Do We Have to Set England Alight Again? Road Protesters Thought They Could Roll Up Their Sleeping Bags and Go Home. Wrong. Not Only Is Road-Building Back, We're about to Be Hit by a Burst of New Airports and Runways. (Transport)

By Kingsnorth, Paul | New Statesman (1996), June 30, 2003 | Go to article overview

Do We Have to Set England Alight Again? Road Protesters Thought They Could Roll Up Their Sleeping Bags and Go Home. Wrong. Not Only Is Road-Building Back, We're about to Be Hit by a Burst of New Airports and Runways. (Transport)


Kingsnorth, Paul, New Statesman (1996)


One long night, ten years ago this summer, my life changed for ever. It was gone sunset, but I could see no stars because it wasn't dark. I was in an ancient water-meadow in Hampshire, but the night seemed noisier than if I'd been sitting by a Heathrow runway. I was chained to a steel girder 15 feet above the ground and, along with 200 other people, I had no intention of coming down.

The girder was part of a temporary bridge being built across the A3 outside Winchester, to allow heavy construction machinery to cross from one side of the road to the other. On the other side stood Twyford Down, a beautiful, calm, green hill dotted with historic monuments and rare plants, rabbit holes and twisted copses. The machines had come to drive a motorway through the middle of it. We had come to stop them.

For hours we stayed up there, lit by halogen arc lamps, ringed by police and yellow-jacketed security guards. We banged on the steel with wood and metal pipes, chanting in time to the deafening roar. We painted our faces with chalk and howled defiance at the moon. Eventually the police, who had spent hours vainly ordering us down through loud hailers, brought out their hydraulic bolt cutters and climbed up to cut us down. It took them most of the night. Eventually, with 50 others, I was arrested, chucked into a van and taken to Southampton police station to spend the night in a cell.

That night changed everything for me and, as it turned out, for the country. Twyford Down was the first of the road protests that spread across Britain in the 1990s. At Solsbury Hill near Bath, in Pollok Woods outside Glasgow, in the self-proclaimed "Republic of Wanstonia" in east London on the route of the M11 extension, in camps along the nine-mile route of the Newbury bypass, people fought not just against destructive new roads, but against the assumptions behind them.

Those assumptions underpinned the Tory government's 1989 white paper Roads for Prosperity, which announced "the biggest road-building programme since the Romans": 2,700 miles of new roads (doubling Britain's trunk-road capacity), including 150 new bypasses, many destroying historic and protected sites. This, said the Tories, would give people what they wanted and the economy what it needed: more space for more cars, ad infinitum.

This single policy announcement--based on a principle known as "predict and provide"--was to radicalise a generation. Why, people asked, were we prepared to build on the best of our countryside to provide for projected and unnecessary traffic growth, rather than controlling that growth? Why wasn't money instead being spent on public transport and curbing car use? And wouldn't building more roads just encourage people to drive on them?

Roads for Prosperity was finally dealt a death blow in 1994, when a government committee concluded that what environmentalists had been saying for year s was correct--building more roads encourages more traffic. The way to ease congestion and pollution was not to accommodate more of it, but to take measures to control car use. Tory transport policy collapsed.

When Labour came to power, most of the road schemes were suspended. Ministers scorned "predict and provide". "I will have failed," said John Prescott in 1997, "if in five years there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car." The road protesters, it seemed, could roll up their sleeping bags and go home. We had lost Twyford Down, Penn Wood, Solsbury Hill, but we seemed, in the end, to have won the war.

How wrong we were. What seemed in 1997 to be a peace treaty now turns out to have been a lull while the enemy sent behind the lines for more ammunition. Today, new roads are springing up all over the country--soon, in the latest instalment, we can expect confirmation of [pounds sterling]6bn worth of new 12-lane "freeways" based, as ever with new Labour, on the American model. …

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Do We Have to Set England Alight Again? Road Protesters Thought They Could Roll Up Their Sleeping Bags and Go Home. Wrong. Not Only Is Road-Building Back, We're about to Be Hit by a Burst of New Airports and Runways. (Transport)
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