear to have won. They seem to have defeated the hard-core eco-warriors, born at Twyford Down in 1992 (the first direct action anti-road campaign) and veterans of the fight against the M11 London link campaign two years later -- who have emerged at Newbury as gladiators of the wider environmental movement.

Now the bypass, which definitely has the support of the majority of residents in the fume-choked, traffic-jammed town, seems almost certain to be completed. The Government is putting construction out to tender. Never has a British road been abandoned at this late stage.

This week the Highways Agency was in a bullish mood. It played down the disruptive effect of the protest, portraying the eco-warriors as nuisances, busy devouring public funds rather than operating as the land's custodians. Ten thousand trees had now been felled, said a spokesman, and the bypass was on schedule. Road protests are apparently now built into work schedules.

And the law has weighed in heavily on the side of the builders. More than 700 protesters were arrested under the new Criminal Justice Act. Some were jailed or bailed to keep away from the site. When all else failed, the environmental champions turned to a rare tiny snail -- Desmoulin's whorl -- to stop the giant diggers. They failed to convince the High Court that the bypass should be delayed until the safety of the snail was assured.

But a bigger long-term issue faces the anti-roads campaigners this weekend than the loss of one battle at Newbury. There is an important question mark over whether the tactics they adopted are undermining their efforts to win over public opinion.

For the last three months it has been all-out war between the hardhats and the Third Battle of Newbury troops (so-called because of two previous civil war battles) led by the dreadlocked tree climbers, with names like Blackbird and Galahad, and their underground allies, who have tunnelled beneath the bypass route to complement sabotage from the air.

As bailiffs and protesters fought it out in the trees, it was surprising that no one actually dies. It eventually became a battle to see who could rise the earliest. The protesters got up at 4am to sabotage bulldozer routes; private security guards rose at 2am, in camouflage black, to destroy the tunnels being burrowed underground.

Leonie Austin, Highways Agency spokeswoman, says protesters' methods were «extremely dangerous» and reels off a litany of offences including planting spiked balls, spiking trees to damage chainsaws and the severing of vehicle brake cables (these are claims protesters dismiss as exaggeration or invention).

Intimidation of Highways Agency staff, she says, was widespread. «Most of our engineers had to go ex-directory.» Since Twyford Down the protesters have become «cleverer and slicker and they were always violent». In a rural setting the agency has found guerilla tactics harder to combat than in the cities.

«There was a long period of democratic debate about this road and it's not our money being spent on security but yours,» she says, no doubt most keen to reach those taxpayers who have popped pennies in the Newbury protest collection box. The bill for police and private security guards is expected to reach £4m.

And if public finance does not rattle your cage, hoe about those excrement and urine bombs? They hardly had the impact of a fatal concrete block dropped from a motorway bridge during the miners' strike, but they did create a little distaste for protesters' methods.

But not everyone believes that the tactics of the anti-roads campaign turned off the public. Danny Penman, who is writing a book about Newbury, believes that the protesters are still winning the public relations front. «Newbury was the first time it was in everyone's face,» he says, pointing to the greater media coverage. «They have put the issue of road building on the national agenda.»

At Newbury, New Age has joined middle-aged, middle class, middle England in a formidable display of opposition to the Government's road-building programme. Old biddies in woolly hats have stood side by side with nose-ringed youngsters. Perhaps the strongest sign of confidence in the Newbury protesters and their tactics was Friends of the Earth's decision to become the first mainstream environmental pressure group publicly to lend them support.

Mr Penman admits that urine did rain and excrement did fall, but rarely; pink paint and sticky mushroom soup were the protesters' favourites. The anti-roads brigade, skilful manipulators of the media, assumes that body waste would not go down well with the public but, in an essentially anarchist network, it is impossible to control everyone's actions.

Even Paul Everitt, director of the British Road Federation, supporters of the bypass, admits that the protesters have a strong built-in advantage. A man in a suit holding a press conference is never as sexy -- to the public or those who provide their news -- as the heroes who live in the trees. Hence Newbury has become the frustrated home news reporters war zone, with hacks queuing up to report from a treehouse on the front line. «I try to wear a colorful tie,» says Mr Everitt, lamely.

He also tries to get the message over that the real «losers» are the people of Newbury. But «no reporter has spent a day with a local trying to drive around Newbury». He parodies: «Here I am sitting in the car with Mr A and we can't get out of the driveway...» And if the superior appeal of latter-day Tarzans were not enough, he wrestles daily with a hypocritical public, happy to give a donation to save nice trees but ultimately unwilling to part with their cars.

The protesters have an effect, he concludes, though not as directly as they might think. They do influence public opinion, which affects government decisions, such as the Treasury's £240m cut to the road-building programme. Compared to that £4m in security costs is a drop in the ocean for a government keen not to lose face when confronted by civil disobediance.

Few on either side really believe that the protesters are about to pack up and retire to that second treehouse in Devon. Furthermore, Danny Penman predicts that Newbury may be the tree dwellers' zenith. «They are not drop-outs but social revolutionaries with a desire to see widespread social change.» After months of tree-top and tent discussions, he says tactics are about to change. «This type of protest has reached a cul-de-sac. The protesters will now move on to a wider battle against the motor car.»

Whatever happens the foot soldiers remain loyal. Celia Murphy, 27, an NHS supplies buyer from Birmingham, started road campaigning last year. She is now a fundraiser for the Third Battle and a frequent weekend visitor to Newbury. Asthma runs in her family and although she has only mild symptoms, her two sisters suffer chronic attacks. She supports Friends of the Earth's proposal to cut traffic by 5 per cent by 2005 -- radical when the Government is expecting the number of vehicles to double.

But Newbury is more than an anti-road campaign. The values and philosophies that guide the protest have caught Ms Murphy's imagination. Here live larger-than-life characters struggling to find a new way and creating, through the names of their camps and battles, a new community mythology. Such freedom occasionally throws up the surreal, like the self-styled King Arthur Pendragon, who headed the Camelot camp and is firmly convinced, along with his Druid followers, that it is his destiny to save the land from environmental disaster.

«What amazed me when I visited was people's understanding of the issues and how highly educated they were,» says Ms Murphy, who adds she has seen little or no aggression from protesters, who regularly discuss how to remain «fluffy» in the heat of battle. «I took my uncle down, who is a historian and he thought it was like the early days of Christianity; all these people sitting round and talking and arguing about so many issues.»

She is not surprised that the attempts to stop the route being cut have failed. But neither does she think that the war is over. She will continue to visit at weekends with the donations that show no sign of drying up.

«Sometimes it feels a little panicky here. They believe there will be environmental disaster. While they are working at break-neck speed most people are just getting in their cars and living ordinary lives. I think theirs is a saner reality.»

For Steady Eddie and those manning the fort this weekend this is simply a welcome lull in hostilities. At Twyford Down the greatest disruption came after the site was cleared and construction began. «They have an 18-mile perimeter fence to patrol now and they will never keep us out,» he laughs. «You can help or you can watch Neighbours