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Protesters set up 'toll booth' outside relief-road hearing

THE INQUIRY into Britain's first toll road opened yesterday at the Methodist Church in Walsall, West Midlands, with a protesters' picket and a toll booth made out of a lavatory tent.

Opponents of the Birmingham Northern Relief Road are angered by both the potential environmental damage it could cause and by the fact that a private company will build and operate it as a toll road, having acquired the land through compulsory purchase.

This is the second public inquiry into the road, but the results of the first, in 1988, have not been made public by the Department of Transport because the scheme to use public funds was withdrawn in favour of plans to build the 27- mile orbital motorway as a toll road. If the project goes ahead, it will be Britain's first new toll road in modern times.

Several schemes around Britain were earmarked as possible toll roads by the Department of Transport, but the others have been dropped through lack of interest from the private sector. The Birmingham Northern Relief Road is being promoted by Midlands Expressway, a company jointly owned by Trafalgar House and an Italian toll road company, Iritecna. The company, chaired by the former Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Parkinson, has a 53-year concession to operate the road.

Midlands Expressway says the road would provide better links in the 'strategic north-west/south- east road corridor', save three or four lives per year in road casualties and provide benefits to local communities in the existing A5/A38 road corridor, reducing pollution and noise.

The company says that the main purpose of the road - from the M6-M42 junction near Coleshill rejoining the M6 at Cannock - is to relieve congestion on the M6. With other new schemes, it would form part of an orbital road around Birmingham. The company would charge about pounds 1.80 for a car, double for a lorry. It hopes the motorway will be completed before the end of the decade.

Objectors say little traffic would be diverted from the M6, while a large amount would be generated by the road. It would also be used by traffic from the proposed Hams Hall freight terminal, near Coleshill, which will be used for Channel tunnel traffic and other freight which objectors say would generate 20,000 vehicles a day.

The objectors point to the considerable environmental effects, as the road would involve damaging two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Chasewater Heath and the River Blythe, and would require the compulsory purchase of 1,374 acres of land.

The inquiry is due to last at least nine months and the findings will probably not be published until next autumn.