LEADING ARTICLE : Bigger than the battle of Newbury

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The Independent Online
The third battle of Newbury is about to commence. This time there are no roundheads or cavaliers in sight. The assailants are gathering in their bulldozers, while the besieged sit tight in their tree-houses and tunnels. Protagonists on both sides expect the fight over the proposed new by-pass to be fiercer and more expensive then the struggles over Twyford Down, or the M11 in Wanstead.

So is the new road really worth all the hassle? The costs include about pounds 100m to build the road, and who knows how much to cover the security and delays that the protesters will cause. Far more difficult to quantify is the damage to the environment around the west of Newbury. Eight miles of new by-pass will plough through three Sites of Special Scientific Interest: Snelsmore Common, the river Kennet and the river Lambourn.

Yet the benefits will be significant. Everyone agrees the traffic in Newbury is a nightmare. Once the planned A34 by-pass is built, lorries travelling from the Midlands to the south coast will be able to skirt Newbury in 10 minutes, rather than spending three-quarters of an hour plodding through the town. The savings for British businesses could be considerable. And local residents will benefit, too. Newbury Council estimates that local trade in the town centre has fallen as weary locals have given up fighting their way through congested streets. Sadly for the rivers Kennet and Lambourn, Newbury needs a by-pass.

However, on its own the by-pass will not solve the transport problems in the area. While through-travellers will find their journeys drastically improved, the by-pass will do little to reduce pollution and congestion within the town. Most of the traffic is local - trips to the shops, to work or to collect the kids from school. It is true that articulated lorries will be off the streets, but local traffic might even increase once the lorries are out of the way. The car problem in Newbury requires additional action: new traffic management schemes, from one-way systems to expensive parking, from better public transport to local road pricing.

And there are wider implications, too. Friends of the Earth are absolutely right about one thing; new roads breed more traffic. Businesses that might previously have sent their goods by rail, because the Newbury route was too much bother, could switch their heavy loads to the new A34 instead - increasing the pollution and congestion for everyone else that the freight trains avoided. The best way to tackle this is to put a toll on the new road which reflects not only the financial costs of construction but also the environmental damage caused. Otherwise, the new road simply perpetuates the hidden subsidy to car and lorry drivers.

Road pricing which takes account of environmental damage is key to a sensible transport policy for the future. Otherwise we will go on jamming up existing roads, demanding new ones at immense cost to the countryside, and then filling them up, too. New road building can make sense where the existing infrastructure is making people's lives a misery, but only as part of a complete overhaul of transport policy in Britain. Otherwise it will not matter who wins the battle of Newbury this year, for we will all be losers in the long run.

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