Road protesters prepare for the battle of Newbury

A34 bypass: Hundreds pledge to chain themselves to bulldozers after Mawhinney 'betrays' promise to delay scheme for a year
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Road protesters and contractors are heading for a clash over the Newbury bypass which is likely to match the scale of the struggles over Twyford Down and the M11 link.

Both local and national environmental campaigners are appalled at the decision of the outgoing Secretary of State for Transport, Brian Mawhinney, announced quietly on Wednesday, to approve the scheme, breaking a promise made last December to put construction on hold for a year. Work could, start as soon as December, according to the Highways Agency. It said: "The money is available and ministers have said work should start during the current financial year."

Roger Higman, roads campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said the decision was incomprehensible in the face of widespread acceptance that new road- building cannot be expected to keep pace with demand. He said: "So much for the national transport debate initiated by Mawhinney. This shows it was a fraud. He knew that we were working on the basis of a year's delay because we had commissioned research into alternatives; and now, six months into it, he gives the go-ahead before we have come up with alternatives. This is an outrageous betrayal."

Mr Higman reckons this is one of the two or three most environmentally sensitive road schemes in the country.

It is a sentiment echoed by many local people in Berkshire. Yesterday, in the village of Bagnor, a few hundred yards from where the road will pass, a group of local actors were rehearsing outside the Watermill Theatre for their matinee performance and chasing errant swans into the river Lanbourn. Its clear waters flow swiftly past the Watermill and are alive with fish, insects and birds. Environmentalists say that the river will be severely damaged.

The box office manager, Sybil Marsh, said it was time the Government made "bold decisions" and questioned the need for the car. "Why is freight travelling along the A34 and not on the railways? The root of the problem has to be tackled."

Helen Ascomb is a spokeswoman for The Third Battle of Newbury, a group fighting the A34 bypass. The first two battles of Newbury took place in the Civil war. She said the road was pointless. "All it's going to do is increase traffic through Newbury. The government's own reports show that new roads mean more traffic."

In Bagnor's Blackbird pub, where the bypass decision was the main topic of conversation, the landlord, John Newbrook, is resigned to the road being built. "We need a bypass. I use a motor like everybody else but I don't think people realise the destruction this road will cause. The areas around here are beautiful natural habitats and they will be chewed up. The noise itself will be horrendous."

More enthusiastic support comes from Newbury District Council, which says the road will improve the environment in the town and surrounding areas. It says 50,000 vehicles travel through the town every day: "Building the new road will cut down on pollution and promote economic development."

Newbury happens to be the headquarters of the anti-roads campaign Road Alert!, which says it will fight to the last. More than 1,000 people have already signed a "bulldozer pledge", agreeing to chain themselves to construction machinery.

The police have already asked the Government for extra funds to deal with the expected civil disobedience. The third battle of Newbury is already starting.

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