Newbury road contractor risks protesters' fury

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The Independent Online
It seems like the road contract from hell. But Costain, the engineering and building company, is prepared to endure the wrath of protesters to gain its biggest-ever roads contract, the pounds 73.8m Newbury by-pass.

Within minutes of the announcement in Parliament that Costain's had won the contract, 25 protesters blockaded the company's offices in nearby Maidenhead. Several demonstrators scaled the roof and unfurled banners saying "save the snail" and "(e)co stain".

Alan Lovell, Costain Civil Engineering's managing director, has already had demonstrators with banners on the lawn of his house near Winchester two weeks ago, when his company emerged as the favourite to carry out the work.

Mr Lovell said that special precautions in line with advice from the police and the Highways Agency would be taken to protect the site of the 13.5km dual carriageway by-pass during construction, which is due to start within a few weeks. Mr Lovell highlighted Costain's environmental record, which he said had won the company an award for a Lyme Regis coastal protection project.

Protestors feel that they have been given a boost because John Watts, the Roads minister, yesterday accepted that the two sites of a rare snail, Desmoulin's whorl snail, which are on the route, have "acknowledged conservation value". He proposed to move the habitats to larger sites. But yesterday, Friends of the Earth immediately threatened legal action over the snails.

Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said that it would seek a judicial review of the decision.

"We have a strong case because there was no proper assessment of the impact of the road and the scheme ignores the European Union's Habitats Directive," he said.

Friends of the Earth suspect Costain won the contract because several of the other five shortlisted firms deliberately put in high tenders, in order to avoid battles with protestors.

Last month, Sir John Banham, of Tarmac, one of the other bidders, effectively ruled his company out by saying he wanted the environmental standards of the scheme re-appraised and improved if the company won the contract. Tarmac faced enormous controversy over the building of the M3 at Twyford Down in the early Nineties.