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Road lobby stunned by bypass bar

Paul Brown, environment correspondent

Friday July 13, 2001

The Guardian

The transport secretary, Stephen Byers, sprung a major surprise yesterday by throwing out controversial plans for a £120m six-lane bypass of Hastings – a decision that campaigners had labelled a litmus test of the government’s commitment to the environment.

The decision, which delighted environmentalists but was damned by a stunned local business community, heads off potentially huge anti-roads protests.

Mr Byers, in his first major decision in the job, said public transport should be improved rather than build the six-lane highway through an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Local councillors and businessmen had hoped a bypass would regenerate Hastings, in East Sussex, officially the most deprived town in south-east England. They accused Mr Byers of bowing to pressure from those who had threatened to occupy the site and use the combined might of the tunnellers and tree dwellers who delayed the building of the Newbury bypass and the extension of Manchester airport.

Green groups were surprised by the decision and hailed it as a turning point for the government and road planning. Others feared it was softening up the environmental lobby ahead of the imminent decision on Terminal 5 for London Heathrow, another bitterly opposed scheme.

It was the first time the government had been guided by a new way of studying road building in which all the alternatives are examined and the potential environmental damage given proper legal weight.

The government had been forced to take account of the new legal protection it gave to sites of special scientific interest under the Countryside and Wildlife Act this year and EU protections to habitats used by migratory birds. If the road had gone ahead, under EU legislation the government would have had to prove the bypass was in the “urgent national interest”.

Instead of building across an area of outstanding natural beauty the government is suggesting that part of the A21 should become dual carriageway and other roads should be improved – with due regard to the environment.

Mr Byers also wants construction of a metro rail service between Hastings and Bexhill, electrified rail links to London, and an improved rail service between Wadhurst and Tonbridge.

The transport secretary stressed his decision did not set a precedent for all road schemes. Each of the so-called multi-modal studies are “looking at some of the most severe transport problems around the country. The impact of the environment must be a key consideration in each case. No single decision will be a precedent for others to follow”.

Jeremy Birch, the Labour leader of Hastings council, demanded that Mr Byers tell the town how it can be regenerated without the bypass and how much of the £120m would be diverted to help public transport in the area.

John Cosson, chairman of Hastings and Bexhill Integrated Transport Partnership, said: “I am utterly appalled by the decision which condemns Hastings to continued poverty. It may be that Stephen Byers has a whole set of proposals that will help bring prosperity to the people of Hastings. If so, he must be called on to spell out his plan to regenerate the area without the bypasses.

“The government knows there would have been people digging tunnels and living up trees had the bypasses got the go ahead. Perhaps the people living in Bexhill Road should continually use the pedestrian crossings to make their point.”

Stephen Preston, 56, who lives close to the planned bypass, was delighted. He and fellow residents in Great Maxfield had thought their objections would be ignored. “I’m overjoyed. I wept with joy when I heard the road had been rejected,” he said. “We all campaigned against it because this is such a precious area. It would have been lost forever because of not only the road but also the landfill area which would have been used for development.”

Peter Jones, Tory leader of East Sussex county council, accused the government of being scared of the “eco-tyrants” and warned some businesses may now desert the town.

Tony Bosworth, transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Building the bypasses would have caused enormous environmental damage and would have done little to regenerate the town.”

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001