Tory rebels look to Europe over 14-lane motorway

TORY MPs opposed to the creation of a 14-lane section of the M25 are taking the campaign against their own Government to the European Commission.

The plea to Brussels is the most public symptom of worries that the M25 issue will hand the Liberal Democrats sweeping gains in Conservatism's Home Counties heartlands. Following last week's government concession over Oxleas Wood, it also highlights anger with what MPs see as a lack of a voter-friendly transport policy.

Sir Geoffrey Pattie, MP for Chertsey and Walton and chairman of the Conservative M25 group (which represents about 15 Tory MPs), last week described it as a 'watershed issue', adding: 'I think the Government ought to be very careful'. The group says that of 10,000 letters received by the Department of Transport only eight backed the scheme.

The signs are that the path of retreat beaten in the face of the Oxleas protesters, is being eschewed by John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport. Despite objections within Cabinet, Mr MacGregor is thought to have won backing for the scheme.

The department says that the section of the M25 between the M3 and the M4 is Britain's busiest stretch of motorway, carrying up to 200,000 vehicles per day. It is predicted this will increase by 30 to 40 per cent by 2015. Plans to build a fifth terminal at Heathrow with its main entrance from this part of the M25, put added pressure on the Government. The department wants to build a local traffic road parallel to both carriageways with three-lanes in each direction.

The looming row brings on an unpleasant sense of deja vu. Sir Geoffrey has been labouring

under the shadow of the M25 since he entered Parliament 19 years ago when, he recalls, 'we were debating where the line of the motorway should be'. The latest proposal would create the largest road development outside North America.

The potential backlash has alarmed local MPs despite their seemingly hefty majorities. One local resident said: 'They've destroyed the Green Belt here already. Our village would have a multi-lane motorway in the middle of it. How can we be expected to put up with that?'

Campaigners fear a compromise approving the pounds 144m section between junctions 12 and 15, but dropping proposals to widen neighbouring sections. However, anti-road campaigners believe intense pressure would follow to widen the rest of the 117-mile motorway at a cost of around pounds 1.8bn.

Sir Geoffrey has written to the European Environment Commissioner, Yanniss Paleokrassas, arguing that the Government should consider the environmental impact of the whole motorway, not just of the section linking the M3 and the M4.

Tory minds have been focussed by the disastrous local council elections in May in which the Conservatives lost control of most of the counties which the motorway passes through - Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey. For the Liberal Democrats, who have made huge local government inroads in the South-west, the Home Counties are the next prime target. They see the M25 as a natural doorstep issue. Even Buckinghamshire, the only county the Tories managed to hold, saw 10 Liberal Democrat gains. Senior Tories, including former ministers such as Kenneth Baker, MP for Mole Valley, and Ian Taylor, MP for Esher and a Parliamentary Private Secretary, are concerned about the project.

It has also provoked debate about the party's strategy for dealing with traffic growth, many questioning the Tory party's championship of the car-owners' society. Peter Ainsworth, Conservative MP for Surrey East, said: 'We are against an inappropriate, out-of-date option because it will create a larger traffic jam. We are questioning the wisdom of appeasing the unlimited demand for private car use.'

John Stewart of Alarm UK, the anti-roads group, observed: 'This is the big one. If they drop the M25 widening, that means they will have virtually abandoned major roads schemes in southern Britain.' He says that while the Department of Transport is lobbying hard, the political consequences for the Government may be too heavy a price to pay: 'They've got the London and local elections next year. This is a solidly Conservative area which they can't afford to alienate.'

Mr Ainsworth concedes that issue is 'not a help to us locally'. 'There is the danger that the Government is handing the opposition a substantial stick with which to beat their drum in the local elections'.

(Photographs and map omitted)