Road protesters threaten direct action: Environmentalists disappointed as most motorway proposals survive transport department review. Nicholas Schoon reports

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The Independent Online
Roads protesters promised to step up their campaigns yesterday and threatened direct action to obstruct construction work. They said this was their only option after a deeply disappointing review of the Department of Transport's road building programme.

They welcomed the scrapping of several environmentally destructive schemes. But the bulk of the motorway and A road proposals fought because of damage to homes, heritage, landscape and wildlife remain firmly in the roads programme and highly likely to be built in the next 10 to 15 years.

'This is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,' said Fiona Reynolds, director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. 'A lot of the best countryside is still to be demolished.'

John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, also announced the abolition of the department's own long-established expert committee of independent landscape advisers because, he said, he now has sufficient expertise 'in house'. One member, Elizabeth Garland, said: 'I think it's a tragedy and a retrograde step because it removes an important tier of consultation.'

Road opponents wanted a suspension or scrapping of the bulk of the pounds 23bn programme and a wholesale shift of resources into public transport.

But although the Departments of Transport and Environment now agree that the forecast doubling of traffic by 2025 can not be accommodated by building ever more roads, yesterday's review left 68 per cent of 371 schemes in the programme intact with 19 per cent suspended and 13 per cent scrapped. The proportion of survivors is higher still because the 371 exclude more than 80 schemes already being built or soon to start. Among the survivors are dozens of sections of new or widened road which will damage landscapes designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and wildlife reserves, some of which should be protected by European law and international treaties.

These include schemes strung along trunk routes which will turn much of what are now mainly single carriageway, winding A roads into straighter, faster dual carriageway roads. These routes, the A303 from the M3 near Basingstoke to Exeter, the Folkestone to Exeter trunk road along the south coast via the M27 and the A36 from Southampton to Bath, may become a focus for national protest.

Among the most controversial schemes scrapped were the A167 Durham western bypass, the A40 North of Oxford bypass and the A31 improvement through the New Forest. Into the postponed list go the A65 Ilkley bypass and the East London River Crossing, which the Government is still contemplating having abandoned plans to route it through Oxleas Wood.

But in the top priority list is the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, a private sector motorway and the Western Orbital Route west of Birmingham - two fiercely opposed schemes which will damage large areas of green belt and give the West Midlands its own version of the M25.

Also top priority is the A36 Salisbury bypass. This 11-mile stretch through countryside south and west of the city would destroy much of the landscape setting of Britain's tallest cathedral. Phil Wilson, a campaigner against the bypass, said: 'We'll keep on fighting . . . it will certainly come to direct action if they start building it.'