Eco-warriors dig in to defy bailiffs

BAILIFFS continued their efforts yesterday to dislodge protesters from a network of tunnels under the proposed route of the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, just as the Government confirmed start dates for several new road-building projects.

Environmental activists have constructed tunnels with concrete-enforced entrances beneath Moneymore Cottages, on the edge of the motorway route near the village of Weeford, Staffordshire.

Bailiffs working for county officials brought one protester out of a tunnel after a struggle yesterday. But up to 10 more were still believed to be underground. Efforts were continuing to dislodge them.

The planned pounds 400m, 27-mile motorway - intended to link the M42 at Coleshill with the M6 at Cannock - has been described as unnecessary and a blight on the environment by a coalition of residents and eco-warriors. Protesters include "Muppet Dave" and other veterans of campaigns at Manchester Airport and Newbury bypass. The current battle follows an 11-year saga since the road was first proposed. A public inquiry in 1994 and 1995 - the longest held into a road scheme - eventually gave the go-ahead.

Environmental groups reacted angrily yesterday as the Government confirmed starting dates for 24 roads and details of the next stage of 13 more projects, including five to be built under private-public partnerships. The schemes were all listed in the Government's roads review in the summer.

Lord Whitty, the Roads Minister, said the announcement of firm dates allowed the Government to "clarify matters for all concerned". He added: "This is a realistic, achievable programme which we are committed to taking forward, and which reflects our new integrated approach to transport."

Roger Higman, transport spokesman for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said road-building was an "expensive, destructive and ultimately self-defeating way of dealing with traffic problems". He added: "Instead of wasting money on these projects, the Government should invest in traffic management, bus priority and cycle schemes, which provide far more relief for far less money."

Lynn Sloman, of the Transport 2000 campaign group, said: "There are some [schemes] that are clearly not appropriate, where there is local concern and where the full range of alternatives has not been explored." The most unpopular schemes included Bingley relief road in West Yorkshire, the A27 Polegate bypass in East Sussex and the A120 Stansted-to-Braintree road in Essex.

The Birmingham Northern Relief Road, currently the subject of protest, is being built and will be run by Midlands Expressway, a joint venture between the Norwegian firm, Kvaerner, and Autostrade, which runs Italian toll roads. Motorists will be charged pounds 2.50 to use the highway, an alternative and - in theory - less congested route to the M6.