Wave of demonstrations expected as Government sidesteps protests

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The Independent Online

Mike Ryan, in stricken Port Talbot, is this weekend rallying his team for a final stand against another industrial threat to his community. At the other end of the country, Brian Atkinson is leafleting householders on Tyneside. And Margaret Willmot in Salisbury is awaiting a reply to a detailed letter she has just sent the embattled Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers.

The three are in the vanguard of an unprecedented wave of protest expected to sweep through the country as the Government embarks on a drive to build controversial incinerators, roads, housing developments, airport facilities – and, possibly, nuclear power stations.

The protests will be sharpened by plans, to be announced by ministers this month, to remove the public's right to challenge the need for many of the developments at public inquiries. The developments will often breach promises on which Labour was elected in 1997, and analysts believe that the ensuing local rows are likely to cost it seats at the next election.

For now, however, Mike Ryan's eyes are fixed no further ahead than Friday, when the Environment Agency is expected to decide on whether to give the go-ahead to a rubbish-burning incinerator just 250 yards from his home.

He and his neighbours in the South Wales town – hit three weeks ago by a fatal accident at its Corus steelworks – fear that dioxins and other pollutants from the plant will cause cancer and birth defects, He says: "I have two small children, and I am worried about their health."

A 43-year-old unemployed former miner, he bought himself a computer and taught himself about the issue through the internet, and with some 200 others has led a spirited local campaign. The protesters have blockaded the plant, set up a protest camp at its gates and chained themselves to cranes and bulldozers. They are now planning a new protest outside the Environment Agency's local offices on Friday.

Protests like theirs are expected to become common. Environmentalists have counted 50 new incinerators being planned round the country from Maidstone to Manchester and Dumfries to Devon.

Road protests are also increasing as the Government abandons its 1997 election promise to build them only as the "last resort". Mrs Willmot is fighting a piecemeal revival of the controversial Salisbury bypass, which Labour scrapped on coming to power as a statement of its new policy. Mr Atkinson is campaigning against a second road tunnel planned to go under the Tyne.

Twenty-nine major road schemes have been proposed by local authorities this year; the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) has concerns about 12 of them. And there is pressure to build Britain's first 14-lane motorways on parts of the M25.

The CPRE also expects 900,000 new homes to be built on greenfield sites over the next 15 years.

Meanwhile, a new airport is planned at Finningly near Doncaster, a major expansion is scheduled for Stansted, and the Government is considering a new runway in the South-east. And ministers are considering building up to 14 new nuclear power stations.

This month, ministers will publish plans to stop the public challenging the need for major national projects such as roads, nuclear power stations and airports. Public inquiries will be restricted to local issues such as landscaping, while the Government whips approval for the schemes through Parliament.

Henry Oliver, the chief planning campaigner for CPRE, said: "This massive wave of development is likely to lead to unprecedented outrage across the country. It will be much worse if the Government is seen to remove people's right to have their say on major projects in their areas at public inquiries."