Houses planned on ancient moor as bypass eludes cuts

Applications are snowballing to fill in unspoiled land beside the Newbury bypass, writes Andy Beckett
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The Independent Online
THE planned Newbury bypass, Britain's most controversial road scheme and the likely site of major protests, has prompted one of Britain's biggest land-owning companies to propose building on unspoiled land near the Berkshire market town.

Tomorrow, Sir Richard Sutton's Settled Estates, a farming and furniture- making company intends to put a proposal for 1,600 houses and commercial premises - a huge development for a town of 27,000 people - to Newbury District Council.

Sutton Estates proposes to develop "the land enclosed by the imminent A34 bypass". Four separate housing blocks, a commercial zone, and a connecting road are to be sited on ancient marsh and moorland between the historic market town and the proposed new road, which survived Budget cuts last week to become the largest remaining highway project in the country.

"Now the residents of Newbury are going to have to deal with all the destructive developments that the bypass will bring," says Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth.

Sutton Estates, which had a turnover of pounds 71m and gave pounds 1,250 to the Conservative Party in the last financial year, had left its Newbury land undeveloped for more than 100 years. But now Rachel Stark of Friends of the Earth's Newbury office says that the proposal will be the first of a flood: "Building the bypass would produce an ideal set of land for development."

Four applications to build service stations along the bypass route have already been considered by neighbouring Basingstoke and Deane Borough Councils. One has been approved, and FoE lists 20 further proposals.

"The bypass will allow development pressures that would have happened anyway to be accommodated," says Keith Reid, Berkshire County Council's environment officer. He says the road's promised easing of Newbury's traffic congestion "will allow some developments to go ahead - we could no longer object to them on grounds of their increasing traffic".

There is already considerable demographic pressure for housing in Newbury. In June the town was required by John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, to allow the building of 500 more houses than its strategy for development had permitted.

However, Reid says FoE's picture of the bypass "opening the floodgates for more development" is an exaggeration. Christopher Watts of Newbury District Council, which supports the bypass, agrees with Reid. He points out that the 20 developments cited by FoE, totalling "5,336 new houses", include every possible alternative put forward to satisfy the town's housing needs.

All this skirmishing over development is part of the wider war over the western bypass, which has been fought for over a decade now - ever since Newbury's existing eastern bypass began struggling under the weight of 50,000 vehicles a day.

On Tuesday, the Government abandoned a third of its road-building programme in the Budget, but kept the Newbury bypass. That night, Sir George Young, the Transport Secretary, won the Conservative Party nomination for a seat including the southern portion of the bypass. The Hampshire NW party agent said local Tories strongly supported the scheme.

Newbury itself is a Liberal Democrat seat, prised from the Conservatives in a by-election by David Rendle, who believes the bypass is popular with local voters. On Thursday, the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman, David Chidgey, asserted his party's support for the road: "We agree with the need for local bypasses to alleviate traffic."

By contrast, the Labour Party opposes the road. Clare Short, the shadow transport secretary, wrote a letter of support to anti-bypass residents. "It is clear," she said, "that the A34 western bypass does not represent the solution [to Newbury's congestion]. The decision to approve the bypass was made without giving proper consideration to alternative options." A Labour government would halt the bypass to examine these options, she said

This position was boosted by the Newbury Weekly News's discovery that the cost of the bypass had swelled from pounds 70m to pounds 101m. In fact, local support for the road, which had been overwhelming after two public inquiries recommended building it, has been dwindling.

Keith Berry, a businessman, undermined the claim that Newbury commerce was in favour of the road by conducting his survey of business views. Eighty per cent of the 140 respondents either opposed the bypass outright or wanted alternatives explored.

But there are doubts whether the bypass will do much to relieve Newbury's congestion anyway. The town is a commercial hub with one of the highest per capita rates of car ownership in the country. Although long-distance lorries are noisily evident on its current bypass, so are rush-hour jams of local traffic. FoE claims the latter makes up over 90 per cent of the total.

Peter Gilmour, the District Council's information officer, admits that residents could be causing "50 per cent" of the traffic that pollutes their air. He agrees that Newbury must encourage its residents to take public transport if the town is to be unclogged in the long- term.