Bypass protesters win first skirmish

Battle of Newbury: Contractors' security guards outwitted as activists muster forces to frustrate roadbuilders
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Protesters against the Newbury bypass celebrated a first-round victory yesterday when they prevented contractors from starting work on the road.

The constructors had spent weeks making plans to establish two secure compounds on the bypass route in Berkshire - to serve as equipment stores - and more than 500 security guards had been hired to keep away protesters while they are built.

Before dawn yesterday, activists from the Third Battle of Newbury protest group blockaded the guards into their own compound when 20 campaigners erected and scaled 15ft high steel tripods in the only lane leading to where the guards were stationed, on a farm near Sulhamstead Abbots, 15 miles east of Newbury. Seven coachloads of security guards were left stranded.

The demonstrators' claim of a victory came as details emerged of the Highways Agency spending pounds 1m on detectives. The Government agency has hired the private eyes to monitor protests against controversial road- building projects. They have been used to serve legal papers and keep a watch on protesters who have camped out at several sites, including the Newbury bypass, Twyford Down in Hampshire, and the M11 link road in London.

They are instructed by Treasury solicitors to gather evidence against protesters in court battles to gain possession of the land.

The protesters have developed increasingly complex ways to fight their battles. At Newbury, for instance, a national telephone information network was activated to summon anti-roads protesters to the site of the bypass. They hoped that blocking the road from the farm would delay the security guards and enable more protesters to reach Newbury.

Jai, one of the activists, said they had scored a "total victory". But Tom Riall, area manager for Reliance Security, the firm supplying the guards, said they were unfazed by the protesters' actions. "We were surprised but we know there are going to be delays. It's inevitable but it's nothing we've not come across before."

By last night several hundred protesters had arrived at the 12 camps along the bypass route. Last night, the campaigners were preparing their plans for today's actions. They hope to delay the security guards again which will allow more people to reach Newbury.

They are also continuing their court battle to prevent eviction from a network of tree houses and tunnels.

The Department of Transport was told yesterday by the Third Battle of Newbury's solicitor, Liz Loughran, that it risks contempt of court proceedings if it approaches the camps too closely. A full hearing of the eviction proceedings is due to begin on 26 January. Ian Blair, assistant chief constable of Thames Valley police, said he was preparing for a long series of protests but stressed police would be "bipartisan".

"We are neither for the bypass nor against it. We are for law and order and we will ensure that this is the case over the days, weeks and months ahead," he said.