Time blurs the memory. It was 10 years ago now, but I can’t quite remember where. I can remember the small, thin birch tree, and the ring of yellow-jacketed security men that surrounded it. I can remember the size of the great, snorting bulldozer that threatened it; its oily pistons and the greasy smoke it belched into the woodland air. I remember running for the tree and scaling it, clinging on perhaps three-quarters of the way up, perhaps 10 foot off the ground.
I recall thinking how under-prepared I was, and how I should have brought a lock with me and how the trunk was too small for that anyway; almost too small to hold my weight. I could feel it sway under me as I clung on.
Finally, I can remember two yellowjackets approaching me and, without much effort, dragging me from the tree. I remember them manhandling me back towards the arm-linked lines of their colleagues, as the bulldozer snorted again and churned up the ground, its last obstacle removed. I remember thinking how we had lost here. But I remember thinking that we were winning, too.
This happened in one of the many camps along the route of the Newbury bypass, while that road was being constructed. It must have been sometime in 1996. And I can remember similar experiences in different landscapes from the same period: the period of the great boom in destructive roadbuilding across Britain, and the great boom in direct-action resistance that went with it. There had never been anything like this before, and there never would be again.
Or so we thought.
I can remember the sight of the sunrise over the Iron Age beauty of Twyford Down; a sight that no human will ever see again, because the Down is no longer there. It is now the M3 extension. I recall the combined fear and wonder I felt in the treehouse camps at Solsbury Hill; where we tried, and failed, to prevent the construction of the Batheaston bypass. Wonder at what this ragged band of rebels had achieved; fear because I didn’t know how well they’d achieved it, or how strong the ropes were.
I can remember the vast nets strung out across entire streets, between the roofs of old Victorian terraces in East London, where whole neighbourhoods seceded from the United Kingdom and declared their independence in a bid to prevent the construction of the M11 link road. I can remember the planning meetings in squatted factories, the purchase of D-locks from bicycle shops, the passion, the fear, the loathing, the lack of sleep, the smell of dreadlocks in the morning. It seems like another world. It was.
I know I’m getting old because these days, I speak to young, fiery, university-age environmentalists and they don’t remember the road protests that swept the country in the mid-1990s. Back then I was a young, fiery, university-age environmentalist myself and I was part of a national movement to prevent the destruction of some of the best landscape in the country by the Tory government’s national roadbuilding programme. It was, the government had unwisely boasted, ‘the biggest roadbuilding programme since the Romans’, and the sheer destructiveness of it has since become legend.
In order to provide for projected traffic growth in coming decades, the government had decided to embark on a massive, unprecedented construction programme. It would build 2,700 miles of new roads – doubling trunk road capacity – including 150 new bypasses. They would plough through hundreds of scheduled ancient monuments, areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest, nature reserves and many more special and valued places that did not have official designations. They would encourage increasing car use and contribute further to climate change, congestion and localised air pollution.
The programme was necessary, said the government, because road traffic had been forecast to rise sharply in coming decades, and its duty was to provide enough ‘capacity’ for it. This flawed system of transport planning, known as ‘predict and provide’, came into sharp focus as opposition to the new roads spread from a few hardcore greens to society at large: by 1994, The Economist could observe that ‘protesting about new roads has become that rarest of British phenomena, a truly populist movement drawing supporters from all walks of life.’
Questions began to be asked: is it remotely possible to build enough new roads to meet forecast demand? Even if it were, would it be desirable? Would it not be better, for the environment and for society, if efforts focused instead on restricting the demand for car use, and promoting alternatives – not just walking, cycling and public transport, but actually reducing both the need and desire to travel so much, so often, in so many vehicles?
By the middle of the 1990s, the combined pressure of the protests, popular discontent and the increasingly obvious practical impossibility of building its way out of a growing transport problem had the government on the back foot. Add to that a number of major academic studies showing conclusively that building new roads, far from reducing congestion, actually created more, as new journeys were taken to fill them – and the writing was on the wall. The government caved in. Its road programme was dead.
