The battle for Combe Haven


A Bailiff tussles with a local OAP. Sarah Evans can be seen smiling cheekily in the background.

Lucy Dunne reports on the fight to save a water meadow from bulldozers, and opines that this may just be the beginning of a wave of protests triggered by Osborne's infrastructure plans.
It’s a huge waste of public money and an environmental disaster

A luta continua!: the struggle continues. After battling with security, bailiffs and the police, this remains the message of activist group Combe Haven Defenders. Lucy Dunne spoke to two of the activists on the front line of the UK’s environmental movement, opposing the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road.

Combe Haven Defenders have been fighting the hugely controversial Bexhill-Hastings Link Road (BHLR) by literally attempting to stop it in its path. In spite of tree houses, tunnels and lock-ons to trees in one of the most beautiful areas of Sussex, their third and final camp, Decoy Pond, faced eviction on 31 January, with over 28 arrests.  

Being sold as an economic necessity by the Department of Transport (DfT) and East Sussex County Council (ESCC), the new road certainly has its critics: some say it may even be the start of a new wave of anti-road protests, bringing to mind the battles of the 1990s.

Combe Haven Valley, a water meadow situated between St Leonards and Bexhill in East Sussex – and a Site of Special Scientific Interest - would be devastated by the development, activists argue.

They are not alone in opposing it: on 27 January, the £94m road faced vociferous criticism from six of the UK’s most prominent environmental groups visiting the site, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the RSPB, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

Even the DfT itself has declared the project to be poor value for money, whilst ESCC has described Combe Haven as ‘probably the finest medium-sized valley in East Sussex outside of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. 

Adrian Hopkins, 28, works as a chef in Hastings and has been active in Combe Haven Defenders since August 2012. Previously involved in Food not Bombs and Climate Camp in Birmingham, he’s applied his skills in non-hierarchical activist organisation in this new campaign, helping to ensure any camp has the infrastructure it needs to function.

It’s a huge waste of public money and an environmental disaster

Juggling activism with work, Adrian stayed for two to three nights a week in his tree house at Base Camp, the first camp to face eviction on 16 January when people were pulled from their trees and out of their tunnels. I ask him why Combe Haven should be defended and he replies without hesitation; “It’s an absolutely precious resource and an area of exceptional tranquillity and beauty.”

Arrested for aggravated trespass and obstruction of a high court bailiff, Adrian now faces imminent court proceedings, along with 27 others. He says he feels “sort of okay with being arrested”, adding that “it’s a bit of a hassle – not a particularly pleasant process. Nevertheless, he remains upbeat: “The people getting arrested weren’t your usual kind of people. It’s been quite inspiring and it’s good for solidarity.”

When I put the argument to Adrian that we might need the road to reduce congest and revive the economy in a time of recession, he’s unequivocal. “All those arguments have been found wanting"....."we should be putting money into the town centre and be promoting the local economy that way. They’re basically trying to bypass planning law and public consultation for a big project that doesn’t work.”

I ask Adrian what people should be doing if they’re facing a similar battle closer to home, which looks increasingly likely. In their 2012 report Going Backwards: The New Roads Programme, the Campaign for Better Transport identified 191 new road projects being planned throughout England and Wales with a total estimated cost of £30 billion.

Adrian’s advice: “I would say get organising now. Don’t be caught off-guard. Try and cover all bases. We need to fight them at all stages.” In spite of the evictions, Adrian describes the resistance in Sussex as “astonishing”. He goes on: “It’s amazing what a small group of people can do. This is the first wave of resistance.” His message to the government? “Hands off - and stop this ludicrous programme of road building.” 

Sarah Evans, 63, is a care and support worker fighting the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road (BHLR). Apart from the odd demonstration in her youth, Sarah is relatively new to environmental activism. She has received a caution for her involvement in the campaign which she says, for the time being at least, her employers and work colleagues find “funny”. 

When I ask Sarah what prompted her to get involved in the campaign, she explains that “I really, really wanted to spend my retirement doing something for the environment.” She describes Combe Haven as a “beautiful area” and that the “road is a blight and very expensive, taking money away from welfare services. We need an extensive subsidised public transport system and to reduce our reliance on the car”.

In early January, Sarah took part in a “Granny photo shoot” in order to draw attention to the campaign and to highlight the age range of people involved. The photo was then republished by The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail. She mentions that one of the oldest in the campaign group, a gentleman of 84, sat in front of one of the diggers.

Having taken part in workshops on activism and on being a legal observer, she’s extremely positive about the connection she’s made with other activists. Her advice to others fighting similar projects on their doorstep? “Watch our campaign and give support in any way you can. It’s really hard work but activism is worth it.” 


Follow Combe Haven Defenders on Twitter (@combe_haven) 

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