Taming The Tarmac: The Lesson of Twyford Down

Anyone who witnessed the Battle of Newbury is unlikely to forget it. What will always stay with me is the contrast between the atmosphere of emotional and physical violence (which, with its sirens, ambulances and armies of policemen seemed like an ironic dress rehearsal for future motorway accidents along the route) and the extraordinary tranquillity of the springtime Berkshire landscape; wrens were scuttling among the bonfire heaps and primroses budding beside the bulldozers as the whole landscape was being torn up by the roots. Whatever the hidden agendas - the urgent need to re-examine our national transport policy being the obvious one - there can be little doubt that the landscape was the field of battle. I�m all for battles, even pitched ones which precipitate constructive change, but having spent my life working to rescue and enhance landscapes as a legitimate part of civil engineering schemes, Newbury seems like a sad waste of energy and a failure to communicate on both sides. 

The cost of policing it came to �26 million, more than a quarter of the budget of the total project. The level of debate in the press and elsewhere was strikingly superficial. There was little detailed discussion of what can be done practically to modify our transport policy, even less about the relative merits of the alternative routes at Newbury and least of all about the real problems and opportunities which road building presents for the landscape.

Similarly, the story of Twyford Down has been presented to the world in a simplified and one-sided way - another battle lost and the ugliest road cutting in southern England, which is of course the bit that everyone sees when they drive down the M3. There is no denying that a civilised society would have built a tunnel. However, it is a particular irony that the planning gains that came out of Twyford Down set a standard which, if emulated on similar schemes, ought to take the sting out of future road battles, at least as far as the landscape is concerned. Here is an extract from what Fred Pearce, fierce opponent of all engineers, had to say about it in the New Scientist:

"It is a classic image of England. Take a walk out of medieval Winchester, past the cathedral and over the water meadows, where John Keats wrote his ode To Autumn, and on up the chalk downland to the top of St Catherine�s Hill, site of an ancient hill fort. Only from the top of the hill do you begin to hear the M3 as it ploughs through a gash in the next crest - Twyford Down. And, whisper it for fear of waking the ghosts of the protesters who camped here in 1993, it is the motorway that made the quiet of the walk possible. Confused? Before the ruin of Twyford Down, another road, the Winchester bypass, carved its way between the water meadows and St Catherine�s Hill. But as part of planning approval, engineers had to remove the bypass. Which they have. To dramatic effect.

Peace has been restored to the water meadows and the walk is silent and unimpeded. The meadow has been reunited with the hill; the cutting filled in. This spring, on the path of the old road, you can hear skylarks, watch butterflies and sniff wild thyme. You would never know there had ever been a bypass here. Three cheers for the environmental engineers."









BEFORE                                                                                    AFTER

On Twyford Down 1.91 hectares of SSSI were lost, but a total of 7.2 hectares of species-rich grassland were created along the old route of the A33 and on nearby arable land from which the topsoil had been removed. This was not a matter of crude wildflower sowing. The Institute of Terrestrial Ecology supervised the establishment and subsequent monitoring of chalk grassland of an equivalent quality to that which was lost. It was rolled out like very expensive Wilton carpet.

The achievements of Twyford Down were partly possible because the Highways Agency was looking for very positive mitigations as part of an exceptionally difficult scheme. Elsewhere, loss of grazing marsh within the North Kent Marshes Special Protection Area (SPA), affected by the proposed bridge crossing onto the Isle of Sheppey, will be compensated for by the purchase and creation of extensive new habitat, since legal obligations insist on the mitigation of land lost to an SPA. But what about a more generous free-standing approach to land acquisition when the strict legal requirements are less evident at enquiry? So far such schemes are opportunistic though no less admirable for that.


On the A4/A46 Batheaston bypass, east of Bath, 9.26 hectares of riverside land were acquired by the Highways Agency, initially to compensate for the loss of flood storage as a result of construction of new bridge embankments in the flood plain. At the same time, however, a 320 metre long oxbow lake was excavated, the grazing land transformed into species-rich pasture, 24,000 trees planted and the new road concealed by a false cutting. Already, in its first summer, little ringed plover and sand martins arrived beside the new oxbow, and now, two years later, the local Wildlife Trust has taken over long-term management responsibilities.


At other times, land severance and subsequent land blight have created such opportunities. On the A30 Okehampton bypass, a number of farm units were split by the road, and the land was thus acquired by the Highways Agency. Near Whiddon Down, around 4.5 hectares beside existing woodland have been planted and a sizeable pool created in which water violet, Hottonia palustris, has established spectacularly whilst pied flycatchers and green hairstreak butterflies have colonised the new planting. Nearby, another 9 hectare site has been established in a similar way, whilst a 4.5 hectare woodland/picnic site has also been established on severed land at Rooksbridge beside the A29 Barnstaple bypass.


The striking thing about these examples of good practice is that they have been achieved despite the system rather than because of it. Road engineers, in contrast to their colleagues in the water industry, are not answerable to any statutory obligations to consider landscape and conservation positively as part of their duties, although they are of course subject to general EC directives on environment. The acquisition of land by agreement for landscape or habitat purposes is generally only accepted if legally protected areas have been adversely affected. Any compulsory purchase of land must be justified at Inquiry, where free-standing habitat creation is seldom, if ever, advocated. Given the large sums of money involved in road building, the rule of thumb of 5% of capital cost for environmental enhancement, which has been accepted within the water industry for the past decade, might revolutionise roads as a creative force in the landscape, especially where they traverse degraded landscapes such as the intensive arable farmland of eastern England. As it is, the mere embankments of the roads network support many thousands of miles of cowslips and dog daisies, as do a number of SSSIs. The banks of the Brighton bypass are now said to support the largest colony of common blue butterflies in England.


