'I don't know of one person round here who wants this road,' said Aileen Brownlie, the 46-year-old wife of a City ship broker, who was on her way to her large house close to Wanstead Green in east London. 'The Department of Transport says that when the thing is finished it will cut seven minutes off the time it takes to drive into the City - pounds 230m and all this pain just to save seven minutes.'

As she spoke, Mrs Brownlie was confronted by half a dozen DoT-employed security men walking abreast in her path. Passing through them, she swung her shopping bag purposefully and caught one of them on the knee.

'I'm awfully sorry,' she said as the man whelped in pain. Then out of earshot she added: 'Look at them wandering around in packs, it's bloody appalling, we're living in a state of siege.'

This is what it takes to build a road in 1994. It is no longer a case of doing a bit of bulldozing and slapping down some tarmac. Now you have to be prepared to go to war on behalf of the car. In Wanstead, tens of thousands of pounds' worth of barbed wire and fencing has been erected along the construction site to keep out intruders; more than 200 security guards patrol the area day and night; on 7 December last year 397 policemen were drafted in to remove people from a chestnut tree at a cost of pounds 100,000 to the taxpayer.

The nearby magistrates' courts are clogging up with comical cases: the traveller charged with causing an affray for playing a tin whistle, not to mention the lollipop lady suspended from duty for possessing a dangerous weapon during the siege of the tree - her lollipop. Now the local population has had its fill.

Last week Henry, a taper-thin middle-aged man with sunken eyes, was finally evicted. He had lost his battle to prevent the M11 link road going through the middle of his front room in Leytonstone, east London, a battle that he had maintained for nearly 20 years.

'I was in bed at the time,' he said. 'The strain of all this had taken its toll and I wasn't well. They put a sledgehammer through the front door, barged in mob-handed, pulled the covers off my bed and made me stand there naked. Then they pushed some clothes at me and shoved me out into the street, took away all my things and they had the house down in less than an hour.'

Now he is living in a decaying Edwardian villa overlooking Wanstead Green, which has been converted into an information centre by anti-M11 link protesters.

The house, and its environs, has been declared independent from the United Kingdom by its occupants - the Independent Free Area of Wanstonia. Not that they expect their territory to remain independent or free for long.

'We appealed to the High Court last week to stop the eviction from here,' explained Henry, as he methodically swept the carpet in his temporary accommodation. 'We lost. But it won't stop there. We've got the funds to take them to Europe.'

As he talked, four children in school uniform arrived at the house and started polishing the furniture. An elderly man in a flat cap stood looking at the photographs pinned to the wall of truncheon-bearing policemen dragging bare-footed hippies from a tree. He nodded in agreement as Henry wove an intricate conspiracy theory about infringements of civil liberties, the police being used to push through political policy, and how it is no coincidence that all the leading road construction companies are chief contributors to Tory party funds. 'They've given us a week to get out,' Henry said. 'When the police come to chuck us out, we know there'll be hundreds of them. But there'll

be hundreds of us, too, the Home Guard of Wanstonia.'

It is an unexpected alliance that has grown up in Wanstead: radical young traveller types prepared to chain themselves to trees, the local working classes prepared to stay in their homes well past the evict-by date and the local middle classes prepared to tell their MP they will never again vote for a party that rides roughshod over their local environment. Between them they have slowed a straightforward civil engineering project down to a pace that would embarrass a snail.

According to Jonathon Porritt, the environmentalist, this is a pattern that is repeating itself wherever roads are being constructed in Britain, which, as anyone who takes a drive will know, is virtually everywhere. The Porritt post-bag at the Daily Telegraph, where he is a columnist, bulges with letters from Outraged of Middle England, disgusted by the enveloping tide of concrete at the bottom of their back yards.

'The majority of anti-roads campaigners in the south of England are middle-class and, I'll bet, made up predominantly of traditional Conservative voters,' Mr Porritt said. 'Up until a couple of years ago, they might have bought the line that more roads were needed for the economic wellbeing of the country. Now they don't. They have seen that more roads mean more cars, not less congestion. So when a road appears in their neck of the woods, they'll sign petitions, turn up to meetings, badger their MPs; and when the bulldozers come, they'll support the hippies who arrive to take direct action.'

The chair of the All London Anti-Roads Movement, John Stewart, agrees. 'Middle England and the radical young protester have combined to make it virtually impossible for any more big roads to be constructed,' he said. 'The M11 link is, in effect, an old road that has taken years to get approval. The Government knows it would be politically unacceptable to try to force through something like that again. The only thing we will see in future is the occasional village by-pass that no one would argue against. In effect the major roads programme has ground to a halt.'

This is partly, Mr Stewart believes, due to lack of money; Kenneth Clarke's Budget accounted for the first real cut in the road-building programme in the past 10 years. But also, in such cases as Oxleas Wood, it is because the Government is growing weary of the fight required to force through unpopular construction. A fight which, in the south of England in particular, will need to be conducted in constituencies with precarious majorities.

'I don't think there has been a shift in the Conservatives' philosophical commitment to roads,' said Mr Stewart. 'Indeed there is no sign of any alternative to road transport developing in their minds. But they are frightened for their seats.'

The next big battleground is in London commuter land, with the proposed widening of the M25 into a 12-lane super-highway. Already a group of Conservative MPs - including Michael Grylls and Peter Ainsworth, whose constituencies are sliced up by the road - have started to lobby against it.

'I am absolutely convinced the M25 widening will not take place. I'd be happy to have a bet on it,' said Mr Porritt. 'The extent to which Tory MPs themselves are against it is unprecedented in the history of road-building.'

Meanwhile, in Wanstead, the locals are prepared for the next stage of their fight, which could take place any time from today now that their notice to quit has run out. In an upstairs room of the Wanstonian headquarters, the finishing touches are being added to make-shift defences.

'It will take them at least a day to cut us out of this one,' said a young woman, indicating an old freezer cabinet filled with concrete to which six people intend to handcuff themselves when the police and bailiffs arrive. 'We'll slow them down at every point until in the end we know they'll give up.'

And out on the pavement below, a knot of security men wandered by, clocking up the overtime.

(Photographs omitted)