'Oh yes we can': The grass-roots activists who are passionate about protecting Britain

Who says only students know how to protest?
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The Independent Online

Tony Fuller was hoping for a peaceful retirement. Instead, his Monday afternoon goes something like this: after lunch with his wife Pamela, he puts on a fluorescent jacket, retrieves some hand-painted placards from his garage, slips on a surgical mask and heads outside his cottage to face a barrage of abuse and one-fingered salutes.

By repeatedly activating a pedestrian crossing, he brings the traffic to a standstill for up to seven miles. When the invective is particularly colourful, he finds solace in the Abraham Lincoln quotation, "To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men". This is not how Tony planned to spend his formative years in the picture-postcard Dorset village of Chideock on the Jurassic Coast.

"I was evacuated to Dorset in 1941 and I fell in love with it, so I moved here eight years ago," explains the 77-year-old former Rolls-Royce engineer. "Chideock is a beautiful village, one of the prettiest in this part of the world. It took us four years to find a house here because it's so popular."

Tony's house is built directly on the A35, a road that has become his nemesis. The route, which runs from Bournemouth to Exeter, carries up to 16,000 cars and heavy goods vehicles a day. These spew a cocktail of fumes and noise which, thanks to Chideock's valley location, drapes itself over the village like a stifling blanket on summer days, when HGVs from Southampton dock and Devon-bound caravans merge to create a perfect storm of congestion; the vehicles can sit nose-to-tail outside Tony's front window for four hours at a time. His health has deteriorated as traffic levels have risen. And that's not even counting the risk of vehicles crashing into his property.

"I was relatively healthy when I came here, now my lungs burn when I walk up a hill," says Tony. "My house has been hit twice. Sometimes my wife and I hear a speeding lorry approaching and have to go into the garden because we're terrified it'll lose control and smash through the front of the house."

Something needed to be done. Tony hired the village hall and called a public meeting. It soon became apparent that he was not the only person with concerns and a protest group was formed. Phase One – a deluge of over 200 letters of complaint to public bodies, MPs, MEPs and councillors – drew little response. Phase Two was direct action. Some residents wanted to lie down in the carriageway but Tony suggested a safer and stunningly simple yet effective form of protest; continual use of the village's new pedestrian crossing.

In April this year, 15 campaigners spent an hour repeatedly activating the lights and walking across the road. They caused queues for seven miles. The protests became a weekly occurrence and the authorities have been forced to take notice. Tony and his fellow activists suggested solutions ranging from the building of a bypass to a pollution charge on lorries over a specific weight. Instead, some residents were issued with handheld speed cameras – not much use in a traffic jam.

Nine months after their first push-button protest, a hardcore of activists still continue to halt the traffic and Tony has enlisted the help of the European parliament, which he hopes will pressure central government into action. "Not everyone in the village agrees with what we are doing," he says. "But if I have to stay there on the crossing for the rest of my life I will do so; I believe in what I am doing."

People like Tony are not supposed to exist in modern Britain. According to the commonly-held stereotype, we are a nation infected by apathy, content to sit on our sofas, anaesthetised into inactivity by cheap alcohol, bad cuisine and Corrie. In France, activists burnt lamb carcasses in the street to protest against imports and mobilised en masse, bringing the nation to its knees when the pensionable age was raised by two years. In Greece, spending cuts were met with months of violent riots and in Spain, up to two million people marched against austerity measures.

Here, apart from the recent student protest, the most severe spending cuts since the Second World War have been met at worst by inaction and at best by muted grumbling. On Yahoo Answers just 21 people bothered to answer the question, "Is England (Britain) becoming the most apathetic nation on Earth?". One person observed, "There is no fight left in them," several others replied, "I don't care". But Tony and his insurrectionists are not alone in their Gallic-style resolve. Our collective response to politicians carving chunks from the nation may be torpor, but on a grass roots level, activism is thriving in the most unexpected places.