Come 1997, and the Brave New Dawn of New Labour, the seal looked like being put on an exciting U-turn in transport policy. Transport secretary John Prescott announced a ‘New Deal for Transport’, which scrapped more than 100 of the Tories’ planned road schemes. Labour, he said, accepted that roadbuilding didn’t work. It destroyed precious landscapes, alienated communities, ran roughshod over local democracy, contributed to climate change and failed even in its primary purpose, to reduce local congestion. Labour would instead ‘reduce and then reverse traffic growth’, he said – adding, famously, that ‘I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car.’ 2000 was the first year since 1954 when no motorways were under construction in Britain. It seemed that things were looking up.
And so the remaining protesters went home; battered but, in the end, victorious. We knew we had lost every battle we had fought – but that, as a result, we had won the war. We knew it could never happen again.
Which just shows how wrong you can be.
‘I call it A350-ville,’ says Jenny Raggett. ‘It’s the first major town to be named after a road.’ Jenny, who lives in Wiltshire, has been campaigning for years against the expansion of the A350, a previously inoffensive trunk road that is now, she says, becoming a kind of stealth motorway.
‘Five towns around here are due for a lot more housebuilding, to meet government targets,’ she explains. ‘They’ll get several thousand houses each. Most of them will be sited in car-dependent estates on the outskirts. At the same time, all these towns will get new bypasses, which will have the effect of creating big new settlements, dependent on car transport, which are linked by what are in effect motorways. Meanwhile, train services here are actually being cut back, and buses are terrible outside the big towns. It’s right back to the bad old days: roads to riches, roads to progress … it’s as if the 1990s never happened.’
Jenny has a point. Two bypasses have been built on the A350 already, and more are on the cards, of which the most notorious is the planned Westbury bypass. Looking at the computer simulations that have been drawn up by planners envisioning what this road will look like, I am taken right back to Twyford Down. A great, grey slew of tarmac cuts a shear through virgin countryside, butting up against Salisbury Plain, slashing through an old drove road, undercutting White Horse Hill, filling the air around the edge of the Downs with the roar of heavy goods vehicles and cutting off a great area of green space – effectively enclosing it within the town’s boundaries, where it will undoubtedly be ‘infilled’ soon enough with more houses, warehouses or car parks.
As in the 1990s, this road is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. As in the 1990s, it is unpopular with local opinion, 75 per cent of which rejects it. As in the 1990s, it will ultimately fail to alleviate congestion anyway, as the road fills up with new cars over the next few years.
But this is no isolated case, for the policy wheel has come full circle over the past decade, and roadbuilding is firmly back in fashion. Today, almost 200 new road schemes are on the cards – four times as many as in 1997. The government says that 2,500 miles of new carriageway is ‘needed’ by 2025. £12 billion has been committed to roads already underway or imminent – part of the forecast £60 billion cost of putting all these new plans into operation.
Read the list of what is to happen, and it’s like going back in time. It’s as if nothing has changed at all since the 1980s – or perhaps even the 1960s. Sixty-three miles of the M25 widened to four lanes in each direction, at an estimated cost of £1.6bn. The M6 to be widened through Staffordshire and Cheshire. The Westbury bypass. A Hastings bypass – previously scrapped by Prescott, due to the sheer scale of its environmental destruction. The Mottram-Tintwistle bypass, carving through the Peak District National Park. The Lancaster bypass. The Carlisle Western bypass. Large sections of the M1, M74, M4 and M60 to be widened to four lanes in each direction. The Weymouth ‘relief road’, slashing through the ancient Ridgeway and virgin countryside. The A3 Hindhead ‘improvement’, with twin road tunnels to be drilled underneath local landmark the Devils’ Punchbowl.
The list goes on; a litany of the dashed hopes of a once-young government, and an environmental movement that had hoped for better. Dashed by the power of the roadbuilding and driving lobbies, and their supporters in the right-wing media; dashed by the expense and difficulty of providing alternative modes of transport; dashed by fuel protests and powerful business lobby groups like the CBI; dashed by the British public’s unending love affair with its cars.
