Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 7. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 1-4.

Direct Action Six Years Down the Road

Claremont Road - resistance to the M11 in East London

The British EF! movement has been dominated over the last six years by campaigns against roadbuilding. These seem to have had results - for instance, roads budgets slashed, miles of media column inches written, and the anti-roads "ecowarrior" enshrined as a cultural stereotype. This article discusses how successful our struggles have been, whilst also attempting to look to the future.

The wider anti-roads movement has many agendas. Many local groups and activists with no involvement in direct action have also been working harder than ever in the last few years, as have mainstream anti-road groups such as Transport 2000, Alarm UK and Friends of the Earth (FoE). Although we combine on a practical level to "stop the road" with various tactics, underlying objectives may vary from a sustainable transport policy (whatever that means!), to promotion of a lifestyle or an organisation, or to global industrial collapse. To what extent you judge the last five years to have been a success may depend on your objective.

In terms of stopping roads being built, direct activists don't have a very good record. With some notable recent exceptions - Guildford, for instance (see box) - most roads we have fought have been, or are being, constructed. Roadbuilders don't like publicly backing down to hippy law-breakers, however much we cost them otherwise. Meanwhile, the English roads budget has been sliced from about £23 billion to a few £billion since 1992; nearly 500 out of 600 road schemes have been scrapped since 1989; that's 500 places untrashed, saved - for now. These are massive cuts; Construction News wrote in May "…the major roadbuilding programme has virtually been destroyed"1. The important question is: how much did all our bulldozer-diving, fly-posting, phone-calling, tree-sitting, media-tarting etc. contribute towards this?

A broad range of activists have been inspired by direct action protests, and road-blighted local communities have been radicalised. As one East London resident said of the protest against the M11 Link: "…all I was trying to do was defend our local bit of land. I've never thought of myself as political before but this has shown me that all life is politics - if you step out of line"2. Nimbys have redefined their patch, as described by a local anti-M25 campaigner: "Our whole approach is 'not in my back yard, not in our county, not in our country and not on this planet'…"3. In addition, national groups have been keen to take advantage of the public interest direct action has generated. Anti-roads protest has had a huge impact on the modern green movement.

Today's EF! movement cut its teeth on fighting roads, and has thus been shaped in many ways, in terms of tactics, attitude, ambitions, and politics. The energy and activity of our movement owes a great deal to anti-road campaigns. It is important to recognise this, whilst acknowledging that different issues may need different approaches.

Victory at Guildford!

Surrey County Council had planned to widen and straighten the A320 Guildford to Woking road. The proposed work would have cut a swathe of 2/3 miles through common land, established woodland, a pond designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) as well as entailing the felling of 221 mature trees and hundreds more younger ones.

The planning enquiry in January 1996 was the usual farce, and when, as expected, the scheme was given the go-ahead a smaller camp - Hairy Mog - was set up. The resistance grew and by February 1997 there were five camps along the route, fortified with tree houses and tunnels, with about 60 people living there.

Central government funded schemes are larger, both in terms of financial backing and ecological destruction done. Although not as large as Newbury, for example, the weak point of this particular scheme was that it was to be funded only by the local council. Because of this it was much more susceptible to the economic pressure of eviction, as well as to any future pixie work that might occur when construction eventually went ahead. In May 1997, due to these financial constraints, the council abandoned the project. Victory! Over the next couple of months the camps were cleared up and the area restored to its former condition. Since then most people from the camps at Guildford have moved onto other sites around the country.

For more information contact: 01483 532167.

The roadbuilding issue has been relatively successful in creating wide debate. The broad relevance of the issue must be a factor; there were so many road plans in the early 90's that there was one near most people, and everyone's life is affected by road transport. Holes in the ozone layer, burning rainforests, and even nuclear power stations, are much less immediate to most British lives. Road building allowed a crucial link to be made between consumer lifestyles and environmental destruction. The struggle against the M11 Link in 1993/4 added a crucial social element - resistance to the destruction done to urban communities by car culture, a mission continued by the subsequent rapid spread of Reclaim The Streets (RTS) actions.

