The Department of Transport's U-turn on the six-mile, pounds 300m dual-carriageway puts a question mark over dozens of other road schemes in the Government's pounds 2bn annual roads programme which would damage important wildlife and landscape sites.
But the change, the biggest victory for environmentalists for several years, may only delay the building of a new road crossing over the Thames in east London into the next decade. John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, said there was still a need for an extra crossing to reduce congestion and improve docklands' road connections to the rest of the capital and the Channel ports. 'We will bring forward new proposals for the scheme,' he said.
Campaigners against the road in Greenwich vowed to fight him. Dr Barry Grey, a chest consultant and chair of People Against the River Crossing, said: 'Today I'm very happy and surprised. But we don't know what the son of ELRC (East London River Crossing) will be. When it is put forward we will have to start our campaign again.
'We have some of the worst air pollution in the capital . . . Greenwich has had its fill of cars.'
Ministers would almost certainly have faced a campaign of civil disobedience in the London suburbs once construction work began in the woods, a Government-designated site of special scientific interest. Thousands have signed a pledge to use peaceful but not necessarily legal means to stop the destruction. 'They're getting out of a very tricky, hot political issue,' said a Department of the Environment source. 'It's a real victory for the campaigners.'
A similar campaign has been waged at Twyford Down, where hundreds of protesters have invaded the construction site where the M3 Winchester bypass is damaging important wildlife, archaeological and landscape sites. The most recent action by about 500 protesters was last weekend.
Emma Must, a Twyford protester who has defied a high court injunction forbidding her and 58 others from trespassing on the site, said last night: 'Everybody here has been leaping around - it's wonderful news. The level of public support and outrage would have been ten times greater at Oxleas. We think we helped to make the change.'
The ELRC decision comes 14 years after the scheme was launched. There have been two public inquiries, one of which was the longest held for a road scheme. Yesterday, the Department of Transport said pounds 31m had been spent on preparation, including pounds 9m on buying land and property, for the road, much of which would have been six lanes wide. It would have spanned the Thames at Woolwich on a box- girder bridge whose design was much criticised.
Successive transport ministers had rejected the relatively cheap option of building a pounds 10m tunnel beneath the wood, as recommended by inspectors after the two public inquiries.
Transport ministers are suggesting that yesterday's decision shows they are giving much more prominence to environmental considerations in deciding on road schemes. It follows the decision to build a pounds 30m tunnel for the A3 widening scheme at the Devil's Punchbowl at Hindhead Common in Surrey and the scrapping of the A49 by-pass at Hereford which would have destroyed valued marshes beside the river Lugg.
However, campaigners suggest there is no evidence that the Government is ready to change the focus of its transport policy. The trunk roads programme, on which pounds 23bn is expected to be spent over the next 15 years, still threatens 160 sites of special scientific interest, many much more valuable than Oxleas Wood.
Attention will now focus on the proposed M25 widening, a decision on which is expected this month. It has been the subject of a discussion within a Cabinet committee and a clash between environment and transport ministers. While the decision on Oxleas Wood is significant, ministers are vowing that a new river crossing will eventually be built.
But a decision to scrap the work on London's orbital motorway would be final and more significant, as it would show that the Department of Transport had accepted the idea that it cannot build its way out of the traffic crisis. A European legal action and a British one, both launched by protesters against the ELRC, are still in progress.
Green lobby boosted, page 3
Leading article, page 27
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