On this day in history : 18th January 1996 – Six major environmental groups add their support to the growing campaign against the controversial Newbury bypass….
The first Newbury bypass had been built in 1963 but by the 1980s it was unable to cope with the sheer volume of traffic…. A new route was proposed following the disused Didcot, Newbury and Southampton railway line – controversially running through three sites of special scientific interest…. A part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – an English Heritage site registered as being the location of the battlefield for the first Battle of Newbury during the English Civil War – and a National Trust nature reserve…. Also along the route, areas had been identified as being the habitat of an endangered snail, the Desmoulin’s Whorl snail….particular to the local area….
Supporters of the proposed scheme insisted the new bypass would provide relief to the congested town centre of Newbury…. Those who opposed it claimed that within 10 years traffic would be back to intolerable levels – whilst they agreed there was a problem that needed to be addressed a bypass was not the answer…. The people of Newbury were divided, as many were against the scheme as were for it….
Nevertheless clearance work began on the 2nd of August 1995 with the demolition of six buildings in the way of the route…. The previous month had seen the first of the protest camps appear…. Well organised disruptions by activists caused major setbacks for the contractors….tunnels and treehouses were built and protesters used themselves as human shields to prevent plant equipment from being moved in….
Finally work began in earnest the week prior to the 18th of January 1996 – on the 17th some 350 trees were felled and 35 protesters arrested…. On the 18th Friends of the Earth, the Council for British Archeology, Greenpeace UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildlife Trusts and the Worldwide Fund for Nature added their support for the campaign against the scheme….
On the 15th of February 5,000 protesters from across the UK joined together to peacefully march two miles along the route – no arrests were made…. It was claimed to be the largest ever single demonstration against road building in Britain…. Among the marchers were TV presenters and local residents Maggie Philbin and Johnny Morris….
Between January and April 1996 an area of approximately 360 acres of land was cleared – including 120 acres of woodland…. Nearly 10,000 mature trees, including oak, ash and beech, were felled….
Thames Valley Police feared the policing operation could cost as much as £12m and asked the government to help meet the cost…. By December 1996 the expense had reached £5m – and a further £30m was spent by the contractors on private security….
The protest camps remained on the route until 1997…. The road took 34 months to complete, at a cost of £100m – it opened in November 1998…. Over 1,000 people were arrested during the campaign….