Leading Article: The wood and the environmental trees

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THE Government's U-turn on the road through Oxleas Wood comes embarrassingly late, but is very welcome. It is a rare sign that ministers still credit environmental issues with any electoral potency. Outside Whitehall, it has been clear for years that driving what is (in all but name) a motorway through a much-loved fragment of ancient woodland - which has somehow surived in the London suburbs - would be hugely and deservedly unpopular.

Environmentalists can rejoice at a victory after a year of important defeats. The Government has delayed, indefinitely, the creation of an Environmental Protection Agency and the introduction of new regulations for safe waste disposal. In the Budget, the Government's first real thrust at green taxation, VAT on domestic fuel, was regressive and blatantly concerned with rapid revenue-raising rather than curbing greenhouse emissions. The tax was a setback for the once-fashionable, neglected cause of environmental economics. The cruellest of critics would suggest that John Gummer's elevation to Environment Secretary was final proof that Government no longer gave any priority to matters green.

It is the trunk road programme that has kept the flame of green awareness burning in the land through these dark, post-Rio Summit days. What better issue to carry the torch, to illuminate the contradictions involved in environmental decision-making? We all deplore the bulldozing of our favourite patch of greenery, the local and global pollution produced by traffic. Yet most of us, at heart, believe in our right to get from A to B by car. We thrill when a tedious, congested drive is shortened by a spanking new stretch of dual carriageway.

Yesterday's announcment of the scrapping of the East London River Crossing was pure politics. We do not yet know if the Department of Transport has thought out new answers to important questions of balance - the demand for private transport and the supply of roads; the private car and public transport; economic development and environmental protection.

True, ministers have recently altered or scrapped a couple of other planned bypasses because they would do unacceptable environmental damage - although it is too late for Twyford Down. Yesterday, however, John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, said there was still a firm requirement for a new road across the Thames serving Docklands. This will cause environmental damage and controversy wherever it is eventually sited.

As an alternative, Mr MacGregor should carefully consider how all commuters can be encouraged to use the new rail links scheduled to cross the Thames in East London. The proposed, but endlessly uncertain, Jubilee Line extension is due to link the Isle of Dogs to the Greenwich peninsula at Blackwall, where there are large areas of vacant land ripe for development. One possibility is a parkway station on the peninsula, which already has a motorway running through it. Drivers could leave their cars and take the tube to Docklands, the City and beyond.

Road schemes will become increasingly expensive as the public demands higher environmental standards for new routes. That gives the Government greater opportunity to propose cost-effective public transport alternatives - opportunity that should not be missed.