Last updated: December 2012
The Battle for Twyford Down was a watershed moment for the UK’s environmental movement. But is history about to repeat itself, asks Simon Birch?
So when was the last time an eco-protest story dominated the headlines? It’s hard to remember isn’t it? Two decades ago though it was a completely different picture. Back then the media was struggling to keep on top of what was one of the biggest stories of the day: the increasingly bitter and violent protests against a plan to build new roads all across the country.
The most infamous of these protests took place at Twyford Down just outside Winchester in Hampshire. To mark the 20th anniversary of the battle for Twyford Down, a symbolic demonstration took place close to the site of the new road on September 29th which also highlighted the threat of a new wave of road building mania.
“At the time it seemed that the whole environmental movement was coalesced around this one issue of trying to stop the new roads being built,” remembers Rebecca Lush Blum one of the Twyford campaign veterans. “We were really on a mission and I know it sounds cheesy but it was just incredibly empowering as you were working with a lot of amazing people from community groups up and down the country who were the absolute backbone of the protests.”
The Thatcher legacy
What ignited the firestorm of anti-roads protests was the Thatcher Government’s now infamous 1989 White Paper – Roads For Prosperity. As a self-confessed devotee of the ‘great car economy’, Thatcher’s plan was for over 500 new roads to be built across the country at a cost of £23billion in response to a predicted surge in traffic by 2025. Whilst the protesters knew that, in reality, they had little prospect of stopping the two mile extension of the M3 that would slice Twyford Down down the middle, they knew that they had to make a stand.
“We used Twyford as a very powerful symbol of the insanity of the road building programme,” says Lush Blum. “Since Twyford Down was one of the most protected landscapes in the country we wanted to show that the government could build roads anywhere they wanted,
nowhere was off limits. However the message we wanted to send them was that they were going to meet massive resistance right across the country.”
With hundreds of protesters determined to stop the building work, the situation quickly spiralled into violence with private security guards regularly beating up the protesters. “In the end you just became numb to the violence and you just accepted that you’d get beaten up and arrested,” says Lush Blum who was eventually arrested for breaking an injunction and was subsequently
sentenced to four weeks in prison.
The death knell
One thing that really rattled the government was that the protesters weren’t just young eco-activists but included ordinary families and working people who were passionately opposed to the new roads. But the death knell for the roads programme was the government’s own study that showed that building new roads didn’t reduce traffic congestion but actually had the reverse effect in creating more traffic and more congestion.
Victory was finally achieved with the election of New Labour in 1997 which quickly abandoned the roads programme allowing the protesters to finally leave their protest camps. Twenty years on though and there are now increasing fears that history could be repeating itself.
New roads in 2013?
“The coalition government is increasingly talking up the need for new roads, not as part of any bigger transport policy but as an increasingly desperate way to try and build the country out of recession,” says Richard Hebditch campaign manager at the Campaign for Better Transport. Transport campaigners are now getting increasingly concerned about all this talk of new roads.
“Talk of resurrecting a road building programme is undoing all the learning about the negative impact of new roads and leading us in totally the wrong direction,” says Jason Torrance, a veteran Twyford campaigner who is now campaign manager at Sustrans.
“People want alternatives to car transport but are being starved of transport choices whether it be improved cycling infrastructure or safer walking facilities. These are better, healthier options for people and the environment.”
The Campaign for Better Transport held a conference on November 3rd 2012 for local campaigners who want to help stop new roads in their area. Find out more here:
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