the word "pleasant" was invented for places like Puttenham in Surrey. The stockbroker-belt village near Guildford nestles on the slopes of a dramatic elongated ridge called the Hog's Back. With a village store, school and cosy pub it offers wealthy commuters an idealised slice of rural life. However, if you look closely at the slopes above the village, heads bobbing behind hedges give an indication of the darker side of this bastion of Middle England. Puttenham is overlooked by the second-most popular dogging site in Europe. People who participate in consensual outdoor sexual activity – "doggers" – and gay men cruising for partners are drawn to the area which has been classified as a Public Sex Environment, or PSE. This would all be fine, except for a jarring proximity to the village school. While no children have yet to witness the sight of two humans mating, community concern is understandable. Although many older Puttenham residents accept the activity, which has been rife for 20 years, an influx of young families over the past decade has changed the demographic and these relative newcomers refuse to stand for overt hanky-panky in their backyards. They are waging a campaign of reclamation in the rolling hills above their homes which involves sending regular walking parties into the lion's den to deter over-sexed couples, and hacking back shrubbery to reduce the cover it affords.

The campaign was started by long-suffering resident and mother, Jules Perkins. "We have people here who have witnessed men having sex from their kitchen windows while they give their children tea," she sighs. "We want our children to have the freedom of the beautiful countryside. The view from the top of the village is stunning but there is no way anyone in the village will let their children go up there until the dogging is totally eradicated.

"We are not a bunch of Nimbys; our argument is that thanks to dogging websites, it will only get worse."

The site is indeed well-advertised. Swingingheaven.com even warns people of an increased police presence spurred on by the village campaign. Earlier this year, activists pressured Surrey County Council to close the lay-by used by the thrill-seekers on the road that runs along the spine of the Hog's Back and a coach-load of them went to County Hall to force their case. In the event, councillors chose to keep the area open and implement measures to deter the activity instead. One suggestion was to release bulls on the site to deter doggers and another was for the school to plant Leylandii trees around the playground to create a visual barrier. Surrey police have been supportive of the residents, although, embarrassingly, last year spent £124.93 on tea, coffee and biscuits for outdoor sex devotees to help build trust and encourage homosexuals to report hate crimes.

Now residents are due to receive training from officers to inform them of their rights if they witness sexual activity. Local MP Anne Milton has also offered her support after witnessing two men engaged in sexual activity while she was on a fact-finding mission.

twenty miles away, another campaign in the North Downs is in full swing. This time, it is a David and Goliath battle between the residents of a tiny hilltop hamlet and the oil industry. The battleground is Coldharbour, a community of around 260 residents that happens to be sitting on what Europa Oil has described as "one of the best undrilled UK onshore structures". The company wants to sink a bore hole into Leith Hill, the highest point in south-east England and the site where in 851AD, Anglo Saxons under Ethelwulf, father of Alfred the Great, defeated the Danes and saved England for Christianity. What the oil company probably did not realise was that the 260 residents of remote Coldharbour, under which the drilling would take place, are seasoned campaigners who have just as much fight in them as their medieval forebears. In a former war, they raised over £80,000 to fight off proposals to build an industrial incinerator near their homes.

Parish councillor and campaign leader Stuart McLachlan says the battle is vital to preserve the one lane that leads to the village and along which Europa plans to send up to 100 lorries a day. "We are not an anti-oil lobby," he says. Their main concern, he insists, is the local environment. The campaign utilises email, the village website and good old word-of-mouth to keep residents informed of progress while it waits for Europa's next move. Resolve is strong.

"We love this area," adds Stuart. "It needs protecting, we are passionate about it. The bureaucrats have no understanding of what goes on around here and we have to stand up for it because no one else will."

According to Dr Christopher Pinney, a social anthropologist at the University of London, demonstrating is "not in the British DNA. In the case of the Greeks and French, revolt and protest on the street has always been part of a national tradition. Protest on the street is part of the British political tradition, but it's not perceived as such," he says.

As a nation we like to think of ourselves as reserved. We are neither a vocal or overblown people and while we might not stage the show-stopping protests our Continental cousins are famed for, like no other nation we have perfected the art of the grass-roots campaign.

