Monday, 21 January 2013

Back to the future roads policy culminates in new Battle of Hastings

One of the least heralded elements of the Coalition Government’s economic policy has been the return to road building.

The move to build more than 40 new roads was justified in terms of infrastructure development but also fits well with Chancellor George Osborne’s avowed climate skeptic beliefs.

In setting out on a new road building programme this Conservative led Government has followed a path well-trod by its predecessors in the 1990s. Then such controversial projects as Twyford Down, the Newbury bypass and the M11 Link Road in east London brought forth a whole new generation of activists in opposition.

The Swampie generation, as it became known, drew in campaigners from across the classes and generations. The roads were built but the cost and mounting opposition led to the abandonment of large road building projects for the past two decades. Growing concerns over global warming and the need to cut car use also played a significant part in the demise of the road.

Hostilities though have now resumed, with Osborne’s latest back to the future policy.

Recently visiting the protest against the 5.6 kilometer Bexhill/Hastings link road, there was a certain sense of deja vue.

The last road protest I had seen at close quarters was the M11Link Road. It did afterall run past the top of my road. On that occasion there was a brave opposition movement of activists, linking onto anything that lay in the way of the road. Trees, houses: all were occupied requiring massive police backed security operations to clear the way.

The protest was a mixture of angry locals and idealists coming in from outside to help. The road ran millions over budget and was delayed for years. It was built but the writing was on the wall for road builders.

Now a similar band of protesters have gathered in what is known as 1066 country to oppose the building of the Bexhill/Hastings Link Road.

The road is being driven through the Combe Valley, a stretch of picturesque countryside. The village where the protest is centered, Crowhurst, has a pub, a railway station and school. A few houses are dotted amongst undulating fields in the Sussex countryside.

The Combe Haven protesters have established three camps situated on the route of the proposed road. Protesters took to the trees, locking themselves on, thereby requiring the road builders to carefully remove them.

On the ground, some protesters built tunnels, where they then holed up to block the progress of the bulldozers. One notable tunneller was a man calling himself Sitting Bull. He declared that if there were more tunnels the road could be stopped.

Two of the camps have been cleared, with a third, known as Decoy camp still occupied.

The multi-faceted campaign though is not all about direct action on the ground.

Local resident and member of Bexhill Link Road Resistance (BLINKRR) Mike Bernard has sought a court injunction to stop the progress of the road on the basis of a claim from a local historian that the area is actually where the battle of Hastings took place in 1066.

Historian Nick Austen claims that the valley is part of the site of the battle and should as such be registered as a battle site by English Heritage. “The significance of the new evidence cannot be under-estimated and the consequences of the development will be profound and irrevocable,” said Bernard.  “The proposed link road will cut right across one of the key Battle of Hastings sites; the Norman encampment at Upper Wilting, and any value in the significant historic or heritage site will be permanently lost or destroyed.”

It is in order that EH can do its review that Bernard has sought a court injunction on further work being done on the road. The court initially turned down the request, though the matter will be reviewed on 1 February.

Local resident and secretary of Christian Ecology Link Barbara Echlin praised the action of the Combe Haven Defenders. “The obstinate and flawed decision by our local authorities to go ahead with this unnecessary road shows a sad lack of vision for the future. The long painstaking efforts of the Hastings Alliance proved conclusively that this is a very expensive poor value for money project. The alternatives of improved public transport were ignored,” said Echlin. “The brave last ditch protests of the Combe Haven Defenders climbing the trees, and the efforts of the Hastings Alliance and BLINKRR to protect this tranquil valley, show that some in our community care for the future of our earth.”

East Sussex County Council (ESCC) claim the £94 million road will bring jobs, business and reduce congestion. “We believe the link road will support regeneration and benefit residents and businesses by opening up access to land for new housing and business developments and bringing more employment opportunities,” said  ESCC.

Local Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye Amber Rudd is a keen backer of the road project. She is also incidentally Parliamentary Private Secretary to Chancellor Osborne.

This determined band of protesters at Combe Haven are no doubt the start of a larger anti-road protest movement that is stirring across the country in opposition to the latest road building programmes.

The last time a number of battles to stop local projects were lost but the overall struggle to stop roads was won. In the process protesters from across the board were united in opposition. On the previous occasion the Conservative Government of John Major sort to outlaw much of the protesters activity by passing a new Criminal Justice Act. This had the effect of broadening the movement as more outlawed groups were brought together. The same thing could happen again.

As with much that the Coalition Government has done, this latest move to return to road building has been ill thought out. They have truly opened a can of worms and may yet see their own battle of Hastings develop in the process.

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