LEADING ARTICLE: Road protesters lose their direction

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The Independent Online
The trees are felled, the tunnels filled in. So much for the "Third Battle of Newbury". We were all primed for a huge environmental protest, bigger than Twyford Down, better than the M11. Admittedly the campaigners have managed to delay the road-builders' schedule and send the security bill soaring. But the momentum of former campaigns seems to have ebbed, and the predicted hoards of protesters from across the country never materialised. What went wrong? Is the anti-road movement running out of steam already?

We have probably all been guilty of hype. Ever keen to identify great national moods and movements, the media were only too happy to swallow campaigners' predictions about spectacular clashes to come, as the anti- road campaign swelled, in numbers and in passion. What happened was bound to be an anti-climax.

But even in a more sober light, Newbury has not become the national cause celebre that might have been expected. The plan for the new bypass contains all the classic ingredients for an almighty environmental show-down. The pounds 101m building programme will slash through an area of immense natural beauty. Newbury is also in the prime location for protest politics. Not far from London, Oxford and Brighton, it is easily accessible to the students and southern middle classes who have populated previous demonstrations against roads or animal exports. Yet many of the protesters who struggled out on former occasions never got their boots on for Newbury.

Perhaps this was to be expected. The first stage of the road-building process did not lend itself well to massive popular demonstrations. With a large area of land to be cleared of trees, it was always hard for protesters to find the action. The tree fellers, on the other hand, could make incremental progress in one corner after another. Against piecemeal destruction, the only effective obstacles were people who climbed trees, or who had the dedication to plan detailed defence strategies. Compared to such sophistication, the "amateur" activists, the day-trippers from Didcot, were bound to feel a little redundant. Disconcerted by both the expertise and the eccentricities of the full-time protesters, the others may have given up.

Support may grow again when the tarmac appears. Bulldozers under the summer sun are a more sexy protest proposition than hacksaws in the winter mud. But there is a serious possibility that the anti-road movement is fragmenting. Committed activists - and there remain hundreds of them in Newbury - have become increasingly specialised. At the same time, incidental campaigners have had the edge rubbed off their enthusiasm. The new roads programme has been reduced. Even the anger against the Newbury by-pass has been diffused by the widespread claim that the people of Newbury want it, to take the heavy lorries off their streets.

The anti-road lobby was at its most powerful when it commanded support and commitment across society. Right now it is in danger of becoming a marginalised minority pursuit.