It seems fair to link the rise in direct action with the diminishing road budget (down every year since 1993, the year of the big Twyford actions). The controversy generated by our protests has surely made this budget an expedient target for Treasury cuts, and the roads lobby has had a miserable few years as a result. Of course, the cuts are motivated by the need to save cash more than anything else, as illustrated by the promotion of privately-financed roadbuilding, such as Design Build Finance Operate (DBFO) schemes, and by Labour's approval of the Birmingham Northern Relief Road (BNRR) this summer.

The government has no idea what to do with the roads programme. In their rhetoric they combine the totally irreconcilable aims of economic growth and "environmental protection", trying to placate both us and their capitalist mates at the same time. Because protest has made roadbuilding such a tricky issue, the government reacts by doing (and spending) as little as possible - building few roads, hoping we'll go away, and launching reviews and consultation exercises. The roads budget would not be so small if roads got built without confrontation - and if pressure doesn't continue, the budget is more likely to grow again.

The "noisy defeats, quiet victories" scenario suggests that anti-road direct action is very unlikely to stop that particular road, but creates a climate of opinion where other road schemes are more likely to be defeated before they start. It's hard to quantify any such general link. However, pro-roads lobbyists and local green activists agree that the Twyford protests were a major factor in the scrapping of the East London River Crossing through Oxleas Wood in 1993; and that Newbury had an effect on the decision to drop the Salisbury Bypass because of its "environmental disbenefits"4 in 1997. In both cases the threat of large-scale direct action was there, and in the case of Oxleas, explicitly spelt out. The threat was coupled with the involvement of a wide range of mainstream groups, and a strong local campaign. (Of course, the threat of direct action often doesn't stop roads, as illustrated by Newbury….)

A crucial ingredient in the "noisy defeats, quiet victories" scenario is a hungry, broadly sympathetic media. Direct action can only make roads controversial, and news consumers aware, if we get coverage. This has generally worked surprisingly well for us. An important side effect has been the elevation of the roads protester to (sub-)cultural icon status, appearing in TV and radio soap operas, in several novels, on children's TV… the list goes on. These days everyone knows that roadbuilding means dreadlocked hippies up trees, just as foxhunting means saboteurs.

This media and cultural focus on protester lifestyles and spectacular tactics helps to alienate many people from our struggles, to stereotype activists, and thus to fit the movement into a pigeonhole (or perhaps a tunnel?). Everyone's heard of Swampy, but few know what he was digging under, or why, or could relate this to their own lives. Our impact on the public consciousness has been large, but few seem prepared to get out of their car, still less to demand an ecological revolution!

Let's turn from hearts and minds to pockets. As tactics have evolved, and our mobilisation abilities grown, our power to inflict economic damage has increased. This damage doesn't just mean trashing machines etc, but also includes extra security costs, and delays to work - time is money, remember? Although costs we inflict are dwarfed by those caused by an industrial labour dispute, for instance, this is something we're quite good at. Unfortunately, our enemies are increasingly good at countering it.

There are now a host of specialists who have made a career out of trying to contain us. Individuals like John Chapman, site engineer at Twyford and then Newbury, spring to mind; he rates himself as an expert in finishing roads on time despite protests. Andrew Wilson, the Under Sheriff of Lancashire, touts for business (along with sidekick Amanda Webster) as a consultant to beleaguered contractors, with a 24-hour phoneline for those really urgent protest problems. Devon's Under Sheriff Trevor Coleman, with his recently-launched "Major Protest Unit" available for hire, is his major competitor.

We think also of Brays Detectives, who have grown from a small firm tailing unfaithful husbands to become the British specialists in protester surveillance; and Richard Turner Ltd, transformed from cleaners and painters of tall buildings to the market leaders in dishing out violence in doomed treetops. The security sector has of course received a big boost from our struggles, not to mention fencing contractors, manufacturers of fluorescent jackets, and so on. We have created opportunities for a whole new sector of capitalism.

