Treehouses and tunnels

One of the largest direct action movements of the 1990s emerged in opposition to what the Conservative government hailed as the biggest road-building programme since the Romans; 2700 miles of new roads which would destroy or damage many areas of ecological and historical importance. Opinion about the most effective methods for reducing road congestion is traditionally split between those that want to build more roads, encouraging more cars, and those that want to charge for car use and invest in public transport, encouraging people out of their cars and on to more environmentally friendly forms of transport.

The first of these new roads was an extension of the M3 motorway at Twyford Down in Winchester. The scheme threatened several Sites of Special Scientific Significance(areas of national natural importance earmarked for protection by the government's own agency English Nature). A 20 year local campaign against the road had already tried and failed with all constitutional methods of protest (letters to government, petitions, legal interventions).

In the middle of 1992 a small protest camp was set up where clearance and construction work was supposed to take place. As word spread, the camp grew in size and force until, in December 1992, security guards were hired to evict protesters by force. The evictions did not stop the protests. Instead, camps grew larger and protesters more resistant. New protest camps were set up on other proposed road construction sites around the country. When construction began at Twyford Down in 1993, thousands were there to disrupt progress. Protesters chained themselves to trees and construction machinery, and hundreds were arrested. The new road at Twyford Down was built anyway but the protest inspired massive growth in the direct action movement.

Copse is a history of the anti-road movement written by Kate Evans, a political cartoonist and activist who took part in 1990s protests. Kate Evans's cartoons reported on the movement as it happened, from an insider's point of view. They appeared in the mainstream press as well as in DIY culture journals and magazines, and so helped to counterbalance misrepresentation of the movement by those viewing it from the outside. Like the squatters handbooks, but this time showing how it is done, many of Kate Evans's cartoons gave a practical 'blueprint' for protest and its pitfalls and boundaries.

As the movement grew, disruption methods became more sophisticated, delays to construction longer and security costs higher. Protesters developed alarm systems, look outs, and increasingly effective ways of locking themselves on to construction machinery. The first treehouses were built at a protest camp at Jesmond Dene, near Newcastle, in 1993.

The largest anti-road protest was staged at the site of the Newbury Bypass in Berkshire, which cut through numerous Sites of Special Scientific Interest, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, two civil war battlefields, a designated Nature Reserve, a Stone Age settlement and the habitat of a rare type of snail.

Civil War battles had taken place in the area in 1643 and 1644 and this protest became known as the Third Battle of Newbury. At the protest's height the site included 26 camps made up of homemade shelters, treehouses and networks of underground tunnels. The occupations of tunnels and treehouses was a particularly effective disruption strategy. Protesters relied on the knowledge that the government was responsible for their safety; occupied trees could not be felled without risk to the protesters occupying them; construction machinery could not safely drive on land that had been tunnelled into without risk of collapse.

The Newbury site gained symbolic status; large environmental organisations Friends of the Earth, the Green Party and Greenpeace, which had distanced themselves from direct action at Twyford Down, now began to support the campaign. Amidst protests at Newbury a large public meeting was held to promote road traffic reduction, and thousands marched the route of the bypass. When the battle ended, over a thousand people had been arrested and the protest cost the government over £6 million. Nevertheless, the bypass was completed late in 1998.

Although the roads at all of the protested sites were eventually built, protests cost the Conservative government a great deal in terms of time, money and public image. When the Labour Party came to power in 1997 it scrapped the remaining proposed roads and made a commitment to take a more environmentally sustainable approach to road congestion.