Tarmac takes a tip from New Labour

Vanessa Thorpe finds a firm trying to restyle itself as a defender of our heritage
Click to follow
A COMPANY that was at one time among the most unpopular in Britain has been trying to crown its recent public relations achievements against the scholarly backdrop of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Tarmac, the construction giant that for hardline environmentalists still conjures up the image of a great pile of steaming pitch, last week launched The Tarmac Papers, a shiny, upbeat document designed to celebrate the company's history and its work to preserve British archaeological heritage.

Archaeologists and young farmers joined representatives of the British Museum to endorse the publication.

Yet many anti-road campaigners are far from convinced. "We see Tarmac as a very sophisticated operation," said Jeff Gazzard of Manchester Friends of the Earth, "but I think most people are quite cynical and know that it is a load of rubbish."

Tarmac sees the booklet as a weapon in the attempt to put the PR horror of Twyford Down behind it.

It draws attention to Tarmac's sponsorship of high profile archaeological excavations like those at Langford Quarry in Newark where human remains dating back to 2000BC were found. The company also claims some of the glory for the discovery of an ancient board game and a medical instrument kit at a Tarmac-funded dig in Colchester in 1996.

Philip Crummy, director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, is fulsome in his praise. "There aren't many firms doing this kind of work. Tarmac's funding has been without any legal compulsion. They have been amazingly helpful."

Under the stewardship of John Banham, the company's non-executive chairman since 1994 and a former head of the Confederation of British Industry, Tarmac reinvented itself three years ago as New Tarmac, which provoked inevitable comparisons with Tony Blair's efforts to re-route the Labour Party.

Mr Banham has dissociated himself from the blithe road-building policies of the early 1990s, which made crusty protesters a regular presence at Tarmac's annual meetings. He ostentatiously pulled his company out of the running for the Newbury bypass in 1996.

"As a responsible company we have told the Government we can no longer go on like this," he said. There was no justification, he added, for disregarding the environmental impact on an area and simply taking the cheapest option. The contract eventually went to Costain.

Tarmac has been keen to align itself with the best of environmental practice. But many archaeologists and anti-road activists would much prefer to see a more thorough and imaginative approach to preserving Britain's historical sites.

"It would be a lot better if they sponsored a survey of the whole of the British Isles so that road-building and construction could be planned to avoid these places," said Mr Gazzard.

"I admit what they are doing is better than nothing, but they are still finally concreting over everything. The other way, they could plan ahead."