The Solsbury Hill Road protests: Ten Years After

Article from Bristle, Issue 17, Autumn 2004

On the 14th March 1994 the construction of the massive road expansion to `improve’ the A36 finally began. Many Bathonians were passionately opposed to the development which had been defeated by objections since it was first proposed in the 1920s. Works began which threatened to cut through the Bathampton water meadows, part of Bailbrook vil-lage, Whitecroft woods and the lower slopes of the ancient hillfort at Solsbury Hill.

Just before the work started Bel Mooney and Jonathan Dimbleby joined hundreds of local people in a walk along the proposed route. Members of Save Our Solsbury and Bath Earth First!/Solsbury Hill Action Group (SHAG) pledged to confront the road using direct action methods. On day one activists locked-on to contractors dig-gers with D-locks. For the rest of the week campaigners blockaded the contractors’ compound: arrests followed. By week two the Dongas Tribe, veteran road protesters from Twyford Down, arrived (with their goat Spic) to join forces with the locals and the struggle was underway.

Adrian Arbib

The eighteen months that followed were a physical and emotional struggle for people involved on both sides and many lives were changed. Bonds were forged, tempers frayed, life skills were learned, hopes shattered in a time of loves and laughs, abrasions and fractures. While some Batheaston folk were understandably desperate for a bypass to re-route the traffic blight from their village high street, others recognized that their local needs were being exploited to promote a much greater civil engineering project — a Euroroute to link up with the south coast. Communities and households were divided as the huge intersection cut to push a four-lane highway was driven through Bailbrook and Swainswick villages. Along the route and on the hill it was a summer of love, a summer of digger-diving, summer of camaraderie, endless arguments about transport policy, rogue security, camp spies, shitpits, treehousing, communal vegan stews. On the Beltane hundreds of mead-fuelled protest pixies danced the night away to the music of the Space Goats, Heathens All and Theo (Seize the Day), warmed by the flames of a huge wicker bull-dozer that blazed away beneath the starry sky.

Adrian Arbib

However alongside the maypole dancing the public meetings, demonstrations and letter writing ensured not only significant local support for the protests but helped to change the climate of opinion about the road building programme in the longer term. Amey Roadstone quickly became aware that their contentious contract to build the road had become a public relations disaster. ARC’s refusal to speak to the public caused them to have their regional offices occupied in support actions across the country in Spring 1994. Further protests marked the day when the road was finally opened in 1996. Trees had been cut, badgers evicted, the eastern approaches to the World Heritage city of Bath had been permanently blighted. Today, some still see it as a useful trunk road while others see the body of traffic and the continued tailbacks in Lambridge. Either way it has proven to be a colos-sal white elephant.

Adrian Arbib

When the first construction vehicles moved in it was unlikely that activists would be able to defeat the combined forces of big business, police and the local press. However, the overall impact of the road protests of the mid-Nineties -Twyford Down, M11, Fairmile in Devon, Pollock in Glasgow, Oxleas Woods (victory), Salisbury Bypass (never built), and, largest of all Newbury, was successful. A combination of direct action and argument defeated the Tory road building programme. Construction companies such as Amey Roadstone and Costain were left with enormous additional costs due to rocketing security and insurance bills and very bad public relations. There was more and more evidence that in the longer term new roads generated more traffic and merely exacerbated the problem of congestion. Concerns about the contribution of carbon dioxide emissions to global warming also swung the arguments heavily against demand-led road building. When significant public dissent upset their masters in big business, the Tory Home Secretary of the time, Michael Howard rushed the Criminal Justice Act through in 1994. However, a huge culture of opposition had been created that refused to be intimidated by either the state clampdown or heavy-handed security. When work on the Newbury Bypass began fifteen protest camps sprung up to confront its construction. The appearance of a giant blackened kettle that had served its purpose at Greenham Common at one of the Newbury camp-fires was not only symbolic but extremely useful.

Adrian Arbib

The Struggle Continues

The battle is not over. It is possible that the road links along the A36 are just in hiding waiting for a politically expedient time for construction to start again, threatening areas such as the Lympley Stoke Valley and Salisbury. Already a petition has been started to protest against an A36-A46 link road in Bathampton. A fierce battle to oppose a new road has been raging at Blackwood, South Wales this spring (see last issue of bristle and Bristol Indymedia). At Stonehenge the Department of Transport are planning to expand the existing A303 into a massive four-lane dual carriageway. A short tunnel is going to be cut near to the monument itself. While Stonehenge itself will obviously not be toppled the DoT clearly do not grasp that the stones’ context within the landscape and the sur-rounding prehistoric remains are archaeologically nearly as important as the positioning as the monu-ment itself. There is significant opposition from Wiltshire people, archaeologists and environmental groups. The A303 widening plans also threaten the landscape of the Blackdown Hills, on the Somerset-Devon border. We must not let New Labour resurrect the roads programme by stealth.

Adrian Arbib

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