Essentially, the government gave up. It decided that it was too difficult to get people out of their cars – instead, like the Tories before it, it would focus on ‘relieving congestion’ by building new roads and appeasing drivers. The figures speak for themselves. Between 1997 and 2005, the real cost of motoring actually declined by nine per cent, while bus and coach fares increased by an average of one per cent, and rail fares increased by five per cent. Meanwhile, traffic levels on the roads continued rising. They grew by 81 per cent between 1980 and 2005, and are forecast to grow to 40 per cent above today’s levels by 2025.
New Labour’s initial optimism on roads and car use can, in retrospect, be seen as a historical blip. We have now returned to the sort of government we have had for the past half-century, whichever party was in power. Namely, a short-termist one that aims to build its way out of the country’s transport problems by constructing more roads; and which, by doing so, actually makes the problem worse – because the trouble with aiming to relieve congestion in this way is that it doesn’t work, even on its own terms.
More than a decade ago, a government commissioned report first introduced the concept of ‘induced traffic’. In a nutshell, it was shown – and has been shown since, in dozens of separate studies – that building more roads does not reduce congestion; it creates more of it. When drivers see new or improved roads, they assume their journey will be easier. They are thus more likely to make it, and the end result is that traffic on the roads increases, congestion increases – and more roads are built to alleviate it.
If you want the best example, look at the Newbury bypass. After all the battles that were fought to save nine miles of stunning countryside from its layers of concrete and asphalt, traffic on the road, which opened in 1998, is already higher than the government forecast it to be by 2010. Meanwhile, peaktime congestion within the town is back to pre-bypass levels. Such experiences are repeated everywhere a new road is built. The lesson is stark, simple, and long-learned. In fact, it is probably worth italicising: building more roads doesn’t work.
When we add climate change into the equation, it becomes even clearer that there is no case for new roadbuilding at all. We hear a lot about the impact of cheap flights on the climate, and it’s true that aviation is the fastest-growing contributor to climate change, currently accounting for 5.5 per cent of all the UK’s CO2 emissions. Leave international flights out of the picture, though, as the government does when it tots up the country’s CO2 emissions, and you find that a remarkable 95 per cent of all the UK’s transport-related CO2 emissions come from road traffic.
Those road traffic emissions increased by 51 per cent between 1990 and 2004, and the government itself accepts that traffic growth will result in a further 19 million tonnes of them this decade alone. It seems certain that this will add enormously to the amounts of CO2 emitted by the nation as a whole in coming years. The government suggests that all the new roads put together will add only another 1.5 tonnes of carbon to our total, but is based on some highly optimistic forecasts on biofuel use and is, suggest some experts, barely worth the computer it was calculated on. The reality is likely to be much higher.
In 1993, seven protesters against the M3 extension through Twyford Down were jailed for four months for breaking an injunction banning them from the site. It was the first time environmental protesters had ever been jailed in Britain, and the case became a cause celebre. The prisoners received 100 letters a day from supporters, and a visit from the EU Environment Commissioner. The M3 extension became even more unpopular.
Rebecca Lush was one of the Twyford Seven. When Labour came to power, she thought her years of campaigning against new roads were over. These days, she is busier than ever. Lush is coordinator of RoadBlock, a national alliance of anti-roads groups she set up in 2005 to address the reborn threat. Her recent activities include chaining herself to a bulldozer on the site of the proposed Linslade bypass, and shoving a pie in the face of Jeremy Clarkson. She is one of the most effective environmentalists working in Britain today – a one-woman crusade against destructive roads. And she is not happy.
‘There is a similar length of roadbuilding going on every year as there was ten years ago’, she says. ‘“Predict and provide” is alive and well, and the government is completely sidestepping the crucial point – that we need to reduce our car use and reduce road traffic levels. They used to say that, but it didn’t last long. Now they say they’ll tackle road traffic emissions by promoting biofuels and drawing up voluntary agreements with car manufacturers to make engines more efficient. Even if they do this, and it works, it’ll be vastly outstripped by traffic growth.’
The government, says Lush, would much rather talk about techno-fixes to reduce emissions than address the real issue – reducing car use. It is encouraged in this by some mainstream green NGOs, which talk much more about biofuels than they do about roadbuilding.
