Turning back the bulldozers

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The Independent Online
Two years ago I had to watch while the bulldozers of the Department of Transport dismantled the landscape of my childhood - Twyford Down in Hampshire - to make way for the "missing link" of the M3 motorway. Bucketload after bucketload of chalk was dumped into the river at the foot of the hill. Swans swimming there scattered in terror. That image is lodged in my head: white chalk crashing down, white river water splashing up; white swans fleeing.

We fought back at Twyford Down - lying in front of massive machines, chaining ourselves by the neck to bulldozers, networking frantically to alert others to the horror of what we were witnessing. We were continuing the battle that respectable middle-class Winchester had for 20 years waged through the public inquiry system, through the courts.

As our protests continued we realised this was not a question of one road through one hill, but potentially a thousand roads through a thousand hills by the early years of the 21st century. Only two years ago this was what British transport policy meant.

The Roads Programme was described by the minister who launched it in 1989 as "the largest since the Romans": as we saw it, more cars, more pollution, asthma, landscape destruction, climate change. For nothing.

Across Britain, others felt the same. Beloved landscapes and local communities have been defended from the road-builders over the past few years by everyone from travellers with beaded hair through to the pleated skirted Tory ladies of the Home Counties. The protest has involved everything from adding a "No Road" box to inadequate public consultation questionnaires, to organising funeral marches with crosses bearing the names of butterflies or streets to be bulldozed, to tackling the bulldozers head on, as the fearless protesters at the M65 in Lancashire have been doing this week.

It has also involved developing ideas for more environmentally friendly alternatives: upgrading railway lines; improving facilities for cyclists and pedestrians; and traffic demand management measures to take cars out of our towns.

The quiet victories and noisy defeats, along with pressure from the Department of the Environment and the Treasury, have succeeded in putting the Roads Programme into reverse. Ordinary people have created an atmosphere of debate so politically charged that the DoT has been unable to ignore recent reports from its top advisers - and the country's most respected scientists - which put the same arguments. Crucially, the DoT has accepted that new roads usually generate new traffic, and late last year launched "The Great Debate on Transport Policy".

If we can't build our way out of traffic growth, we must begin not only to develop transport alternatives, but also to examine reducing the need to travel, by locating life's essentials nearer to where people live. The challenge is to mould these ideas into a transport policy capable of carrying us into the 21st century.

The writer, of Alarm UK, the National Alliance against Road Building, has just been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for Europe.