M11 link road protest

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The M11 link road protest was an anti-road campaign in London, UK in the early 1990s. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the campaign, together with others in the UK at that time, is considered by many to have played a major role in the large-scale cutbacks in the road building programme that followed in subsequent years.

Background

A new road linking what is now the M11 motorway with the A102(M) Eastway in North-East London was initially proposed in the 1960s. At that time, traffic travelling between central and southern areas of London and East Anglia had to contend with a long stretch of single-carriageway roads through the suburbs of Leyton, Leytonstone and Wanstead. However, the road scheme was sidelined, and increasing traffic levels throughout the next two decades led to serious congestion in these areas.

The Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, elected in 1979, introduced a policy of intensive road building. Under these plans, the M11 link road scheme was resurrected. In the 1980s, contractors were appointed to carry out the work and a compulsory purchase of property along the proposed route was undertaken.

Around the same time, environmentalist groups were voicing dissent towards the upturn in road building. This began to manifest itself in direct action campaigns against road construction schemes that were actually in progress, notably at Twyford Down in Hampshire. The campaigns attracted several thousand people to their cause, many of whom were from counterculture backgrounds.

The protest campaign in East London

By 1990, the majority of the houses along the route of the proposed road had been compulsorily purchased, although the demolition process had not yet begun. This led to many of the houses being let out to housing associations, while others lay empty. Large numbers of the empty houses were squatted while some original residents were refusing to sell or move out of their properties.

Locally-based protest against the link road scheme was taking place, but the availability of free housing along the route attracted large numbers of campaigners from around the UK and beyond. The arrival of these experienced anti-road protest veterans gave great impetus to the campaign.

Sophisticated techniques were used to delay the construction of the road. Sit-ins and site invasions were combined with sabotage to temporarily stop construction work. This led to large numbers of police and constant security patrols being employed to protect the construction sites, at great expense — the delays and security escalated the total cost of construction by tens of millions of pounds.

The protesters were successful at publicizing the campaign, with most UK newspapers and TV news programmers covering the protests on a regular basis. Desktop publishing, then in its infancy, was used to produce publicity materials for the campaign. A number of "stunts" were carried out; most notable were rooftop protests on the Palace of Westminster and at the home of John MacGregor, the Minister for Transport at that time, both of which received front page coverage in national newspapers.

To counter the campaign, the government began evicting residents along the route and demolishing the empty houses. In response, the protesters set up the "autonomous republics" of "Wanstonia", "Leytonstonia" and "Euphoria" in some groups of the houses, going so far as to issue "passports". Extreme methods were used to force the engineers to halt demolition, including underground tunnels with protesters concreted inside them.

Despite these actions, the resources of the government began to win out over the protesters, and by 1994 only one small street, Claremont Road, was left unevicted. The street was completely occupied by protesters; the houses were painted with extravagant designs, both internally and externally, and sculptures erected in the road. Rave parties were held and underground bands performed on stages set up in the street. Freak Quency Generator Sound system was one of the regulars.

In November 1994 the eviction of Claremont Road took place. Several hundred police and bailiffs carried out the eviction over several days; the street was razed to the ground immediately afterwards. This event marked the end of the M11 link road protest as a major British protest.

Following the Claremont Road eviction things died down for a little while. Many of the non-resident protesters moved on to places such as Newbury, where other roads protests were taking place, while locals debated what to do. A house on Fillebrook Road, near Leytonstone tube station, was the only house left standing once that street had been knocked down. It was a listed building, waiting for permission to demolish, and due to a security blunder had been left empty. The house was reoccupied and renamed Munstonia, for its spooky appearance, and the protest was back on.

A tower was built out of the roof, similar to the one at Claremont Road, and the usual system of pitfalls and blockades were built, and a core of around thirty protesters ensured that there were always people staying there. Munstonia was evicted in June 1995, the eviction itself became the longest eviction of any single building in Europe ever, taking over eight hours to remove all the protesters from the roof and the tower. As usual many were locked into concrete blocks or chained to the tower itself. As at Claremont Road, the building was immediately demolished. Once again the press declared this "The End of The Road", and for the most part it was. A camp was established on the fringes of Wanstead Flats, by the Green Man roundabout in Leytonstone. Naturally this was called Greenmania, and lasted a few months, being evicted in September 2005.

Construction of the road, already under way by this stage, was then free to continue largely unhindered, although systematic sabotage of building sites by local people continued. It was completed in 1999 and given the designation A12; its continuation, the former A102(M), was also given this number as far as the Blackwall Tunnel. The official opening of the road took place without fanfare, in marked contrast to the celebrity extravaganzas previously commonplace at the opening of new roads.

Consequences of the protest campaign

The M11 link road protest was ultimately unsuccessful in its major aim: to stop the building of the M11 link road. However, direct action techniques first employed or refined at the protest have been transferred to numerous other protests around the world. Many veterans of the anti-M11 link road campaign went on to protest the construction of other road schemes such as the A34 Newbury bypass in Berkshire; campaigns such as these helped to shift public opinion in the UK away from the unfettered building of new roads. In the years after the campaign, the Conservative administration shelved the plans for a number of proposed road schemes, and it is only since the turn of the 20th century that the current Labour government is beginning once more to plan an increase in major road network upgrades.

Many ex-M11 protesters went on to join other pro-environment, anti-globalisation and direct action campaigns, such as Reclaim the Streets. As such, the after-effects of the M11 link road protests are still being felt today.

For Leytonstone the consequences were mixed. Supporters say the road helped end the years of planning blight that had effected Leytonstone, although critics would suggest that the economic upswing and housing boom would have had the same effect. The road is still not popular with local people, and divides the communities of Leyton and Leytonstone in half. Even a decade on, there are fairly regular local newspaper complaints from people whose residential streets have become rat-runs, or who haven't got the compensation they were promised (or believe they deserve). The noise and pollution are noticeable, unpleasant and affect house-prices (though of course, thanks to the housing boom these house prices are wildly higher than residents would have believed at the time of the protests), and few would suggest that the road has eased local traffic when faced with a morning rush hour traffic jam. However, the aims of the road were achieved, it is now much quicker for non-residents to get through East London by car.

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