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Roads to Nowhere

Campaigners protect nature reserve from new road

When Emma Lawrence moved to Derbyshire she was pleased to discover a nature reserve close to her home. "It was a beautiful wood, full of bluebells and a lovely place to walk,” Emma says, "so I was shocked to learn that the Highways Agency planned to build a dual carriageway right through it."

The road, known as the Mottram-Tintwistle Bypass, would also pass through part of the Peak District National Park.

Emma found a local group that was opposed to the bypass, but not very active. So she decided to get involved. She helped to reenergise the group by changing its name from Alternative Proposals for Transport ("Not very 'me'!") to Save Swallow's Wood ("Much more positive!"). She set up a website and began building up a mailing list.

Ninety-five per cent of local people were in favour of the bypass, as they hoped it would solve traffic problems in their villages. "At first, I was worried that I'd get lynched!" Emma recalls. "But people didn't know about the down-sides of the bypass, and I knew I had to get out there and inform them." When she did, people were surprisingly receptive. The mailing list increased sixfold in two years, and the group is now thriving.

"What keeps me going? Knowing that if I gave up now, I wouldn't just be letting down the group and our supporters: I'd be letting down the valley."

Walks in the wood

"To gain support for the campaign, I knew we needed to encourage local people to have a sense of place," Emma says. "Many people who live in the area work elsewhere, and go for walks in the National Park. We wanted them to appreciate this wonderful little woodland on their doorsteps and develop an attachment to the place."

So the group mapped out two walks through the wood, which they promote on their website. They also run guided walks, which have been a great success: "Apart from the one in the horizontal rain!". Up to 40 people take part in each walk, many of them local residents who have never been to the wood before. "We're getting people to see their area through fresh eyes," Emma says.

Emma also asks people to photograph the nature they see in Swallow's Wood; these photos have proven invaluable. On one visit, Emma snapped a northern marsh orchid. "I went back the next day and it was gone: maybe a cow had eaten it. But because I had a photo the Highways Agency had to include the plant in its ecology report."

Set up a website

"Our website has been completely essential for getting support," Emma insists. "Luckily my partner used to be a web designer, so he designed it and I keep it updated. It's good to have a web address that you can direct people to, and it helps to raise national interest as well as local."

As for the contents of your site, "It's important that it should cover all bases. Some people will be interested in the wildlife, while others will want to know facts and figures. You can easily show maps and photos to appeal to as wide an audience as possible."

Use the Freedom of Information Act 

Save Swallow's Wood has put in around 25 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Emma says campaigners shouldn't be daunted by this prospect: "It's a fairly simple process. You just write an email or a letter – we found out who to send it to by looking at the Highways Agency and Thameside Council websites. The reason we put in so many FOI requests is that each one is very specific. It's not a good idea to ask for lots of information in one request."

Whenever the pro-bypass lobby makes a claim, Emma's group puts in a FOI request to get to the bottom of it. For instance, when the Council announced in the local paper that 95% of people supported the road, Save Swallow's Wood asked to see a copy of the survey and its results.

"If we find out that a claim is dubious, we put out a press release immediately," Emma says. "If the opposition knows you're onto them, they'll be more careful about the claims they make in future".

Public opinion survey

Emma's group knows there are traffic problems in the area, but says that a bypass is not the answer. An alternative solution would be to ban large lorries from driving through the Peak District National Park.

To gage public support for this option the group went from door to door, surveying local residents. "If you're doing a survey, keep it focused," Emma advises. "Ours had just three questions. It was also important to us that the survey itself wasn't biased. The pro-bypass lobby had also done some surveys, and the questions they asked were heavily skewed, so that everyone answered 'yes' or a version of 'yes'. We wanted to make sure that we asked non-leading questions so that our results would be more reliable."

Once they had done the survey, the group sent a report on the results to the Peak District National Park, local MPs and local councillors, as well as sending out a press release.
See the report on the survey results, with a copy of the survey sheet.

Give yourself a break!

Above all, says Emma, "Campaigning should be fun, so don't let it take over your life. If you achieve one of your small targets, take a break! Clean your house! Go on holiday!" There's a social side to campaigning too, though here's a note of caution if you're thinking of organising a get-together: "You've got to know your supporters. Ours are mostly families with young children, so we don't put on punk rock gigs! Instead we hold family-friendly socials like walks and picnics."

Get things done

"You need a core group that's willing to work together and get things done," says Emma. She advises that rather than focusing on the big picture, groups should break down their campaigns into manageable chunks with lots of small targets. Regular meetings are important, and each of these should have a clear focus.

How to run a successful stall

To run a successful campaigning stall, you need to know what you're asking people to do: maybe it's signing a petition or writing a letter. Preparation is key, so sort out a colourful display board and lots of leaflets to hand out. You'll also need an outgoing person to stand in front of the stall and hook people in. Emma suggests: "Approach people with a non-confrontational question. We simply ask, 'Have you heard about the proposed new road? Would you like to see the plans?'"

High points

"Campaigning gets under your skin. We've had some great high points, like when the National Park authority voted on whether to support the bypass. We sat and waited for their decision, knowing it could go either way, so when they voted almost unanimously to reject the road I was stunned!"

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