This is market forces in full effect; just as specialist drainage contractors might be hired to deal with problematical ground conditions, so the anti-anti-roads gang can be hired to thwart those pesky protesters. Contractors are judged by their ability to deal with protests; Tarmac's pious public declaration that the Newbury Bypass was too environmentally damaging for them (with no chance of securing the contract anyway) was a PR coup. They were assisted by FoE's foolish public praise for this cynical greenwash, exposed a few months later by Tarmac accepting a Newbury aggregates subcontract! Tarmac, complete with new green logo, have also established an "Environment Advisory Panel" to fight the PR war for them. Market forces again: our struggles are a challenge for corporations to adapt to, or risk losing business to more sophisticated competitors. As protester-bashing consultant Amanda Webster says: "The advent of the protest movement will actually provide market advantages to those contractors who can handle it effectively."5 We are a market risk. Thus, DBFO contractors now routinely take "protester risk" into account when submitting their bids. One way to avoid being "taken into account" is to spread, diversify and increase the risk. Companies have found themselves (and their suppliers and subcontractors) increasingly targeted in their offices and distant sites, at AGMs and at directors' homes, not just on the construction site. Anti-roads battles are also anti-corporate battles; this will become more evident as privately-funded roadbuilding continues. The forthcoming important campaign against the Birmingham Northern Relief Road (BNRR) must also aim to do damage to Kvaerner/ Trafalgar House. Picture

Civil engineers are coping with the lack of British road jobs by diversifying into rail projects, and, more significantly, by seeking more roads business in "underdeveloped" overseas markets, like Eastern Europe, South-East Asia, and South and Central America. This puts our successes in curbing the British roads programme into perspective. In the face of an increasingly globalised corporate hegemony, the importance of linking global struggles, and of sharing information between activist groups world-wide, also increases.

Our enemies can't just accommodate our threat by adapting their business practice, so must attack our movement more directly. The GAndALF trial (see page 129) is very significant here; it is (amongst other things) an attempt to forge a link between "extreme" animal liberationists and "extreme" EF!ers. The animal lib movement has long been demonised, largely via the media, in the public eye, and we may soon get more of the same treatment, backed up by legal sanctions. Smear stories about anti-road campaigns have already been around for years.

A classic divide-and-rule tactic to marginalise a radical movement is to incorporate it as much as possible into the mainstream, whilst isolating and discrediting those who refuse to be incorporated. The Guardian thinks that "The challenge facing John Prescott…is how to bring such [direct action] protesters back into the political system."6 Bollocks to that; the challenge facing us is to resist all attempts to artificially divide our movement into "reasonable" and "extreme", and show solidarity for those collared for conspiracy charges or other serious offences.

We want to be a real threat to the malignant cancer of corporate capitalism, rather than a media freak-show or irritating market risk. To do this on even a local level, we must innovate and expand at least as much in the next five years as we have in the last five. Broadening our support base, maximising our subversive edge, linking struggles, taking the fight to the enemy, working in (not with - in) local communities - these, surely, are key factors in making us strong enough to be that threat.

It's been an eventful and exciting few years. Much has changed since the first protests at Twyford Down, and we have achieved a lot. As the EF! and anti-road movements develop and diversify, and our opponents gear up their determination to defend their oily industrial interests, we can expect the next few years to be no less eventful.

Shortly after the announcement that the Newbury Bypass would be postponed for a year, an exasperated local pro-roader was heard to wonder "what the hell will it take to shut these people up?" We're not going to "shut up", but must continue to build on our successes, keeping our anger, and our hunger for real change, sharp. We need to show that we won't be satisfied with deep cuts in the road budget, better public transport and more cycle lanes, or whatever. We must demand the earth.

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-doves broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.
- from 'The Way Through the Woods'
by Rudyard Kipling.


  1. Construction News, 15/5/97
  2. The Observer Life, 27/2/94
  3. The Daily Telegraph, 28/7/97
  4. Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions News Release, No. 176/Transport, 28/7/97
  5. Construction News, 28/5/97
  6. The Guardian, Editorial, 21/5/97

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