(this is the full length version by the way… it got cut a bit for the paper)
Under a blue tarpaulin at the foot of the protest camp, Simon Sitting Bull is having a brief break from tunnel digging.
“There are three different types of tunnel that you use in anti-roads protests,” he explains, kindly moving aside to let the Guardian have a peer at his work so far. “Opencast, Doored and Shored, and Tight and Nasty. This one is Tight and Nasty.” He points his head-light in the right direction and lights up about four feet of tunnel, which divides at the end to the left and to the right. “Not going to tell you how much further it goes. Sorry!”
Forty feet or so above us, Owl and George are practising making ropewalks between the trees. “I didn’t know how to do this two weeks ago,” says Owl, nonchalantly bouncing around the boughs. George, on a neighbouring tree, is rather anxiously testing the rope. “Isn’t that tree leaning over a bit too far?” he asks. And further down the road three protesters are dangling around a giant oak like christmas decorations, while beneath them the contractors rev their chain saws with pantomime-like menace and a long line of security guards in high-vis jackets chafe their hands against the January cold. It’s the first day back at work since Christmas, and progress is going to be slow.
“The Second battle of Hastings” as it has called itself, aims to halt the construction of the Bexhill-Hastings link road in East Sussex. The road will be just over three miles long, linking up two other roads, and will cost, according to most estimates, at least £86m, although the costs of security are already being estimated upwards.
There is plenty of local support for the link road. Local MP Amber Rudd (also George Osbornes parliamentary private secretary) claims it “will be an important part of the regeneration of the town, opening up a new area for employment and houses”. Denis Haffenden, a local resident watching the to-ing and fro-ing, says everyone he knows in the area really wants the road; “It will ease up the traffic through here, it gets really bad sometimes.” In one of the most deprived parts of the South East – nearly 29% of children in nearby Hastings are classed as living in poverty, according to figures by a local charity – some argue that absolutely any economic investment is a good thing.
But campaigners argue that the money – nearly half of which must come from local taxpayers – would be much better invested in public transport, housing infrastructure or other local projects. The county council is “already planning to cut £34 million from adult social care, and £14 million from children’s services,” points out protester Abby Nicol.
The Bexhill battle is, moreover, just the beginning of a national anti-roads campaign. In December George Osborne announced a £1bn national road-building push as part of his autumn statement. Meanwhile last year Campaign for Better Transport released a report highlighting 191 road schemes around the country, and held a nationwide conference to bring campaigners together and to organise resistance. The Bexhill road is among the very first to break ground, but, says CBT road campaigner Sian Berry, “it won’t be the last. We warned last year that this was ‘the most environmentally harmful and least economically justifiable road scheme currently being proposed in England’, and that there would be resistance.”
Back at the site Indiana is watching with her jaw clenched as the contractors lop branches off a vast oak. “That tree is ancient,” she says. “You need four people to get your arms around it. I can’t believe they’re just taking it down like this.” Does she think they will be able to stop the road being built? “What you have to understand is that it’s not about just one tree, however beautiful it is, or about one road. We want to stop all of Osborne’s roads. It’s about hundreds of roads and thousands of trees.”