Road protesters prepare for bulldozers at dawn

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THE FIRST of the contractors to build the road expected to be one of the biggest battlefields yet in the war over highway construction is to be chosen in a fortnight's time.

The Highways Agency confirmed today that tenders for the contract to clear the route of the A34 Newbury bypass, which is planned to cut through five miles of rare heath and a Civil War site, must be in by 7 November. Contractor selection and the first tree-felling will follow shortly afterwards.

Whichever contractor is chosen will face seasoned anti-roads protesters already encamped in the threatened trees along the bypass route, and a number of local residents opposed to the road, who are mounting dawn patrols to warn of approaching bulldozers.

Many more protesters are expected when work begins. Camilla Berens of the Freedom Network, a loose coalition opposed to roadbuilding and the Criminal Justice Act, said: "Newbury will be Twyford Down times two-and- a-half."

Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, a group that usually prefers lobbying tactics, said: "If all else fails, then we'll do peaceful direct action."

Friends of the Earth is also considering a court challenge to last week's European Commission decision to drop legal action against the road scheme for apparent breaches of European Union law on environmental impact assessment and wildlife protection. "We are incredibly disappointed by this decision," said Secrett. " But the fight is absolutely going to go on."

Previously, a Commission directive had ruled that all decisions to build major road developments from 3 July, 1988 onwards should be subject to environmental study. The Newbury bypass scheme was agreed in 1990. No environmental study took place, and last year the then European environment commissioner Ludwig Kramer confirmed that such a study was required.