Anti-road protesters gear up for new battle of Hastings

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Stand by for the second Battle of Hastings. A controversial bypass around the Sussex town will become Britain's most bitterly contested road scheme if it is agreed on Wednesday.

Stand by for the second Battle of Hastings. A controversial bypass around the Sussex town will become Britain's most bitterly contested road scheme if it is agreed on Wednesday.

The £120m project is seen by many locals as essential in regenerating a resort that has fallen on very hard times, but its course through the unspoilt Sussex countryside will cause significant damage to protected wildlife and landscape sites, in contravention of the Government's road-building policy.

Environmentalists also fear its construction will trigger new pressure for major upgrading of the whole south-coast road network, which would involve extensive damage to some of the loveliest countryside in Britain.

While local councils and business interests believe the scheme to be indispensable, green pressure groups are making strenuous objections to it, as are the Government's conservation advisers, English Nature, while the Environment Agency says it has "serious concerns" about the project.

If it goes ahead it may also attract opposition from the radical fringe of the green movement, with activists tempted to take direct action against the construction works, as at the Twyford Down and Newbury road schemes in the 1990s.

But Hastings is more important than another potential battle between protesters and police: it is seen by the greens as a test case of this Government's stated intention of providing better solutions to transport problems than simply building new roads.

The Labour administration took a large series of bypasses and other road schemes planned under the Tories and deferred them for "multi-modal" studies, that were to examine alternatives to new construction, such as improvements in rail and bus services and local road upgrading.

The Hastings study is the first to report and, multi-modal or not, opts for the bypass, although with an associated package of public transport improvements. The consultants say the scheme would be necessary for regeneration of the town, but stop short of recommending it, as they clearly feel it is a political hot potato.

Regeneration is certainly something Hastings needs. The historic town is a strange anomaly, an island of deprivation in the prosperous South-east, with an unemployment rate more than three times that of the region as a whole.

The once-proud Victorian resort with its medieval core is now very run down, with 3,000 empty properties and five of its wards among the most deprived in the country, experiencing severe problems of poverty, drug addiction and homelessness. It also has a traffic problem, with the main A259 road, which runs through the town centre and along the sea front, often clogged.

Supporters of the bypass believe it can bring great improvement to the town's urban environment and provide essential new access to industrial and development land and thus prompt regeneration.

"It's vital," said the town's Labour MP, Michael Foster. "There is an environmental cost, and we're not pretending there isn't, but the urban environment benefits and the economic benefits simply outweigh it. The greens fail to appreciate that without a bypass Hastings is compromised. The A259 goes through six conservation areas and blights the homes of 10,000 people. We've got employers saying they'll move out if we don't get a bypass, and we're the weakest performing area economically in the South-east. We're the 28th poorest town in Britain.

"Most of the people who are objecting to the bypass are not from Hastings - a council survey showed that 80 per cent of the people here support it. I think it's selfish of the environmentalists to deny opportunities to other people. They should keep their noses out." There is no sign that they will, because the new road will cause severe environmental disruption. Besides other damage, its eastern end will cut a tract though the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, while its western section will bisect Combe Haven, a wildlife-rich marshy river valley that is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a nature reserve run by the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

Paragraph 6.29 of the Government's 10-year Transport Plan states that "there will be a strong presumption against schemes that would significantly affect environmentally sensitive sites, or important species, habitats or landscapes.

"A green light for Hastings will destroy the credibility of the Government's many promises not to build damaging roads," said Lilli Matson, head of transport for the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

"The scheme would cut across prime wildlife sites and beautiful countryside and would create a domino effect of pressure for further road schemes along the south coast.

"The town needs regeneration but there are serious question marks about whether the bypass will deliver it."

The decision on whether or not the bypass should go ahead will be taken on Wednesday by the new South-East England Regional Assembly (Seera), meeting in Aylesbury, Bucks. This is believed to be the first major planning decision to fall to one of the eight new regional democratic bodies Labour has set up in England to balance the devolved assemblies of Scotland and Wales.

If Seera votes in favour - as many observers expect it to - the decision will still have to be approved by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and Environment Secretary.

However, as he was the enthusiastic proponent of regional assemblies in the first place, it is unlikely Mr Prescott would want their first big decision overturned, whether it violates stated Government policy or not.

There is also the fact that Mr Foster's slender 2,560 majority makes Hastings and Rye Labour's 23rd most vulnerable marginal seat, although none but a cynic would suggest such considerations might weigh with the Deputy Prime Minister.

"Constructing this bypass would wreck the Government's commitments to protecting wildlife sites from road building," said Friends of the Earth's transport campaigner, Tony Bosworth. "If Mr Prescott approves it he is in for a second battle of Hastings."