10 September 2012: Becca Lush Blum writes about her experiences at Twyford Down and the threat of new road-building plans. Join our protest on 29th September to commemorate the anniversary.
It’s now 20 years since I first chained myself to a digger when the M3 motorway was bulldozed through Twyford Down in Hampshire, near where I grew up. Whilst I’ve changed a lot in that time, unfortunately this current Government still seems wedded to roadbuilding.
The incendiary protests at Twyford Down in 1992 lit the fuse of the modern environmental direct action protest movement. The roots of the current climate protests stretch right back to these early road protests. We were protesting against the Conservative’s ‘Roads for Prosperity’ plans, which they said were the “biggest road-building programme since the Romans”.
The M3 through Twyford Down was the most destructive of the schemes in their long hit list and we knew that if they could build a road in this most precious of historic landscapes, then nothing was sacred.
At first the protests built up slowly. Activists from a new movement called Earth First! stopped a railway bridge being demolished as part of preliminary works. Campaign for Better Transport’s ex-Campaigns Director, Jason Torrance (then aged just 18), locked himself by the neck to a digger. Next, Friends of the Earth formed a ‘chain of protest’ across the site entrance until a court order prevented them from protesting further.
After that a protest camp was set up by some travellers on a beautiful set of medieval tracks carved into the Down, known locally as Dongas (after an African word meaning trackways).
The camp remained there peacefully until it was violently evicted on 9 December 1992, a day we called “Yellow Wednesday” after the sea of yellow-jacketed security guards who flooded onto the Dongas under cover of darkness. The violence used to evict the camp and destroy the Dongas only strengthened our resolve and protests grew through 1993. We were strengthened by making links with other community groups opposing roads around the country, united under the umbrella of ALARM UK (co-founded by one of Campaign for Better Transport’s Trustees, John Stewart). Now the message was not just ‘No M3”, but “No More Roads”. We knew that our protests at Twyford would prevent destruction elsewhere.
When six of us were imprisoned for breaking a court order, it spectacularly backfired on the Government as we were visited in prison by the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Carlo Ripa de Meana, and also Chris Smith (shadow environment secretary) and Simon Hughes MP, making us headline news. Whilst in prison the news came through that the Government had backed down on putting a road through Oxleas Wood, an ancient woodland in East London.
The road protests grew spectacularly through the 1990s and it was Roger Geffen (now CTC’s Campaigns and Policy Director) who coined the phrase “noisy defeats and quiet victories” as hundreds of schemes were quietly shelved whilst the media focused on the direct action spectacles of the the M11 in London during 1993-5, the Newbury Bypass in 1996 and Swampy at Fairmile in 1997 (and many more). By 1997 the 600 schemes in the roads programme had been reduced to 150 as Labour swept to power promising an end to roadbuilding. A staggeringly successful campaign, by anyone’s standards.
The campaign was won by a winning combination of hard campaigning work by local groups, spectacular direct action which made roadbuilding impossible for a long while and keep the media spotlight on the issue and high level lobbying by Transport 2000 and others.
Crucial too were a series of academic and government reports backing our arguments, such as the Government’s 1994 SACTRA report concluding that building more roads simply generates more traffic, and the 1999 SACTRA report finding that roadbuilding often harms, rather than helps, local and regional economies.
However, by 2004 many roads were already starting to creep back on the agenda and so I launched Road Block in January 2005 to link the community groups, just as ALARM UK did in the 1990s. Road Block became part of Campaign for Better Transport in 2007, and the organisation has been supporting local campaigners ever since.
This work is needed now more than ever as this current Government seem to be forgetting everything that has been learnt about roadbuilding simply creating more traffic. They even believe that somehow road-building will solve our economic problems, despite the evidence showing there are far better ways to create jobs.
A guest post by Rebecca Lush Blum, who was Roads Campaigner at Campaign for Better Transport until earlier this year
ALARM UK published a full account of the 1990s movement, which you can read here: http://www.roadblock.org.uk/alarmuk/roadblock.html
Campaign for Better Transport is helping to organise a 20th Anniversary rally and protest at Twyford Down near Winchester on 29th September 2012.
Join the Facebook event here: http://www.facebook.com/events/485142748162911/
On November 3rd we will also be hosting a conference for local campaigners and community groups who want to help stop new roads in their area. Find out more and register here: http://roadconference2012.eventbrite.com/