Immortalised by Constable, threatened by the Tories ... saved by Meacher?

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Labour will halt the controversial Salisbury bypass, which will ruin one of the best-loved views in Britain, if it wins the general election.

The undertaking - given by shadow Environment Protection Secretary Michael Meacher after a visit to the site with the Independent on Sunday last week - sets an important precedent for the way in which a Labour government would tackle the much-criticised road building programme. It is one of the first concrete signs of a new interest in green issues by Labour as the election approaches.

It also adds to mounting pressure on Sir George Young and John Gummer, the Transport and Environment secretaries, who last October announced that they were "minded" to give the pounds 76m bypass the go-ahead. Last week the Countryside Commission, the Government's official landscape watchdog, called on them to think again. English Nature, its wildlife equivalent, is privately doing the same.

This Tuesday the leaders of eight environment groups - including Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - will link arms on the site to demonstrate their united opposition to the scheme.

The 11-mile A36 bypass - which Mr. Meacher says will cause "enormous environmental and cultural damage"- will cross the River Avon on a 20ft- high embankment, destroying the last open view of Salisbury Cathedral across the water meadows. This is the image of the city celebrated by Constable - although he painted from another spot, one from which the view has already been devastated.

It will also seriously damage the water meadows - one of the last remaining blocks in only two square miles of this type still remaining in Britain. Yet the Government's own figures show it will do little to ease congestion in Salisbury as only 6 per cent of the vehicles entering the city are through-traffic.

Mr Meacher says: "The bypass would only reduce traffic by a fifth on some roads and will not solve the problems of villages on the A36. There must be a better alternative, and I am convinced there is."

He said Labour would halt the scheme and set up a new review process including a detailed assessment of the road's environmental impact. The Government and the local interests, including business, local government and environmentalists, would inquire into the best way of solving congestion in the city. The bypass scheme would be "very, very unlikely to survive" this process he said.

Mr. Meacher wants this to set a precedent for a Labour government's approach to road-building nationwide, with different interests combining to work out solutions rather than having a plan imposed by the Government or the Highways Agency as now.

Richard Wakeford, chief executive of the Countryside Commission, said last week that the bypass would "bisect a landscape unique in this country". He added that the Commission had unanimously agreed that "the impact would be so devastating that attempts at mitigation would do nothing to counter it" and called for "a radical re-think".

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