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Almost 200 schemes are planned as part of the coalition’s road building programme, including many ‘zombie roads’ that had been declared dead years ago but are now being resuscitated. In response, new anti-roads groups are springing up across the country.
In East Sussex, the Combe Haven Defenders group is working flat out to stop the Bexhill-Hastings link road, the ‘first and the worst’ of the new roads. This is a £100 million white elephant, which will produce the largest increase in carbon emissions of any of the 45 transport schemes funded by the Treasury over the past year. With the rallying cry of ‘Join the Second Battle of Hastings!’ the Defenders aim to get 1,066 people signed up to take direct action to stop the construction of the road, due to start in January 2013.
Why is the government so keen on new roads at a time when we are facing not only climate catastrophe but huge public spending cuts? The answer lies in its belief that large infrastructure projects will stimulate the economy. At the Tory party conference in October 2012, chancellor George Osborne announced that he was going to be ‘a relentless activist [for] building infrastructure, roads and power plants’.
The impetus for new roads is thus coming not from the Department for Transport (DfT) – which appears to recognise that new roads create more traffic and rarely lead to the promised regeneration – but from the Treasury, which has been throwing money at roads long written off as unviable.
In the case of the Bexhill-Hastings link, the DfT had refused to support it on the basis that the road was poor value for money, would lead to a 14 per cent increase in traffic and would cause great environmental damage. But in this year’s budget, Osborne announced that the Treasury had found £56 million of funding, leaving East Sussex County Council to come up with the remaining £44 million. Despite having stated only two years earlier that it could not commit more than £18 million to the road, the council jumped at the chance to complete its longed-for vanity project.
The new road will carry 30,000 vehicles a day through a valley containing a Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as ancient woodland, water meadows and the largest reed bed in East Sussex. The valley is home to great crested newts, rare dragonflies, dormice, bats, badgers and barn owls. Despite the council’s attempts to gloss over the certain devastation with talk of mitigation (planting trees along the route), it is clear that, if built, it will be an environmental disaster.
The council claims the new road will create 3,000 jobs (DfT analyses suggest the actual figure is fewer than 1,000). The council leader, ex-stockbroker Peter Jones, recently accused opponents of the road of wanting to ‘take away people’s homes and jobs’. When asked, he refused to say how many jobs would be taken away by the £70 million cuts the county council is proposing, including £34 million in adult social care and £14 million in children’s services.
We’ve been here before, of course. Many of the planned schemes were first proposed in the 1989 white paper ‘Roads for Prosperity’, which led to what Margaret Thatcher described as the biggest road building programme since the Romans. The Conservative government wanted to encourage car ownership, and made plans for 600 roads projects. This led to a huge wave of protests around the country, including the very high-profile road camps at Newbury and Twyford Down.
While those particular roads were ultimately built, the scale of the protests led to the abandonment of the policy, and when Labour came to power in 1997, most of the planned schemes were suspended. Now we’re back where we were all those years ago, and the need to mobilise against the road schemes is more urgent than ever.
The new mania for roads has produced the biggest upsurge in anti-roads groups since the 1990s. The Campaign for Better Transport’s website lists dozens of campaigns all over the country. In East Sussex, the Combe Haven Defenders have organised a camp on the route of the road, vigils and protests in Hastings and London, and a speak-out in a council meeting that caused all the Tories to walk out. Much more is planned, including, if necessary, massive nonviolent resistance.
Get involved with Combe Haven Defenders’ campaign to stop ‘the first and the worst’ of the government’s new road schemes at combehavendefenders.wordpress.com