Protesters put the DoT on the spot: The inventive campaign against the M11 link roiad in east London has wrong-footed the Department of Transport, reports Rhys Williams

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Indy Lifestyle Online
If John MacGregor, the Transport Secretary, is moved or sacked in John Major's forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle, his successor's most pressing problem, after sorting out the mess of rail privatisation, will be the debacle over the pounds 250m M11 link road.

A skilled campaign of disruption by East London residents allied with anti-roads lobbyists and New Age travellers, has reportedly put the project five months behind schedule and cost the Department of Transport hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The road, which is intended to link the M11 with the Blackwall Tunnel, was conceived in the 1950s, but work, scheduled to take four years, did not start until September last year.

The No M11 Link Campaign has caught a wave of local sympathy. The protesters have occupied trees earmarked for the chop and blocked the paths of bulldozers. With an eye for a story and a photo-opportunity, the group set up the independent state of 'Wanstonia' and demonstrated on the roof of Mr MacGregor's home in Muswell Hill.

Norwest Holst, the principal contractor, is now hiring security guards to police their fortress building sites and clear squatted property ahead of each fresh round of demolition. Cost in the first five months: pounds 500,000.

John Stewart, chair of Alarm UK, the national umbrella organisation representing 250 anti-roads groups, believes protest movements have developed a more sophisticated understanding of how the Department of Transport works and have evolved their tactics accordingly. They have also grasped that a campaign must be rooted in the local community.

'One photograph of a group's activity in a national paper is worth 1,000 long letters to the DoT. It puts pressure on the authorities, because it means they have to come out and justify themselves in public,' says Stewart.

Campaigners are forcing DoT officials to play away from the familiar ground of public enquiries and official reports, and pushing them into the messy business of direct action. 'Local groups are good at pulling off imaginative stunts. For example, we advise them to do a stunt on a bank holiday, because the DoT is shut then. This new style of campaigning has made the difference over the last few years.'

The M11 link road will be built regardless, of course. But, with the demonstrations against the M3 extension at Twyford Down, the campaign has tapped into and fed off wider public doubts about the wisdom of the Government's pounds 20bn road plans. Many wonder if the money would not be better invested in public transport - not just on environmental grounds, but in the interests of more efficient transport.

The DoT justification for destroying 350 houses in the path of the six-lane road is to knock seven minutes off the journey time between Hackney and Leyton. It will also ease, the department says, the heavy traffic that clogs up the area's side-streets daily.

According to Aileen Brownlie, 46, a mother of five who has lived in Wanstead all her life, half the local community have been 'conned' into buying the argument. The rest are left contemplating what pounds 250m plus would do for the local public transport system. The link road also sits uneasily with the Government's stated policy of building circular roads that by-pass towns rather than radial routes which cut through their hearts.

Mrs Brownlie, a founder member of Wanstead Residents Against the Link and wife of a City ship-broker, describes the direct action by the No M11 Link Campaign as 'absolutely wonderful'.

The campaign is run out of a railway arch near Leytonstone Tube station. The office is cluttered and informal, but efficient. All the equipment - word processors, fax machines, photocopiers, computers - is donated by sympathisers.

One wall is devoted to the vast press coverage their work has attracted, another is plastered with contact numbers of other local groups and friendly solicitors. Campaign literature piled high on shelves waits to be dispatched to the 2,000 or so supporters stored on a database.

Overseeing operations is Andy Davies, who has just completed a PhD in cosmology at London University. He talks proudly of the disruption the campaign has caused and pays tribute to the 'thousands' of people who have helped with direct action and formed part of the 'quiet army of local support' that has donated money, food and equipment. 'We pull off similar stunts to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth with only a fraction of the resources.'

The pivotal moment in the campaign, certainly in terms of galvanising local support, came last November when contractors erected fences around a 250-year-old chestnut tree on George Green. Mrs Brownlie watched pensioners and children help tear them down. 'It was very liberating for everyone. They saw the fence and realised they were going to lose the green.' The chestnut was occupied, a tree-house built and squatters' rights granted by the High Court . It was eventually felled last December on 'Blue Tuesday', with a little help from 300 police officers.

Later that month, three Victorian villas in Cambridge Park were transformed into Wanstonia, Britain's only 'independent free area'. Passports were printed, solicitors' letters sent to Douglas Hurd, the European Union and the Organisation of Non-Aligned States. The state fell in February. The police operation cost pounds 200,000. A fortnight ago, the 'state of Leytonstonia' - a camp on a piece of scrubland - was forcibly evacuated by security guards.

The next likely confrontation will be played out in Claremont Road, E11. Protesters have taken over the whole street and transformed it into the 'Claremonte' community.

Mrs Brownlie will act as an independent observer. She has been shocked by the brutality meted out to protesters evicted from other sites: 'It gets to the point when no one can stand by and let this happen. It seems democracy dies the minute you stand up to defend it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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