David Rendel's concrete overcoat
by Chris Woodford
From Liberal Democrat Environment magazine (Green Democrat), Summer 1995.
Tormented Tories, Lacklustre Labour—neither can claim to be as green as the Lib Dems. So it comes as a surprise to find our new MP, David Rendel, campaigning for one of the most destructive road schemes ever proposed. A scheme that's attracted unanimous condemnation from Britain's green lobby, provoked criticism from the European Commission, and still threatens full European legal action. Like Twyford Down, the proposed A34 bypass at Newbury would be a national outrage and an international embarrassment.
Yes, Newbury has a traffic problem. David Rendel and Newbury's Lib Dem Council have a "solution"'about 9 miles of concrete, spread thickly over some of the finest countryside in Britain. Before we get emotional about another wholesale plunder of our great and green land, let's look at the road on its own terms: would it solve the traffic problem?
Figures produced for the Department of Transport (DoT) by its consulting engineers, Mott Macdonald, show that by 2010, even with the new road in place, traffic on the existing A34 Newbury bypass (yes, Newbury already has one failed ring-road) would have risen to within 4% of its current level. Traffic on most main roads in the town is forecast to rise by 45-60%. And it's not just Newbury that would suffer under this road. With two bypasses instead of one, there would be a knock-on effect on Winchester and Oxford—Mott Macdonald's figures show both towns would see a 47% increase on their roads to Newbury if the "bottleneck" is removed.
In short, Newbury's Lib Dems want to spend £100 million of taxpayers' money for 4% less traffic on the existing road, a 50% increase in through traffic overall, producing a 50% increase in traffic on most other roads in the town. Call that a good solution to the traffic problem?
Since last December, even the 4% relief looks doubtful. On the same day Brian Mawhinney postponed the Newbury bypass, he accepted the findings of his own advisers: new roads don't relief congestion, but generate more traffic of their own. While most of the country jumped for joy at the admission behind this "SACTRA report", Newbury's Lib Dem's became the ultimate NIMBYs, claiming the environmental benefits of the government's roadbuilding U-turn must not be applied in their own backyard; they want concrete, whatever it costs. SACTRA speaks of bad forecasts, overestimated benefits, wasted resources—it speaks of roads that don't work. One of its authors, Dr Phil Goodwin, says it must now be assumed to apply to all road schemes, including Newbury.
As for the argument that the Newbury bypass would reduce air pollution in the town, the figures speak for themselves: how can a 50% increase in traffic on most roads in Newbury do anything other than increase pollution? And what about the increase in pollution in Oxford and Winchester? We can reduce pollution only by reducing traffic. Significantly, one of Britain's most influential medical charities, the National Asthma Campaign, supports an integrated transport policy for the UK, not dinosaur road schemes like the Newbury bypass.
That, in short, is the case in favour of the road. And if you think that looks bad, consider the case against.
The Newbury bypass has been described as "one of the most environmentally contentious proposals in recent history" and "massively destructive of an intimate landscape unable to absorb the impact of a major highway". Surprisingly, these words come not from Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, but from the Landscape Advisory Committee of the Department of Transport itself.
Imagine four lanes of concrete smashing through ten miles of virgin land'and not just any old land. The proposed route would damage three SSSIs (two of them only just designated), the highest UK category of habitat protection; a copse harbouring eleven bat species, endangered through destruction of their habitats over the last 50 years; a marsh that's home to protected kingfishers, dragonflies, and a rare Ice-Age snail; a National Trust nature reserve; two river valleys, home to a glorious diversity of protected birds and river life. We don't know what the full toll of devastation would be; astonishingly, the scheme has not even had a full environmental impact assessment.
It's not just the environment: our heritage is under threat too. The road would thunder through fourteen important archaeological sites, past an ancient castle, through the listed sites of two civil war battlefields. As actor and historian Robert Hardy says: "This place, where so many met and fought and died in the long building of British democracy, should be protected in perpetuity for future generations to contemplate and ponder. It would be in the nature of a desecration to build a road through a site of such profound significance in our national history."
This toll of destruction is David Rendel's shopping list from hell. Mr Rendel claims "real environmentalists" support the road. But in doing so, he's aligning himself with the dusty dinosaurs of the roads lobby'people like the British Roads Federation, who've said: "Many people, in many parts of the country, would love to see some additional traffic on their roads"
In reality, the Newbury bypass would be a national environmental disaster, a phrase normally reserved for oil slicks and chemical explosions. That's why it's unanimously opposed by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Transport 2000, Road Alert!, CPRE, RSPB, WWF, the National Rivers Authority, the Ramblers Association, and the Battlefields Trust.
I wish I could add the Lib Dems to that list. "Vehicles for Change" sets the standard for a sustainable UK transport policy: its three central branches are traffic reduction, freight off the roads, and a full environmental impact assessment for all road schemes; the Newbury bypass goes against all three . "Real" Lib Dems would be campaigning against this road, not screaming for their concrete like petulant children.
If the Newbury Lib Dems are successful and the bypass goes ahead, the construction—and doubtless the biggest anti-roads protests ever seen in this country—will peak in the middle of the next General Election. By reviewing the scheme, a decision David Rendel described as "crass and irresponsible", the Tories have already stolen the green card off the Lib Dems. I'd like to think the Lib Dems will steal it back in time for the next election. I'd like to think we'll enter the election on a green platform, not one made of concrete.
1. Local Transport Today, 30/3/95
2. The Lib Dem transport policy document.