'Green' MacGregor bulldozes on

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The Independent Online
THE ASSAULT on England's wildest and most beautiful countryside will be intensified by cuts in the road programme presented as 'environmentally friendly', a surveyfor the Independent on Sunday reveals.

The survey shows that no officially protected landscape areas - and only a handful of specially safeguarded wildlife sites - have been spared by the cuts announced last week, despite a Government policy that road building should be 'kept away' from them.

The survey, conducted by Friends of the Earth, also shows that more than two-thirds of the road building schemes the Government itself describes as 'highly controversial' will still go ahead. Almost all of these will be accelerated.

At the same time, ministers have quietly scrapped the only independent official watchdog on the environmental impact of the road programme. The abolition of the Landscape Advisory Committee was carried out with so little ceremony that some members only heard of their dismissal from the Independent on Sunday.

Last week's cuts followed an eight-month review by ministers of the roads programme and repeated rows between John MacGregor, the Transport Secretary, and John Gummer, Environment Secretary.

Mr MacGregor has repeatedly emphasised that the main purpose of the review was to 'accelerate the delivery of vitally needed roads'. This is to be achieved by a new system of ranking road schemes in four priority groups.

Eighty schemes have been accorded the highest priority, to be built 'as quickly as possible'. A further 173 have been put in the next category, to be 'progressed' only slightly less quickly. To enable these top two priorities to be accelerated, 69 schemes have been deferred, and are not expected to be built for at least 10 years. Finally, 49 schemes have been scrapped.

The effect is to cut pounds 3bn from the pounds 21bn road programme, but only in the longer term. Mr MacGregor stresses that he will continue to spend pounds 2bn a year on it for the next three years - 'almost double, in real terms, the level in 1979'.

The cut schemes, says the DoT, 'have been withdrawn from the programme either because they are no longer considered to be environmentally acceptable or because they are not likely to be progressed in the foreseeable future'.

But it refuses to say how many of the 49 casualties were dropped on environmental grounds and was unable to provide figures on how many officially-designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) have been saved.

The Friends of the Earth survey provides some alarming answers. It shows that only three of the 45 schemes directly damaging SSSIs have been dropped. Eighty per cent of the remainder have been accorded the highest two priorities, and will therefore be speeded up.

Among key sites which will now be damaged more rapidly are Poole harbour, the Medway, Swale and Severn estuaries, Pevensey Levels, the particularly rare Bingley South Bog, near Bradford, and Canford Heath, one of the last remaining large fragments of the rapidly disappearing Dorset heathland that inspired Thomas Hardy.

David Markham, transport policy officer of English Nature, the Government's official wildlife watchdog, confirms that 'only a handful' of SSSIs have been saved.

And Leigh Lock, conservation officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the South-west, said: 'None of the roads that we are concerned about have been axed.'

Eight Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty - the High Weald, the Sussex Downs, the Surrey Hills, the North Wessex Downs, the Cotswolds, north Cornwall, the Howardian Hills near York, and Cranborne Chase and the West Wiltshire Downs - will be hit by the revised programme, the same number as before the cuts. The High Weald is to be hit by seven separate schemes, the Cotswolds by three.

Over three-quarters of them have been placed in the Government's top two priorities.

Yet the DoT says it 'has a long-standing policy of keeping roads away from protected areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, national parks, and areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, wherever possible'.

Thirty-nine of the 57 schemes described in a confidential Department of the Environment report as very or highly controversial are to go ahead - and all but five of them are in the top two categories. They include the widenings of the M25 and M62, the Hereford bypass, and a road that will cut into Solsbury Hill, near Bath, made famous by Peter Gabriel's song. A senior official admitted: 'The trouble will intensify.'

Roger Higman, transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: 'These decisions will accelerate damage to the countryside and inflame yet further conflict with environmental groups.'

Fiona Reynolds, director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said: 'The review has been a financial one, not an environmental one.'

The axing of the Landscape Advisory Commitee has caused even more outrage than the shape of the new roads programme.

Founded in 1956 and consisting of 25 unpaid leading authorities - including geographers, landscape architects, archaeologists and representatives of both the environmental and road lobbies - it has been the DoT's only source of independent advice on the environmental impact of its schemes.

Mr MacGregor says it has been superseded by his department's own experts. Recently it has helped to persuade ministers to abandon the proposed M12 in Essex, and to build a pounds 30m tunnel for the A3 at Hindhead in Surrey to protect the Devil's Punch Bowl.

Len Clarke, a member of the committee since the 1970s, said: 'The need for an independent view has never been more necessary.'

(Photograph omitted)