In Scotland, residents in Newtonmore have utilised Facebook and horse and cart to garner support for their campaign to save the town's Highlands Folk Museum from budget cuts and closure. The Facebook page has support from as far away as Trinidad and Tobago and the horse and cart were used in a march through the town.

In multicultural Tottenham, the community has mobilised against plans to replace renowned independent reggae shop Every Bodies Music with a Paddy Power betting outlet. Led by community activist Douglas Williams, protesters stage regular rallies outside the shop and plan a march along Tottenham High Road.

"The music shop has been here for 35 years and is a focal point for people," argues Douglas. "It is a positive focus. Enough is  enough. Betting shops exploit poorer people, they offer nothing constructive."

On the south coast, people power, jingoism and Dame Vera Lynn are the main ingredients of a campaign to secure the grim industrial landscape of Dover Harbour for future generations of Brits after a French company bid to buy the port. Unaware of the contradiction of using Dunkirk-spirited Dame Vera in a campaign to repel our former wartime allies, sabre-rattling locals are vowing to prevent the "gateway to the nation" being sold to overseas buyers. This uniquely British community approach to protest has had results on a national level. Thanks to the internet, disparate groups protesting against similar issues have been able to form support networks and influence government policy.



last year, the law regarding the classification of lap-dancing clubs was changed after a slew of community protests against applications to open venues in residential areas. Before the changes, lap-dancing clubs were governed by the same licensing laws as pubs and cafés. Last April, they were reclassified as sex establishments, giving councils the power to refuse them on the grounds of inappropriateness. One of the most high-profile campaigns in this proxy war on suburban strippers was carried out in leafy Crouch End in north London.

When a company submitted an application to build a club opposite an infants' school, residents there formed a protest group, Lap Off!, and plastered the area with posters featuring movie action heroes like Chuck Norris, Rambo and Mr T with the caption: "Real men don't go to lap-dancing clubs". The campaign had its own website, blog and online petition. Management consultant and mother-of-three Alison Lillystone spearheaded it.

"The strength of feeling was self-propelling. There was so much shock and horror, we were really engaged in the cause, and there were plenty of people completely committed to stopping it. The developers were surprised that the community managed to galvanise as much as it did and make so much of a fuss. Campaigns like that build communities."

And that is one of the unforeseen benefits of living under a communal threat. Protest engenders unity, as in the case of Ringstead in rural east Northamptonshire. With a population of around 1,500, it is a typical, functional British village. It is not twee, and will never grace a National Trust calendar. Demographically, it comprises a mix of older long-term residents and younger families drawn to the new residential estates built in the past 20 years. The two camps rarely mixed – until the German energy company Volkswind proposed building five 126 metre wind turbines on land adjacent to the village.

Although open-minded at first, residents researched the proposed project and came up with one simple conclusion – a wind farm would have little benefit in an area that happens to be one of the least windy in the UK. Like the 230 other communities across the country that have staged revolts against wind farm plans, the residents of Ringstead organised themselves into a protest unit. They have their own website and have linked with other protest groups across the country. Recently, during a fundraising coffee morning, they hired a hot air balloon to fly at the same height as the proposed turbines, illustrating the height of structures.

Shaun O'Shea is one of the architects of the campaign.

"East Northamptonshire has the lowest wind speed in the UK. We have a pleasant village here surrounded by rural landscapes and it is about to be invaded for no particular purpose. There's no benefit to the community. That is why people took action."

What the people of Ringstead really don't like is the feeling that, because a similar application was passed in a neighbouring village without protest, they have been singled out as an easy target.

Shaun explains: "A lot of these companies underestimate local people and how much they value their communities. We were seen as a soft touch. The feeling here now is akin to a Blitz spirit.

We see the value of what we've got, they see the price of everything and the value of nothing. We have galvanised. I have got to know more people in the past 12 months than I have in the 19 years since I moved here. The actual impact on the village has been quite amazing in that there is far more communication between people. In a funny way it has made the village a happier place."

With a dark cloud hanging over them, the residents of Ringstead have found something of surprising value in a time of darkness, like so many other community activist movements before them; they've discovered each other.

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