Protesters demand public inquiry into road scheme: Ministers are facing opposition from residents in the Tory heartlands of Surrey over plans to widen the M25. Christian Wolmar reports

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The Independent Online
VILLAGERS in the Tory heartlands of Surrey are threatening to revolt over Department of Transport plans to widen the M25 from eight lanes to 14.

Veterans of former protests over the planning and building of the motorways in the county 20 years ago have joined forces in an attempt to block the proposals.

'We know what it is like to live next to motorways and we can't cope anymore. Our backyard is full,' Eiry Price, a local independent councillor, said.

He and his fellow protesters are not seeking to have the motorway extension in someone else's backyard. They want the plans dropped and are seeking a public inquiry into the matter.

And they have enlisted support from people on the left and right of the political spectrum, including local Tory MPs - among them former ministers Kenneth Baker, MP for Mole Valley, and Sir Geoffrey Pattie, who represents Chertsey and Walton.

Such is the groundswell of opinion that more than 700 people packed two meetings at Manorcroft School in Egham this week to protest at the plans.

On Thursday night more than 350 people, mainly from the nearby village of Thorpe, filled the school gymnasium to join the campaign against the widening of the M25. Two nights earlier another 350 protesters, mainly from the town of Egham, had braved a storm to hold a similar meeting.

'They think (the Department of Transport) we are a soft option,' one speaker said. 'We have to show them that we are not.'

If Thursday night's meeting is anything to go by, the campaign will cause a few nightmares for the men from the ministry and their political masters. The residents intend to ensure that it is an 'all-party or non-party campaign', bringing together everyone from the local Labour Party and Friends of the Earth to Sir Michael Grylls, Tory MP for Surrey North West.

There is a general feeling that whatever the national interest, Surrey has done more than enough for it. 'We've got the M3, the M25, gravel pits all around us and the proposed Terminal Five at Heathrow,' Mary Abrahams of Thorpe Ward Residents' Association said. 'Thorpe used to be a lovely village and it's already cut in two by the motorway.'

If the plans go ahead the motorway at Thorpe will be 20 lanes wide. The residents are aware that this is not just a local issue and there were representatives at Thursday's meeting from other groups which will be affected by the next set of proposals.

The Department of Transport's plans, called 'Improvements' and published last month, are the first part of the pounds 1.8bn scheme to add six lanes to most of the length of the M25. The first section will link the M3 and the M4 and cost pounds 144m. If it wins the battle over these initial 12km (71 2 miles), which involves demolishing 24 homes, the department's arguments for a general widening will be irrefutable.

According to Howard Langley, the Tory leader of Runnymede Borough Council, 'they will be able to argue that it is ridiculous for a 14-lane motorway to feed into eight lanes'. Mr Langley said the plans were being issued in a piecemeal way because 'if they had produced the whole scheme at once there would not have been halls big enough for the protesters to meet'.

The new lanes, originally called collector-distributor roads but lately renamed link roads, will cater for local traffic. Half the cars entering the M25 leave within a couple of junctions. These, then, will be local motorways aimed precisely at the type of people protesting about them.

Although the residents are demanding a public inquiry, Roger Higman, transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth, told the meeting that it would be wrong to focus solely on the public inquiry.

'The campaign needs the support of lots of people and musn't just focus its efforts on the technical arguments because the department always has more experts and barristers at its disposal than the protest groups do,' he said.

Sir Michael Grylls is confident of success in the campaign because of the need for public expenditure cuts. 'I can save them pounds 144m straight away,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)