Bypass protesters pledge 'direct action'

Newbury road row: Campaigners mobilise as minister confirms early go-ahead for controversial A34 project
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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The Government yesterday announced that it was pressing ahead with the Newbury by-pass, scuppering protesters' hopes that it would scrapped as part of large road programme cuts expected in today's Budget.

The roads and railways minister, John Watts, told the Commons that the main works on the pounds 67m road would start ''as soon as possible'' next year. Within a few days the Government's Highways Agency is expected to award a contract for preliminary clearance work.

The 8.5-mile dual-carriageway stretch of road, through countryside west of the fast-growing Berkshire town, will eliminate the last stretch of single-carriageway in the A34 linking Portsmouth and South-ampton with the Midlands.

It will remove a town-centre bottleneck which can delay through traffic by up to an hour and, in summer, create queues up to five miles long. The road should prevent about 400 lorries an hour passing through the middle of the town.

But the bypass has become a new focus for the roads protest movement - with campaigners threatening a ''direct action'' campaign more intense than over the M3 extension at Twyford Down and the M11 link road in east London.

The bypass will damage three designated wildlife sites, harm the habitats of rare bats and dormice, cross the site of an English Civil War battlefield and cover archaeological remains.

Tony Juniper, of Friends of the Earth, said the Government was going ahead to win electoral support from local people - many of whom want the bypass - and because it wanted to be seen to be standing up to the protesters. ''Why else, at a time when the roads budget is being cut, would they be investing so much effort in a scheme which is one of the most controversial and least defensible. It's the most environmentally destructive scheme in the entire programme.''

The bypass is strongly supported by the district council and Newbury's MP, Liberal Democrat David Rendel, who said yesterday: ''I am determined to keep pressuring the Government because the current road does enormous environmental damage to the town.''

He believes main construction work will not begin until May at the earliest, but is encouraged that the Government is giving the scheme top priority. So far this financial year, the Highways Agency has not started any major schemes. With just four months to go, it has undertaken to begin at least six.