Way cleared for road through ancient woodland

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A HIGH COURT challenge to prevent a trunk road being driven through London's last ancient woodland failed yesterday .

It came hours after an unsuccessful attempt by two London councils, in an adjoining courtroom, to prevent part of Hackney Marshes being taken for the final stage of a motorway that will link the A2 in Kent with the M11 in north- east London via Blackwall Tunnel.

Oxleas Wood, in Eltham, south-east London, undisturbed for 8,000 years, can now be compulsorily acquired to allow construction of the East London River Crossing linking the A2 and North Circular roads via a new bridge.

The 'Oxleas Nine' - who have risked financial ruin to overturn the purchase order - and Greenwich borough council, brought the challenge against the departments of Transport and Environment.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Hutchison acknowledged the wood was a Site of Special Scientific Interest which enclosed many ancient trees, flourishing wildlife and a 'special quality of atmosphere by reason of its oldness'. But he ruled that Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, had not acted unlawfully or unreasonably in issuing a compulsory purchase order.

The judge dismissed claims that the alternative land offered on Woodlands Farm, near Shooters Hill - which would be noisier, planted with immature trees and bordering a major road - was not as high quality. He cited a government inspector's view that the 'balance was just in favour of the Department of Transport'.

He awarded the Secretary of State half his costs, reflecting his defeat on the legal point of whether the court had jurisdiction to consider the case. But the judge agreed the Nine had 'carried the flag for a very large and very concerned proportion of the public'. One of the Nine, Cliff Taylor, of Eltham, said: 'We will be considering an appeal. But it's back to the drawing board.'

Jessica Currie, of Plumstead, said: 'Costs will be about pounds 30,000, which we can just afford from our own money and environmentalists' donations. At present we don't have enough to appeal. But I want to carry on fighting.'

A spokesman for the pressure group Friends of the Earth said: 'Mr Justice Hutchison has given the Government extremely wide powers to take our best open spaces and give any land they like in exchange. This judgment means the Environment Secretary can ignore the fact that unique wildlife habitats are irreplaceable.'

Waltham Forest council, which together with Hackney council brought the High Court challenge against the Department of Transport to save the common land on Hackney Marshes, is also considering an appeal against the decision to build a six-lane motorway, linking the A2 and M11, through Hackney Wick and Leytonstone. Campaigners say 300 houses and flats will be pulled down, making almost 500 people homeless. More than 7,000 residents have signed a petition objecting to the pounds 120m scheme.

Mr Justice Owen ruled that the Secretary of State was 'entitled and reasonable' to decide not to hold an inquiry. He also held that the council had suffered 'no substantial prejudice' over the replacement land.