Victory over the bypass was sweet, but plans to streamline planning suggest the fight is scarcely over.

(P.85) Battle of Hastings won!

by Ros Coward, The Guardian, 17 August 2001

For those involved in environmental campaigning, victories don't come often.

When they do, they are shockingly sweet. In recent months two major unexpected victories have attracted surprisingly little comment: Crystal Palace, a green oasis in London, was saved from development, while the decision not to build the Hastings bypasses has spared beautiful countryside and precious wildlife. These are great successes in themselves. But do they also presage a new mood, where the planning process will now take seriously potential damage to the environment?

Certainly both victories owe something to a political climate where protecting the environment is at last being taken seriously, Stephen Byers, rejecting the Hastings roads, spoke of "the very strong environmental requirements" which outweighed the weak economic arguments in favour of the bypass. With Crystal Palace, the support given by Ken Livingstone and his green deputy, Darren Johnson, was obviously important. But in both cases this political support was only part of long battles fought hard by incredible alliances - people who gave up their lives to follow every twist of planning legislation and who vowed to become ecowarriors if the political system failed them.

When it comes to a change of heart in the planning processes, the message from both campaigns is mixed. Hastings was the first multimodal study, much vaunted by government as a greener way of assessing transport solutions by not presuming in favour of roads. Some conservationists felt the Hastings report underrated the quality of the threatened environment. Even so, it exposed inconsistencies in the pro-bypass logic and cautioned against environmental damage. Yet this counted for nothing at the South East Regional Authority. This regional body for councils, newly powerful in devolved structures, ignored the study's recommendations. Only Mr Byers's decision averted disaster.

Bromley's determination to proceed with its cherished multiplex in Crystal Palace in spite of strenuous local opposition similarly exposed how many councils are in awe of developers and still don't take seriously environmental protection. The uneven performance of Hastings's multi-modal study was also ominous. There are a multitude of other road plans engendered by Labour's road spending spree in the 10-year transport plan. Will multimodal studies be tough enough on environmental damage? If so, will councils disregard them? Will Mr Byers dare overrule other regional assemblies, as with Hastings?

Hastings itself will soon be included in another study: the much wider south coast multimodal study, covering Southampton to Margate. Campaigners always feared the ultimate game plan is for a south coast motorway; this study might revive it. Auguries for safeguarding the environment and finding public transport solutions are not great.

The consultation document asks: "should the road network allow for the creation of new roads which can be integrated into the surrounding area so that the environmental gains in towns/cities outweigh the impacts elsewhere?" This means: "How can we justify screwing the environment?"

Recent proposals to streamline planning will make it easier to put so-called national interest above environmental damage. The proposal is that certain strategic plans, like motorways, airports and power stations, get decided by national, not local, enquiries. However backward looking some councils are, they are at least potential avenues for local democracy. God help the environment in this new scenario, where locals won't have opportunities to protest. Although there's been a steady increase in measures to protect wildlife sites, they don't seem to count when it comes to national plans. When was a development ever stopped for a protected species?

But if the political climate is ambiguous, there's still reason to celebrate. Both Crystal Palace and Hastings were staggeringly impressive campaigns, leaderless groups which nevertheless managed to coordinate activities. Whenever one strand of resistance faltered, another took over. They drew in locals, environmentalists, housewives, artists, wildlife experts, lawyers and journalists. Their labours are still bearing fruits, like the Crystal Palace campaign winning a reprimand [from the EC - Ed.] of the UK government for considering major developments without proper environmental impact assessments.

Meanwhile, a few weeks back the Hastings Alliance celebrated their victory with a walk along the bypass route. Their travels showed how much we must improve public transport to kill road proposals stone dead. One group of walkers got stuck on a train outside Hastings for half an hour; another failed to find connections home. But it couldn't spoil the other pleasures - the pub with stunning views over Romney marsh, the fascinating people united by their desire to save the countryside, and the barbecue in the heart of Brede valley.

Campaigners don't often have precious moments of euphoria, but with the rain soaking everything, the wine and beer flowing, and five barn owl chicks comfy up above in a barn saved from destruction it was one of those moments. Environmentalists haven't won the war, but we are beginning to win some battles.

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3/9/01 Last updated 3/9/01