The roadblock that became a bandwagon

How a campaign in the Tory heartlands changed the nation's road policy

Nearly three years ago, on a balmy summer's evening, more than 500 people crowded into a school hall in Egham, Surrey, to launch the protest against the M25 link roads. It was the second such meeting within three days, because the first had been so full the organisers had been obliged to turn away hundreds of people. There was barely a beard or a pair of sandals in sight. This was one of the earliest expressions of the middle-class revolt that has since manifested itself in protests against veal crates, education cuts and other road schemes.

While large protest meetings often fizzle out when it becomes clear that the campaign cannot be sustained, the anti-motorway protesters in Surrey had caught a tide of feeling that proved irresistible. The M25 was completed only in October 1986 and residents had been promised that this would spell the end of their traffic problems. The through traffic that had been such a blight on their lives would now go on the motorway, returning little towns and villages such as Egham and Thorpe to their former peaceful selves. Admittedly, a bit of the countryside had been lost to concrete, but it was a sacrifice worth making.

Now these protesting residents were being told that there were plans to widen the motorway with link roads to 14 lanes, giving it a breadth, at one point, of 22 lanes. Los Angeles was coming to Surrey. It was too much to bear.

The extraordinary momentum of the campaign was never lost. All the tools of the trade were used: more mass meetings were held, newspapers were written to, MPs contacted and stalls set up in shopping centres.

The protesters realised that they had two enormous strengths. First, the proposed widening of the M25 to 14 lanes would be the first of a series of similar measures around the country. This made it a national rather than local issue and enabled the protesters to form links with similar groups around the country. In the meantime, they quickly established relations with local authorities and protest groups all around the M25, a huge swathe of South-east England.

Second, they were in a Tory heartland, a place where the votes for the Conservatives can be weighed rather than counted. With a weak government vulnerable to backbench revolts, they only needed to obtain the support of a few local MPs to get the scheme scrapped. In the event, after obtaining the immediate support of Sir Michael Grylls, who sits for North West Surrey, and Sir Geoffrey Pattie, a former minister, others like Kenneth Baker and Sir George Gardiner quickly joined in.

Such was the scale of the local protest that it became unwise to be seen as supporting the idea of a 14-lane M25. BAA, which owns Heathrow, is keen to build Terminal 5 right next to the M25, and was originally going to appear as a witness in favour of the widening at the public inquiry. But when Des Wilson, the former environmental campaigner, joined the company last year, he asked his colleagues whether the new terminal really needed the widening. They told him that it was not necessary and he said: "So I thought, why appear at the inquiry if we don't need the widening. It was unnecessary."

Nor did MPs want to be associated with the M25 widening, and all the local authorities were against it. The tide became unstoppable, but as one campaign leader said: "We only see yesterday's announcement as a partial victory. We want all widening schemes to be scrapped. And we will win." CW

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