‘The fact remains,’ she says, ‘that if you want to prevent climate change – not to mention more local environmental destruction around the country – the battleground is traffic growth. Yet we’re spending billions on utterly futile roadbuilding. Imagine what would happen if we pumped that money into public transport, promoting cycling and walking … we could really start to have an impact.’
The question, surely, is why more people haven’t noticed what’s happening. Yes, Rebecca Lush has. Yes, Friends of the Earth still talk about roads, and the venerable Transport 2000 still bangs the drum for a sensible transport policy. But that’s what people like that do. You expect it.
Why are we not seeing protests on the scale we did 10 years ago? Where are the Swampies, the treehouses and the tunnels? Why is roadbuilding not in the papers every day as it used to be? Given that we know more about climate change now than a decade ago, and that it is widely accepted as an urgent issue by governments everywhere, why is this national scandal not getting the attention it deserves?
There are two answers to this.
The first is that everything, these days, is much more complicated. In the good old days, the government would announce a nationwide roadbuilding scheme and get the Highways Agency and the Department of Transport to make it happen. They’d publish a big white paper with all the schemes listed in it, where they would go, what impacts there would be and what it would all cost.
This meant that everyone knew what was going on. It also meant that opponents had a clear target to aim at. Now it’s not so straightforward. The government is still responsible for trunk roads (major ‘A’ roads and the like) and motorways, but many other road schemes have been farmed out to local authorities. Others are being built privately, and some are even privately owned. And this is before you even take into consideration the various different means of funding them. What you end up with is a horribly complex network of responsibility, wrapped up in an absurd web of acronyms that even the most dedicated researcher or campaigner has difficulty understanding. TPIs, LTPs, multimodal studies, the CIF, the RFA… the end result is confusion and complexity.
This turns out to be rather convenient for the government, as Rebecca Lush points out. ‘Everything is far more complex now, and whereas the Tories trumpeted their roadbuilding, Labour keeps quiet about it,’ she says. ‘The fact that they have farmed a lot of roads out to local authorities also allows them to say that it’s being pushed by local demand, not central government, and so it’s not their fault. It also allows them to be vague about the overall costs and the overall impact on the environment. But all this new complexity simply hides the fact that this government has a major national roadbuilding programme, which they are pushing, and we are paying for.’
The second answer is a more exciting one. While it is not receiving national attention, at the local level, people have noticed. It may not be in the papers much, but, all over the country, at grassroots level, something is stirring. There are already dozens of local organisations, and thousands of enthusiastic, determined, well-informed people, mobilising against new roads. And their numbers are growing.
If you were depressed by the list of new road schemes, then, try this list instead. The Save Swallows Wood Campaign, in the Peak District, is mobilising hundreds of people to ward off the threat of the A628 Mottram- Tintwistle bypass. The No M1 Widening Campaign, a coalition of local groups along the length of the motorway, was set up by a local GP concerned about the effects of air pollution in the local area; it has since become a national force.
The local campaign against the Lancaster northern bypass has harnessed some of the best stunts and photo-opportunities around, to make a powerful case against the road. Significant, noisy and increasingly effective local campaigns are up and running to oppose the Kingskerswell bypass (Devon), the A14 Ellington to Fen Ditton road (Huntingdonshire), the A120 Braintree bypass (Essex), the M6 widening, the M74 extension (Glasgow), the Weymouth relief road (Dorset), the Hastings bypass…
In other words, there is hope in the dark. Roadbuilding may have returned with a vengeance – but so, it seems, has road protesting. It may take a different form from its previous incarnation, but it is, according to Rebecca Lush at least, just as effective.
‘These groups are not “nimbies”,’ she says. ‘They see themselves as part of a wider movement against climate change and for sustainability. In a way, they are often more effective than we were in the 1990s. They have certainly got the government sitting up and taking notice.’
Back in Wiltshire, Jenny Raggett, who is part of a noisy and growing campaign against the Westbury bypass route, says she’s not giving up until this government, like the last one, is forced to change its ways.
‘It can be hard’, she says, ‘to watch the same old mistakes being made. But I am convinced that it’s grassroots action that is going to see off schemes like this. We all know it’s happened before – and that means it can happen again.’
Paul Kingsnorth is the author of One No, Many Yeses (Free Press, £7.99)
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2007