Minister avoids new battle of Hastings in landmark decision

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The Independent Online

It's a novel announcement in modern Britain: that a big road barging its way through protected countryside is NOT going to be built.

But Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, did just that by rejecting the proposed Hastings bypass. In doing so, he became a hero to environmentalists, a villain to East Sussex councillors and businessmen, and the initiator – perhaps – of a new era in British road-building policy.

Mr Byers' decision took many people by surprise. There had been a general feeling that the road would be approved because the planning authority, the new South-east England Regional Assembly, had firmly recommended it, and because big road schemes in Britain are usually cleared.

But the Hastings decision was not simple: it was seen as a test of the Government's environmental good faith when it promised in its 10-year transport plan that "there will be a strong presumption against schemes that would significantly affect environmentally sensitive sites, or important species, habitats or landscapes".

No one disputed that the £120m dual carriageway, intended to divert the busy A259 south coast trunk road around Hastings, would do that.

Its route would have to cut a concrete swath through several officially protected landscapes and wildlife sites, including Combe Haven valley and Pevensey Levels, both sites of special scientific interest, and the Brede Valley part of the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty.

But the economic argument in favour of the road, according to its supporters, was overwhelming, not least because Hastings itself is a special economic case. The town is a strange and anomalous island of deprivation in the booming South-east, with an unemployment rate more than three times that of the region as a whole.

Once a proud Victorian resort with a charming medieval core, Hastings is now very rundown, with 3,000 empty properties and five of its wards among the most deprived in the country. It has to cope with the problems of poverty, drug addiction and homelessness, not to mention a genuine traffic problem, with the main A259, which at present runs through the town centre and along the seafront, often clogged.

Urban regeneration for Hastings is a priority and supporters of the bypass believed the new road could provide the answer.

They said it would greatly improve the urban environment and provide essential new access to industrial and development land that could encourage regeneration.

The arguments for and against were both strong, and ministers decided to resolve them by a new form of transport planning inquiry – a "multi-modal" study. In its 1998 roads review, the Government took a series of bypasses and other road schemes planned under the previous Tory government, and deferred them for studies that were to examine alternatives to new road construction, such as improvements in rail and bus services and local road upgrading.

The Hastings study was the first to report, last autumn. It suggested that the bypass, with an associated package of public transport improvements, would be necessary for the regeneration of the town, although – perhaps bizarrely – it stopped short of recommending the bypass, declaring instead that this was clearly a political decision.

What cheered environmentalists yesterday was that Mr Byers rejected the economic case for the bypass – and said that although Hastings did need urgent regeneration, building a big new road was not the way to achieve it; and that said, the economic arguments were outweighed by the environmental ones.

To students of British road-building policy over the past two decades, this marks some sort of watershed, and looks suspiciously like joined-up thinking. In the past, big road schemes were regarded as almost self-evidently necessary and opposition to them was regarded as irrational at worst, and nimbyism at best.

But it was this refusal to countenance alternatives to enormously destructive projects, such as the Twyford Down extension of the M3 in Hampshire, and the Newbury bypass in Berkshire, that spawned the anti-roads protest movement of radical young eco-activists, many of whom have gone on, via groups such as Reclaim The Streets, to become the anti-capitalist protesters of Seattle, Prague and Gothenburg.

Had Mr Byers approved the bypass, they would have fought a second Battle of Hastings. There is no doubt it would have become a focus of environmental discontent, attracting determined eco-warriors to perch in the trees and proclaim to the skies New Labour's bad faith.

It is very likely that the prospect of a fight with Swampy and friends did play some part in the Government's decision – politics is politics, after all – and this was certainly one of the main accusations levelled at Mr Byers and his colleagues by disappointed supporters of the scheme. But in the Secretary of State's report and an accompanying letter to the leader of the South-east Regional Assembly published yesterday, the intellectual case for rejection is set out for all to see.

Mr Byers said: "In my view, the balance of the arguments presented in favour of the bypasses is not sufficient to outweigh these very strong environmental requirements.

"I believe, therefore, we must look for alternative means to prevent the further decline of the area and to optimise its economic potential."

In the green movement, joy was unconfined. "It's quite a brave decision and we are very, very pleased," said Lilli Matson, of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

Tony Bosworth, of Friends of the Earth, added: "We're delighted. A great decision. A victory for common sense. Hastings has got real problems but the bypasses are not the answer. They don't solve the traffic problem, they're not needed for regeneration, and they will cause huge environmental damage."

On the other side, despondency was equally evident. "It was the wrong decision," said Michael Foster, Labour MP for Hastings and Rye.

"My electors are now devastated by the decision not to proceed with the bypass despite the local council being unanimous, the county council being unanimous, the South-east region being unanimous."

Peter Jones, Conservative leader of East Sussex County Council, accused the Government of being too scared to stand up to the "eco-tyrants" and warned that some businesses might now desert the town. "This decision is a total disaster," he said. "It will deeply undermine the whole regeneration efforts in the Hastings and Bexhill areas and that whole end of the county in which 250,000 people live."

Ken Caldwell, chief executive of Sussex Enterprise, which represents more than 5,500 firms, said: "Businesses all along the South Coast and especially in Hastings will be bitterly disappointed."

Stephen Byers had better not plan a weekend break in Hastings for the foreseeable future. But then, no one ever said that joined-up thinking didn't have a price.