The widening of the highways is a modern form of enclosure and land theft to benefit the wealthy
by Philip Hall
You put your life in danger if you walk along A roads and country lanes in the United Kingdom, despite the best efforts of the glorious Ramblers Association, which was founded to give ordinary people access to the countryside.
The national government and county councils make very little provision for pedestrian paths and cycle lanes alongside the roads that go between our towns and cities. There are too few cycle lanes, if any at all, running next to country lanes, motorways and A roads.
This seems to me to be a calculated policy designed to limit access to the countryside. Choice parts of the country, in the United Kingdom, are the refuge of the monied classes, and the Surrey countryside, half cleansed of ordinary people, is where many of the wealthy have their houses. It was not always this way. In the old days, everyone used to walk between towns. Or they rode. To do so now next to a tarmac road is to take your life into your hands.
Outside Wisley Gardens, and all along that section of A23 and some of the M25, the highways department has chopped down thousands of trees to widen the big road. Many of those trees were more than 50 years old – some were much older.
Visitors to the Wisley Gardens like my partner and I, were horrified. The ground had been churned up into mud on both sides of the road and cleared of all plants and animals, and yellow digging machines and earth movers were parked everywhere.
A few of the chopped up corpses of large trees (stained black with mud) were still lying around waiting to be taken away and pulped. Or perhaps the good timber was sold to lumbar merchants. Workers stood near the dead trees in hi-viz, orange clothes.
What is this? I gestured at the trees lying on the cordoned off piece of land which now looked as if it were part of a fracking operation.
Why? The two burley men looked at me. The bosses are bad people. Bad men. One worker explained. He smiled in embarrassment. It’s not us. We don’t want to do this.
I have pictures of that part of the approach to Wisley before the machines came in. It was beautiful. The question is this: In an age when we are supposed to be being ecologically minded, why are great highways being expanded to hold more cars? Why not improve public transport and the frequency of bus services? Why not build cycle lanes between towns?
What do you think of the destruction of the forest all along the highway? I asked a visitor to Wisley.
I suppose it was necessary, she said. I live nearby and there are no buses. It’s a tricky junction. We said goodbye. But, as I approached the entrance, she came up to me again and said. I was wrong. There is a shuttle bus from Woking. You are right. We could do without a new junction.
I asked members of staff I came across what they thought of the development. The grounds people told me that the Royal Horticultural Society had opposed the ‘improvements’ proposed for the highway and had made a counter-offer, but that the transport ministry under Grant Shapps in the period of Boris Johnson, had compulsorily purchased the land and gone ahead regardless. Private contractors moved in.
Alarm bells started ringing. Grant Shapps? Was this a Tory skimming operating in the spirit of the contracts given out during the time of COVID? Was this something along the lines of the ferry service contract being awarded to a company with no ships or boats? Were trees being chopped down and highways expanded and developed only to line the pockets of friends of the Tories in the private sector? An investigative journalist should find out.
How is it possible that despite the problem of global warming, despite the fact that it has been necessary to expand the congestion zone around London, that the highways of Surry are being widened and thousands of trees are cut down? So many animals have been made homeless. So many flowers and plants of all sorts have been wiped out of existence.
The staff I talked to said that they had opposed the changes, but that there was nothing they could do. They looked sad, resigned. Some of the them did not even know that their own organisation had opposed the plans and the compulsory purchase. One of them gave me leaflets about how the verges of the new highway would be turned into ‘heathland’ as it was originally.
When was the Weald, the greatest forest of England, ever heathland? After the enclosures, perhaps in the 1700s. After the all the trees were chopped down. The natural vegetation of that part of Surrey, it seems to me, when it was not downland, was forest. We humans who want to protect nature; who love trees and enjoy Wisley Gardens, lament the needless loss. The devil makes work for idle hands. They can’t leave well alone.
We were at the bus stop. There we met Gary, the cyclist, tall, thin, and magnificently bearded. He said he had suffered a brain injury long ago, but that he was much better now. He tried to cycle everywhere.
But you cannot cycle to Wisley from Ripley, He said. There are no cycle lanes. Given that they have chopped down all these trees all along a long section of highway, you would think they would have the decency and the environmental spirit to include a small cycle lane and path. But no. You could never cycle that way. It would be suicidal.
Over there is Saint Georges Hill. He said. There is a public school, and a gated community, and there is no way to cycle in the direction of Cobham or Mersham. In the way, there is a huge, impassable roundabout.
Saint Georges Hill? You mean the famous Saint George’s Hill that the Diggers, the Levellers, tried to take over for the people to grow food on? To garden?
Yes. Gary said.
Perhaps they do not put pedestrian pathways or cycle lanes as a sort of moat. It’s a way of cutting themselves off from the plebs like us. They threw the farmers and cottagers off the land long ago, colonised the countryside and they don’t want the commoners back. The average price of a property on saint Georges Hill now is 5.5 million pounds.
It’s impossible to get from Ripley to Wisley by bike. Gary said, without having to cross huge swathes of highway. You would kill yourself. And it’s only 4 miles away.
One day we will come here and find out that even this bus stop has been taken away he said.
I looked at the huge new wasteland, and the title of a book came into my mind, a book by C. S. Lewis. That Hideous Strength. In it Lewis describes how all the old trees on a university campus were dug up to make way for a new complex of concrete buildings.
Who had wanted or needed all this environmental destruction? The car-driving elite squatting on Saint Georges Hill who are pulling up the drawbridge? The moats of the United Kingdom are its highways.
Grant Shapps forced through the compulsory order in 2020, regardless of all environmental concerns, regardless of what all the stakeholders wanted, and he did as the Tories have always done: he prioritised the car over the walker and the cyclist. He put the car on a pedestal. Cyclists, pedestrians and people who use public transport are treated as untermenschen by the Tories.
Expansion of the highways is a modern type of enclosure and land theft by the wealthy. Although, having said that, it is only fair to mention that Grant Shapps did invest in quite a few cycle lanes in the towns and cities – far away from the country funk holes of the rich.
The stream of traffic rushed past. One person to a car, occasionally two, carbon monoxide rushing out of the tailpipes of hundreds near empty saloons and SUVs.