In January 1996, protestors took to trees and tunnels just outside my home town of Newbury, trying to stop the building of the by-pass.
It was a bit of surprise to be at the centre of such national furore over our by-pass.
Locally, there had been campaigns for and against another Newbury by-pass for decades. Inquiries, an Environmental Impact Assessment, public consultations, petitions, displays, numerous alternative routes, thousands of letters to the Newbury Weekly News, acres of politicians’ statements and broken promises.
The whole thing had been thrashed out time and time again. Every possible argument had been debated thoroughly over and over and over again. The road was due to be built in 1994 but Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, announced a delay of a year for yet further examination and consultation.
So we entered a bit of a surreal world in January 1996. Suddenly the whole debate was being rehashed on a national level. Having seen, and been involved in, all the local discussion over the years, this was quite a weird turn of events. It was irresistable to see a certain element of “Johnny-come-lately” in the protests. It was difficult not to laugh at the attempts of some commentators to rehash second-hand arguments without even visiting the place.
I have great respect for the protesters. They had great courage and passion. My conscience was certainly racked by the examination of all the pros and cons. I also have great respect for local campaigners who worked doggedly for decades to make the case for the by-pass based on clear damage to the lives of local people.
I am pleased that the protests led to a rethink about road building with a drastic reduction forthcoming. I am also pleased we have a by-pass.
10,000 trees were cut down to make way for he road. 200,000 trees were planted in their place and many of these are now maturing. I wouldn’t pretend for a moment that there was a “slam dunk” argument in favour of the by-pass. It wouldn’t have dragged on for so long if there was. But there was a compelling case in favour of the road, if anyone could be bothered to look for it. All building decisions are a balance between damage done to the environment in different places. “Environment” must include places where people live and the impact on people’s lives. Yes, the road passed through the boundaries of three designated SSSIs (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and passed sufficiently near to a fourth, proposed, SSSI. Special measures had to be taken to protect badgers and the famous Desmoulin’s Whorl snail. Equally, much of the route ran along the old railway line.
Certainly, one can say unequivocally that all democratic and legal avenues were thoroughly exhausted in the run-up to the building of the by-pass.
I mentioned the word “another” in relation to the by-pass above. This is because it is a little appreciated fact that Newbury already had a “by-pass”, built in 1963.
Thereby hangs a tale. There was an enquiry for that as well. At the time, a local Liberal party activist called Jack Donovan spoke. Jack was a great Liberal and we have an annual “Donovan Award” now given to non-councillor activists in his memory. Jack was a big man with a big voice. He stood up and said to the inspector:
This must be the only so-called “by-pass” where a decent cricketer, standing at the edge of the road, will be able to throw a cricket ball and smash the Town Hall clock.
This pithy and witty intervention hit the nail on the head. The 1963 “by-pass” was not a by-pass. It drove a dual carriageway right through the centre of the town with, eventually, a forty foot lorry spewing out fumes every nine seconds just ten yards from children playing in the central town park and next to heavily populated residential areas. Unfortunately, it delayed the inevitable and made the inevitable – a proper by-pass – a much more painful process.
The protest against the Newbury by-pass was often called “The Third Battle of Newbury”. But, as I have never failed to remind people ad nauseam, the Third Battle of Newbury actually took place in November 1644.
It’s worth noting that the by-pass is one of several protests which focussed national attention on Newbury over the years. The Greenham Common peace protests are the obvious ones. But there was also disquiet amongst agricultural workers at the end of the 18th century which led to the establishment, at a pub in Newbury, of the Speenhamland System, which topped up agricultural wages to subsistence level. Over the years, it has been suggested that there should a museum of protest in Newbury. It sounds like a good idea.