The rise and rise of the movement against road building

IssueDecember 2006 - January 2007
Feature by Rebecca Lush

Why is road building back on the agenda after the infamous protests against road building in the 1990s forced a dramatic turn around in government transport policy away from building roads? Why is the government following yet again a “predict and provide” model, and allowing for massive traffic growth, when road transport contributes 20 per cent of UKCO2 emissions? What is being done about this?

In the 1990s the then Conservative government launched what they termed “the largest road-building programme since the Romans”. It sparked a movement of many community groups opposing road schemes, and a vibrant direct action movement that cut its teeth in 1992 at the stunning Twyford Down, moved onto the M11 and ignited protests at Glasgow, Bath, Norfolk, Lancashire, Devon and Newbury.

Whilst the direct action was going on, there were thousands of ordinary people involved in their own community campaigns trying to keep the bulldozers at bay. Behind the spectacular direct action defeats and tree-top evictions, many of these community campaigns quietly won, saving hundreds of special places. During the protests, the government was forced into numerous cut-backs of the roads programme. Four exhausted years later, the government's plans had been drastically scaled down to just a handful of schemes, and Labour went into the 1997 election with a manifesto pledge to end road building, halt traffic growth and to invest in the sustainable alternatives.

So far so good?

Once there were few roads left to oppose the movement disbanded -- the two main coordinating bodies, Alarm UK and Road Alert, folded. Myself and other activists went into a myriad of campaigns on GM, animal rights, globalisation, fair trade, organics, land rights, miscarriage of justice, indigenous solidarity campaigns, etc etc. So what happened, where did it go wrong? Why are we finding ourselves campaigning against road building again, and why does it matter anyway?

When Labour came into power they launched a “Roads Review” and initiated the “Multi-Modal Studies” (MMS) which were supposed to look at how to solve traffic problems without resorting to road building. A huge number of volunteers from Transport 2000, Friends of the Earth and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) sat on those studies, giving valuable time and expertise. The results? The MMS sometimes recommended a huge amount of road building, but sometimes they recommended rail upgrades. Where it did recommend road-building, the studies also insisted on other measures, to ensure that traffic did not just fill the additional capacity.

The real costs

Then, in 2000, the fuel protests took place. A backlash had already been building against “Labour's war against the motorist” in the mainstream media. The fuel protests were used by organisations such as the Countryside Alliance to create an anti-government campaign that had little to do with reality. The protests were about the “Fuel Duty Escalator”, which was a tax brought in by the Conservative government in 1993 to attempt to stem traffic growth, tackle climate change, and make road transport pay its true costs. It increased the rate of fuel tax a little above inflation every year. It is a little-known fact that the government had already backed down in the face of massive lobbying and had already scrapped the fuel duty escalator in the April 2000 Budget. The “fuel protests” happened in September 2000, after the government had already capitulated!

The protests lasted just four days, involved only a couple of hundred people, and as the police stood by they managed to bring the country to near standstill, with hysterical mass panic-buying of fuel.

The government built up its roads programme gradually and undramatically with little attention from the media, and even environmental movement dismissing it as “just a bit of motorway widening”. However, many of the schemes are very controversial, locally damaging and, more importantly, allow traffic to expand and contribute towards climate change.

Supporting and connecting

By 2004 a group of people had had enough, and I joined with others to set up an organisation to link all the numerous local groups that had sprung up. In January 2005, Road Block was formed to support and connect community groups, and to campaign nationally about the roads programme. In its first two years, Road Block has bloomed to become a vibrant alliance of more than 80 campaigns against roads, and works very hard at the national level to highlight the madness of catering for traffic growth whilst claiming to want to tackle climate change.

Many local community groups and networks opposing roads are far from being NIMBY campaigns, and have their roots planted deep in history. With experience hard-earned over time, local groups are often radical in their vision, see themselves as part of wider movement about sustainability, and are campaigning about climate change. Some of the groups are large and are well grounded in their local community, like Transport Solutions for Lancaster and Morecambe, where they are fighting to protect their homes and greenbelt against the Heysham to M6 Link -- see

Alliances have formed along the M1 from Luton to Leeds, united under the No Widening M1 banner ( The Group Against Motorway Expansion (GAME) has formed along the M6 from Birmingham to Manchester where the government has to make a decision on whether to approve the £2.9 billion widening in the New Year -- see One of the most destructive schemes is the Mottram to Tintwistle Bypass in the Peak District National Park, where a vibrant and effective local campaign will be fighting a public inquiry next year -- see These are just a handful of the campaigns in the Road Block alliance, which is constantly growing as resistance spreads.

Topics: Green, Transport