This weekend sees the 20th anniversary of the controversial construction of the M3 through Twyford Down, now part of the South Downs National Park. To mark this anniversary, the Campaign for Better Transport is supporting a rally on Saturday (29th Sept) on St Catherine’s Hill, overlooking the site.
Once revered for its natural beauty and cultural past Twyford Down is probably best known nowadays as a symbol of the folly and destructive nature of new roadbuilding. It was where the Government’s roads programme was challenged in a way it had never been challenged before.
It set in motion a reappraisal of not just roadbuilding but the way we view travel and its interaction with planning. But given all this happened 20 years ago, are we in danger of forgetting the lessons of the past? As the current coalition Government grapples with the economic crisis there is increasing talk of building large infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy alongside relaxing planning laws.
Of course Twyford Down wasn’t the only place damaged by the Government of the day. The tragedy of Brighton & Hove bypass (built in the 1990s) was that the Government Minister ignored the Inquiry Inspector’s recommendation that much of the road be tunnelled. The one exception being at Southwick Hill where National Trust ownership provided the Department of Transport with a real headache unless it was prepared to put the road underground.
Other trunks roads have also impacted upon the South Downs such as the A3, the A27 Lewes bypass and more recently the A27 Southerham to Beddingham improvement. Latterly, more care has been taken to integrate new roads better into the landscape. But is that the answer? Roads have a far greater impact that their immediate visual impact. The traffic using them generates noise and there are precious few tranquil areas in the South East. Building more road capacity can increase traffic levels, not just on the roads themselves but on surrounding areas. Then of course there’s air pollution and climate change.
There are plenty of schemes remaining on politicians’ wish lists, particularly along the A27. If built they would lead to a significant increase in traffic passing alongside and through the National Park. Meanwhile the coastal rail service appears to have received comparatively little investment, apart from the compulsory lick of paint every time the franchise is renewed.
So on the 20th anniversary of Twyford Down, let us remember the mistakes of the past so we can tread a more sensitive path in the future. The landscape is very different to the 1990s, but politicians still seem to favour the big infrastructure project over community based initiatives, even when the latter often offer better value for money.