Road rage

The Independent Section Two Tuesday 9 January 1996

Protesters are confident they will stop the Newbury bypas, despite a mighty security force. Danny Penman reports

To anti-roads protesters, Babylon symbolises a corrupt and greedy society destroying all in its path to move people from one end of a small island to the other. To the security guards listening to the cries of «Babylon» shouted from the tree tops of Newbury it is all very confusing.

The guards have been recruited over the past week by a work agency promising «good rates of pay for standing in a field». Their job is to grab protesters if they should break through security fences. Most of them have not expected to come face to face with the environmental arguments against the road they are being paid to protect. Nor did they expect to hear, as they have, friendly chatter mixed with deep philosophy from people they had been told were dirty dread-locked hippies.

There are very few dreadlocks at Newbury. Most of them belong to the 100 or so people who live in the tree houses built in the path of the Newbury bypass. But the tree houses and the network of Vietcong-style tunnels dug into the hillsides to serve as a last line of defence are only one small part of the Newbury anti-bypass campaign.

The protesters have spent nearly 18 months planning their strategy. Most of the direct action campaigns, like those against the M11 in East London and the M65 near Blackburn were conceived many months after construction work had started. At Newbury their aim has been to wage a war of attrition against roadbuilders from the start. For months the protesters have been building food dumps, scrounging miles of rope and begging and borrowing climbing equipment and motorcycle D-locks -- which they will use to chain themselves to construction machinery.

From day one, what the protesters are calling the Third Battle of Newbury (the first two were fought during the Civil War) will be a tough scrap for both sides. The campaigners will strike as soon as construction machinery moves into the area.

The contractors clearing the route face two start choices. Either they attempt to build a safe compound where they can store construction equipment, or they can try to clear the route using mobile chain-saw crews.

If they try to build a safe compound, the contractors will need to bring in convoys of equipment. Roads will be blocked in the area and as the convoy grinds to a halt, protesters will swarm over the vehicles and chain themselves to them.

When they finally get the machinery on site, the contractors will be vulnerable until they manage to erect strong security fences. Even then, many of the expert climbers involved in the campaign will be able to scale fences.

The protesters are determined to make the construction workers fight to build every inch of the road. Their greatest fear is of the mobile chain-saw crews, which will be difficult to counter because they could easily fell several dozen trees before campaigners can arrive.

To try to counter the direct action campaign, Blackwells, the route clearance contractors, have hired an estimated 1,000 security guards. They are being housed 15 miles to the north at Didcot power-station. The morale of the guards, who are paid only £3.50 per hour is a prime target.

As they were boarding coaches in London yesterday, the security guards were handed leaflets saying that Reliance Security is being paid £15 per hour for their services. If this is true, then the security operation alone will cost over £1m per week. Long before the main work was due to begin on the road, the campaigners began tackling surveyors monitoring the route as part of a wider campaign of «psychological warfare».

Tim Chapman, one of the organisers of the campaign, said: «Some people feel that the bulldozers are the important thing because they will do the damage but it is the surveyors that will bring them here. Whenever they turn up on our patch we're going to chase them away. It's a deliberate part of our psychological warfare. We're not just waiting in the camps, we're going on the offensive.»

The surveyors have become used to the predations of the protesters and simply leave when they turn up. For the contractors it will be somewhat difficult. Within hours of starting work they will find themselves facing hundreds of protesters, many of whom will travel scores of miles to join the tree-dwellers if needed. The organisers are lucky: the bypass is ideally placed for campaigners from London, Oxford, Brighton and Bristol -- all centres of anti-roads activism.

Yet, if all goes according to the Highways Agency's plans, within two years, three sites of special scientific interest, a civil war battlefield, 12 sites of archaeological importance and part of an area of outstanding natural beauty will be under the tarmac of the Newbury bypass.

