Environmentalists win battle for Oxleas Wood: London has almost become a 'no-go' area for major road schemes. Christian Wolmar reports

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The Independent Online
THE DECISION to scrap plans for an East London River Crossing demonstrates that London has almost become a no-go area for major road schemes because of opposition from residents and environmentalists.

The roads lobby has long argued that the scheme is a vital link for the capital's motorists. It would have joined the North and South Circular roads, as well as the A2 to the channel ports, and provided a new way into Docklands from south London.

However, opponents said that it would have created a new commuting route into the City, and the Department of Transport is opposed to providing additional capacity to allow commuting by road.

The East London River Crossing was first mooted in the Abercrombie plan to rebuild London after the war and was agreed by the Government in 1979. Although it was endorsed by two public inquiries, both inspectors said that there should be a tunnel underneath Oxleas Wood in south-east London to preserve it. However, this was turned down on the grounds of cost by the Department of Transport.

Although the Government says a crossing will eventually be built, it cannot be completed before the end of the decade because a public inquiry will be needed. The plan may end up like a series of ill-fated road schemes in the capital, from the motorway boxes of the early 1970s to, more recently, the London road assessment studies which envisaged the construction of pounds 4bn worth of roads and tunnels and the destruction of 3,500 homes. They were scrapped in 1990. Only one or two schemes in London survive, such as the M11 link and the widening of the North Circular. The Government will be hard pushed to come up with an environmentally acceptable river crossing.

It is still committed to its pounds 2bn per year roads programme which, unlike other manifesto pledges, has so far escaped Treasury cuts.

Environmentalists argue that the Department of Transport is really a ministry for roads. Their arguments were given strength last year when John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, resisted any attempt in the public spending round to reduce the roads programme. Instead, he allowed extensive reductions in support for investment by British Rail and London Transport.

However, the decision on Oxleas Wood is the third recent major change to a road scheme, implying that the Government appears readier to concede to the environmentalists' arguments. Last March, the Department of Transport scrapped two projected routes at Hindhead Common in Surrey in favour of a pounds 30m tunnel, precisely the option that was rejected at Twyford Down in Hampshire, where construction is well under way. A scheme to build a bypass round Hereford was also thrown out.

So far, however, these decisions seem more like a recognition of the political realities of having a small parliamentary majority since the anti- roads campaigners have managed to muster the support of local Tory MPs.

The proposed widening of part of the M25 in Surrey demonstrates the Government's vulnerability on this issue. Although Mr MacGregor has argued that it is vital to keep traffic moving around London, residents opposed to the scheme have won backing from some prominent Tory MPs.

Anti-roads lobbyists argue that there are many more environmentally valuable sites than Oxleas Wood across the country which are threatened by roadbuilding and yesterday's decision will give campaigners against them great succour.

(Photograph omitted)

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