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For the love of the road

ANALYSIS

Road protesters cause more damage to the countryside than the roads they are trying to halt. Their occupation of woodland and sites of special scientific interest on the path of Newbury Bypass caused more damage than construction of the road itself.

These claims are published tomorrow in Another Country, a collection of essays on the countryside. The book aims to defend rural communities from what its authors see as the meddling of middle class suburbanites and sentimentalists 'who know little of the countryside but think it is a convenient park for them to visit at the weekend.'

The book attacks both road protesters and the government for downgrading the importance of rural roads at the expense of the rural communities dependant upon them. It argues that these communities desperately need new roads to cope with mounting traffic levels, accident rates and pollution levels.

In one essay, former Shropshire County Surveyor Professor Keith Madelin argues for the government's bypass programme to be stepped up rather than shut down. He says low populations and long distances between rural communities mean for many in the countryside the car remains the main mode of transport.

Changing rural land-use patterns are also increasing demand for rural road space. 'Redundant farm buildings are being turned into freight depots, small factories or recreation facilities. It is difficult to resist any change of use which provides new employment in the rural area even when the adjacent road system is unsuitable,' he writes.

Madelin also points out that improving rural bus services is unlikely to be enough to mop up a forecast threefold increase in traffic on country roads between 1989 and 2019 because services are sparse, under-subsidised and inconvenient to use.

Significant improvements in bus services are unlikely without a major increase in subsidies. Even if this were to happen, it could put more pressure on local road networks. 'Better public transport tends to generate extra journeys rather than encourage a transfer from car to bus.'

The book suggests that as far as roads are concerned, arguments used by the environmental lobby are now out of date.

But it acknowledges the fact that the militant anti-roads protests of recent years have had an impact on the roads programme. The government has reacted by becoming much more cautious about which new roads are built. Those which have gone ahead - like the Newbury bypass and the M3 extension at Twyford Down, have come with unprecedented environmental mitigation measures.

Madelin says the road protesters should take this into account instead of blindly opposing every new road which threatens a site of special scientific interest.

'Roads protesters must move on from blinkered opposition, and join in a serious environmental debate. They must now understand the environmental damage that will be caused if a modern road system is not developed in this country.'

This, he believes, should allow people in rural communities to get the transport network they deserve. This would include more bypasses to take traffic out of congested town centres and investment on improvements to make narrow country lanes safer and better able to cope with rising numbers of heavy goods vehicles.

*Another Country available from the Social Affairs Unit 314-322 Regent Street, London W1R 5AB. Price £20.

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