Newbury District Council, the most vocal organisation backing the road, says the environmental benefits of the bypass will justify the cost, which has already risen from an estimated £65m last summer, when Brian Mawhinney gave the project the go-ahead, to about £101m now. Some 50,000 vehicles pass along the existing road each day and the council says they need a new one to reduce congestion and pollution in the town. They also claim it will remove from the town about 70 per cent of the 480 lorries a day that use the existing bypass.

That Newbury does have a traffic problem is the one thing on which both sides can agree. The pro-bypass lobby says that the only answer is a new road; their opponents say a better solution would be to remove the obstructions on the existing one. The route through the town is littered with side roads, roundabouts and pedestrian crossings: remove these, improve local bus services, build some cycle tracks and the existing road would probably do, they say.

Six months ago Newbury District Council was claiming that the bypass would solce all their traffic problems. Now they say it won't, but that it will give them breathing space to deal with mounting congestion in the town.

The bypass itself is not all that concerns the protesters. Plans for 5,000 houses between the outskirts of the town and the new road have been lodged with the council. If built, these will need their own feeder roads into the town and on to the bypass. This is the nightmare scenario for the protesters: new roads breeding new roads. The problem was anticipated by the Government's Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (Sactra) in 1994. New roads can generate their own traffic, the report said. Much of their advice has yet to be taken on board by the Highways Agency and those wanting quick fixes to traffic problems.

In the long-term, there are signs that the Government may be moving towards an integrated transport system at the expense of more roads for private car users. But this is of little immediate relevance to the Newbury protesters. Why, then, are thy investing so much time and energy to stop a road that is going to be built anyway?

First, they do not accept that it is going to be built. They are convinces that their campaign will cost the contractors clearing the route so much money that they may be forced to give up, or at least re-enter negotiations with the Highways Agency to offset some of the extra expense.

They also hope that work will be halted during the negotiations; even if it is delayed only for a few weeks the contractors may lose their opportunity to clear the route. The European Union's directive on bird habitat bans the felling of trees during the breeding season -- from about mid-March to August -- and the contractors may be forced to stop work during this time. All the protesters' immediate plans are dedicated to delaying the contractors until the start of the bird breeding season.

In the longer term, the protesters hope that a sooner than expected general election would sweeo Labour to power. Clare Short, shadow transport secretary, has already written to one of the protesters saying that a future Labour Government would look afresh at the plans for Newbury. If the road-builders are delayed long enough for a new Government to be elected then the bypass might yet be halted.

The protesters' best hope remains that spiralling costs may force the Highways Agency to stop or postpone its work on the road because of pressure from the Treasury. To the £101m estimated price must now be added the estimated £1m a day that the extra security may cost. And the more that the Newbury bypass costs, the less the money that will be available for other road schemes.

Successive direct action campaigns have cost the Highways Agency dear. The M3 extension at Twyford Down, which spawned the anti-roads movement, cost a relatively paltry £4m for the extra security needed. The M65 in Lancashire has so far cost an estimated £4m. But the most expensive of them all, the M11 in east London, has so far cost an extra £13m and is still rising at about £300,000 per month. Two years into the work, the contractors have yet to lay an inch of tarmac on the M11 and the direct action campaign is still going strong.

These security figures do not include the extra costs of policing, which can be considerable. A typical large-scale eviction can involve 500 or more police and take several days. The most time-consuming so far, at Claremont Road in the path of the M11 in November 1994, took four and a half days. At one stage, the mass eviction involved 600 police on duty 24 hours a day. The security budget for Claremont Road exceeded £2m; no figures were ever disclosed for the extra policing costs, which must have been far greater than the cost of general security.

There will also be other bidden costs at Newbury. The more uncharitable newpapers call the protesters «scroungers in the trees» and claim they live off dole cheques.

The reality is somewhat different. Most live off donations. But an increasing proportion of the money now spent combating new roads comes from the Government in the form of police compensation payments. Being wrongfully arrested can be a lucrative business. A series of illegal arrests at Twyford Down in 1992-93, for instance, is expected to cost the police about £500,000. A proportion of that money will be spent by protesters on further anti-road campaigning.

With resourcefulness of that order, the Third Battle of Newbury looks set to be a long one.