A village fights plans for a new road

The Guardian, November 1 1993

It was late one Sunday evening last summer. The stumps had long since been drawn from the cricket pitch, all the spectators and picnickers had gone home and only a few of the village men still remained, leaning on the bar of the club house with their cans of Guinness bitter and packets of B and H, and, more or less as an afterthought, the talk turned to the new road. For five or ten minutes, they just knocked it around gently – how much noise would there be, how much smell, was it true that Bob and Jean on the edge of the village would be able to touch the trucks going by from the end of their garden?

Then the pace of the conversation picked up. “Can you stop a thing like that?… No chance… No way of fighting it then?…No. No chance…What you saying? You gotta fight it. How you ever gonna win if you don’t fight it?…I’m saying – there’s no way of winning… But you still gotta fight. Write letters, protest, get on to the council.” That was when one of the opening batsmen intervened. “There’s only one way to beat the Department of Transport. And it’s not writing bloody letters to the paper. Guerrilla struggle! Bugger up their bulldozers. That’s the only way.”

It is probably true that this was the first time in the history of Glynde Cricket Club that anyone had stood up in the club house to propose a strategy of guerrilla struggle. And it is beyond dispute that this was the first time that such a proposal had been greeted with general approval.

Glynde sits in the Sussex Downs, just east of Lewes, a couple of miles south of Glyndebourne opera house, the kind of village that has become a rarity, particularly in the south of England: there are families who have lived there for 300 years; with Firle village down the road, there is the distant echo of arguments which go back to the Civil War; there are hardly any weekenders; there is a pub and a shop and a little swimming pool and a railway station. At least, there is for a while.

Glynde is caught in the pincer of two transport policies: while its roads threaten to overwhelm it, its railways are dying . When the Liberal environment spokesman Simon Hughes visited Glynde last month, he stood on Mount Caburn overlooking the village and watched the road and the railway running side by side down the valley below him and said it was a miniature version of what was happening across the country: death by tarmac and an avoidable death at that.

The Roads Minister, Robert Key, announced his plan for the valley in July with a confident flourish. His department would spend £70 million on a new dual carriageway which would criss-cross the existing A27 between Lewes and Polegate and throw out a four-lane spur road southwards to the coast at Newhaven. He was convinced, he said, that the development was needed “to provide safe, congestion-free routes, to improve the accessibility of the coastal towns and encourage the economic development of East Sussex”. His department acknowledged that the plan would do some damage.

As the road leaves Lewes, its four lanes are to cut through a chalk pit whose display of fossils has been registered as a Site of Special Scientific Interest on the grounds that they are unmatched in Western Europe. It will carve through the foot of Mount Caburn, which has been registered as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and then strike across the wetlands outside Glynde at a height of 35 feet before hooking into a split-level complex of roundabouts at the head of the Ouse valley and then heading eastwards, slicing through various footpaths and bridleways and past Charleston Farmhouse, where the heirs of the Bloomsbury Group are anxiously pondering their fate.

The leader of Lewes District Council, Norman Baker, is clear about the effect of Mr Key’s plan. “In its present form, it would change the Downlands villages for ever. Glynde and Firle would never be the same again. They are real communities which have not been ruined by planning and development, but this plan would lead to intolerable pollution and environmental damage. They will ram more tarmac through one of the last parts of the South Downs that has remained largely unpolluted and unaffected by the vagaries of 20th century road building.” Mr Baker wants them to bury the worst of the road in a tunnel.

In Glynde, they say they already have the only dual carriageway they need in the valley: the railway line that has linked local villages and coastal towns since Victorian times. But there is no £70 million for this. Most of the rolling stock is 30 years old. The signals and cables were installed in the year that Hitler came to power, in 1933, and there is still no budget to replace them. The bridges are even older: there are 3,000 of them in Network South East which can afford to maintain only three a year, suggesting that it will be 1,000 years before they are all upgraded. Glynde station used to have a staff of six. Now, it is unmanned, without even a machine to sell tickets.

East Sussex County Council say that public transport now accounts for only 10% of local journeys and, with the enthusiastic backing of local businesses, they are supporting the new road. In their annual submissions to the Department of Transport, they have asked for no money for the railway network. They have made one big pitch to British Rail – to electrify the line east of Hastings so that passengers can reach the Channel Tunnel without changing trains. But BR has not found the funds.

In private, however, some of the county’s senior officials, whose job now compels them to build new roads, admit a deep frustration. “If we had a Department of Transport that was truly interested in all kinds of transport and treated each of them on its merits, if they applied their Cost Benefit Analysis equally and fairly across all of these modes of transport, we would see an incredible shift towards railway, towards public transport. But we don’t have a Department of Transport like that. We have a Department of Roads whose rules are heavily stacked. They will give us money for roads and they won’t give us anything for rail. If we say No to their money, they will go to another county, build the road there, take the businesses with them. It is true to say that the system is rigged.”

According to independent transport consultants, there is real doubt even about the underlying assumption that new roads are good for local economies. John Whitelegg of Eco-Logica in Lancaster said: “There is no evidence to support the claim. And these new roads encourage a cycle of change in small communities, so that more people travel further to go to work, to go to school, to go shopping, so the village then loses its shop and its school and so on. These are enormous negative consequences for the local economy.”

With the privatisation of British Rail set to become law on Wednesday and the future of stations like Glynde less certain than ever, the villagers in East Sussex are beginning to organise. They have formed an A27 Action Group and linked up with Friends of the Earth in Brighton. FoE’s national roads campaigner, Roger Higman, is urging the Department to think again. “If only councils were given the money to put their local traffic onto buses and trains, there would be no need for new roads like this to deal with long-distance traffic.” Several of the cricketers from Glynde have already signed up.