Fundamentally, what is needed is a generous shift of brief so that our road builders and the government, which sets up their Terms of Reference, accept that the road programme can do a lot more than simply get vehicles to their destination faster. In Barcelona, an urban renewal programme which built some new roads, also converted one unloved fly-over into a restaurant. In Birmingham, the springboard which led to the successful renaissance of the whole city centre, was the construction of a single pedestrian bridge over a busy through road. A similar project would transform the sadly divided historic centre of Hull. If the A303, which passes within 200 metres of Stonehenge, were put in a tunnel, the best possible Millennium project for our most famous monument would be achievable. As it is, the Highways Agency has long stated that it couldn�t do the job of English Heritage, and understandably, given the financing it was getting from the government for the A303 improvements, had dropped the project altogether. Then came John Prescott�s dramatic announcement, that a tunnel at Stonehenge and also one at the Devil�s Punch Bowl were back on the agenda. Too late for the millennium, but not too late to prove that road schemes might actually reverse environmental damage and, together with an integrated transport scheme as recommended in the government White Paper1, help to defuse the disastrous image which all roads have come to represent. The White Paper also talks of noise mitigation on existing trunk roads, a measure which could spectacularly improve the worst feature of many routes. Historic landscapes, such as Hardwick Hall beside the M1 and Painshill beside the A3, seem especially vulnerable. The technology to transform them exists, at a price. Porous asphalt, evocatively known in the trade as �whispering concrete� is incorporated into some new projects. Often techniques involving thin wearing courses are cheaper and at least partially effective. It remains to be seen whether the huge cost of this as a freestanding enhancement will ever be met.


In Huntingdon, the A14, arguably our most hideous trunk road, tears through the heart of John Major�s constituency. It roars on stilts past church spires, a medieval packhorse bridge and a coaching inn and over the sleepy River Ouse with its adjacent water meadows. The most magnificent of these, Portholme, is an SSSI, and is said to be the largest meadow in England. The view of it from the castle mound, said by William Camden, the Elizabethan antiquary, to be the finest prospect in England, is now cruelly severed by the A14. The total removal of this road, which is increasingly congested and very difficult to widen, would spectacularly reunite one of our finest historic towns with its landscape just as St Catherine�s Hill and the Winchester water meadows have been reunited. Of course, alternative routes to the north and south of Huntingdon would have to be explored and they may have their problems, including a major railway crossing, but the present system does not allow us to even investigate such possibilities. English Heritage looks after heritage. English Nature looks after nature. The Highways Agency builds roads. In difficult situations, such as the A14, the safe solution is seen as being more speed controls and variable message signs, the latter being hideous objects, the size of a bungalow on a stalk, which dominate the view from neighbouring houses which require planning permission for their loft extensions. While adding to the visual clutter, these seem unlikely to promise a long-term solution to the traffic jams, and certainly offer no creative changes.

It is true that the Highways Agency employs many dedicated environmentalists and makes many environmental undertakings at inquiry. But at present even the benefits of split carriageways are commonly resisted because of land take, whilst road widening and the provision of an increasingly obstructive clutter of gantries and signs on the existing network are often slipped through without inquiry or even environmental assessment. The cumulative effect of such piecemeal changes is rapidly increasing as the Highways Agency has been given a new role as "transport operator" to manage traffic through signal gantries. Meanwhile the increasing adoption of "Design Build Finance and Operate" (DBFO) ensures that environmental standards continue to fall. For example, picnic sites, of which there are some fine examples built by the Highways Agency, are now to be the responsibility of the catering firms who will no doubt supply the minimum bouncy castle and beefburger stall which their accountants require. With the move to MFO (Manage Finance and Operate), the need for the Agency to produce formal guidance for management appears ever more urgent.


The time has come to amend or at least reinterpret the 1980 Highways Act in order to strengthen the environmental brief for the road builders who have such a profound effect on the environment. "Improvement makes straight roads", wrote William Blake, "but the crooked roads", he added, "are roads of genius." We cannot all return to crooked roads, and we cannot easily or instantly abandon the car as one of the major forms of transport. But what we certainly can do is think laterally and widen the brief for road projects which could be based on multiple funding to achieve real planning gains. Changes initiated by the Labour Government are promising in this respect. The Roads Programme has been reduced to approximately 30 definate schemes and the Highways Agency is incorporating cycling routes in some of its projects as just one of the ways it responds to the White Paper on Integrated Transport. The move to Super Agents is removing some of the internal conflicts in management. Government requires all its agencies to promote Biodiversity and the Highways Agency is now being asked to bid specifically for conservation monies. In this way, something good might even come out of the transport battles of the past decade; Newbury may come to be seen as the last nail in the coffin of the old system, and we could approach the millennium with the prospect of creating some real roads of genius.


1 A New Deal for Transport, Better for Everyone

The Government White Paper on the future of transport HMSO, July 1998



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