Newbury by-pass – memories 20 years on

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.

The A34, Donnington

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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9 Comments

  • Christine Corris 12th Jan '16 - 9:14am

    Lincoln might have been waiting 60 year, here in STOCKPORT we have been waiting since 1928 for the Hazel Grove By-pass. We are now getting half and are still campaigning for the other half.

  • David Garlick 12th Jan '16 - 10:38am

    By passes are very helpful to residents who are suffering from excesses of traffic.
    They generally stimulate more traffic overall which is bad for all of us in terms of the air we breath (although other less harmful options are now available).
    Where will the increases in traffic end?
    Glad the replanting is doing well

  • Chris Burden 12th Jan '16 - 6:05pm

    What a profoundly depressing piece. On a site for and by Liberals, this could have been written as easily by people with the utterly conventional mindset of Tony Blair, or almost any Tory.

    Not a word about the numerous well-founded objections to both this road and to new road building in general. Traffic is entirely man-made. It is not a natural phenomenon: what man makes (and it is mostly men), man can un-make.

    Not one of those commenting seems even dimly aware of environmental issues around road building, car use, carbon emissions, and the alternatives to road building such as encouraging a sustainable way of life (walking/cycling/high quality public transport etc.)

  • The A34 is a major trunk road connecting Southampton with the Midlands and the West. Eastleigh, Winchester, Whitchurch, East Ilsley and Oxford all had bypasses 30 years ago, leaving Newbury as the sole bottleneck. Given the circumstances, I think the Newbury bypass was more or less inevitable. The alternative was to divert HGV traffic up the M3, which is usually congested beyond Fleet, then up the most congested stretch of the M25, and on to almost as congested chunks of the M4 and M1. It would have been a recipe for gridlock. The environmental damage to Newbury was not that great. Most of the trees that were felled were conifers, that should never have been planted in the first place. What you get is a quiet town without the stench of diesel fumes, and drivers with lower blood pressures.

    There are still towns without bypasses that look as though they could do with them. Take Moreton-in Marsh. Broadway, a similar town just a few miles away, has a bypass, but Moreton-in-Marsh does not. It makes not a lot of sense. The perpetual rumble of traffic through a historic town centre cannot be regarded as an environmental good.

    Now, those of us who think we can do without motor vehicles could perhaps explain how we can get British exports from industrial estates in the Midlands to the Southampton docks.

  • There is a brilliant quote from Rebecca Solnit about the nature of social and political change in Robert Macfarlane’s book “Landmarks”. She says: ” A lot of activists expect that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction, and regard the lack of one as failure. But history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent. It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect…Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary. And though huge causes sometimes have little effect, tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences….”
    Having spent more than twenty years of my life fighting road proposals (including Newbury) I have to admit that I can’t see much sign of a change in the collective imagination with regard to the demand for personal mobility, but maybe, as Chou en Lai was reputed to have said about the French Revolution, it is too early to tell…..

  • Richard Underhill 12th Jan '16 - 9:18pm

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