Germaine Greer tangles with creaking bureaucracy in her own country backyard
Certain things are inevitable. We expect them. We prepare for them, yet when they come they take our breath away. The redevelopment of the Stump Cross Roundabout was inevitable. Nevertheless, when I slit the bulging envelope and pulled out the cyclostyled plan, the bottom dropped out of my stomach. Five green booklets from the DoE purported to explain my rights in respect of land compensation. A leaflet from the Department of Transport, Trunk Road Planning: The Procedures Oudined, informed me that the first step was to ascertain that ‘a strong case exists for an improvement’.
None of us who live along its bloodstained verges would argue that the A11 will do as it is. All the traffic to East Anglia must go through Stump Cross Roundabout and struggle up a single carriageway as far as Six Mile Bottom, avoiding farm traffic and ponies as best it can, negotiating Four Went Ways where cars slow down for the Unhappy Eatery and the service station, held up for minutes at a time by vehicles intent on turning right, or processing nervously behind corn carts and beet lorries.
Needless to say. The traffic does not always succeed in negotiating this chicane without mishap. If we followed the pious tradition of erecting crosses on the verges in memory of people killed on the roads, this section of the All would have as many as the Ypres salient. We have grown used to the screaming and clanging of emergency vehicles, to spreadeagled chalk outlines on the road, to sticky stains where crows gather. Ever since I drove past the body of a man, and then past his mangled bike 50 yards beyond and the shocked motorist shuddering in his car on the verge 100 yards further along, while the police ran this way and that with their tapes and their chalk, I have known that the slow traffic must be separated from the fast if we, the local fauna, are to survive.
As British Rail refuses to run an adequate service between London and the east of the country, believing apparently that people have no right to live in Suffolk and Norfolk, the road must be made safe. To obstruct the upgrading of Stump Cross Roundabout and the dualizing of the carriageway would be behaviour worthy of a Nimby of the lowest order.
In my backyard is exactly where the roadworks will be. The plan said, ‘Dual carriageway overbridge’. The word struck cold fear into all who saw it. We imagined something like the monstrous road-bridge over the Orwell at Wherstead, that reduces the broad and shining estuary to the status of a gutter. The people who did that would think nothing of turning our bleak champaign into an illuminated shrine to the motorcar. Stump Cross, having turned from a crossroads into a roundabout, was to be further transmogrified into three roundabouts. The circular letter that accompanied the plan and the leaflets was cagey. The authorities, it seemed, were not obliged to inform me of their doings and had done so out of goodness and courtesy. Out of the same goodness and courtesy they would be willing to discuss their operations with me, who would have the misfortune to witness those operations from her windows without even the option of a compulsory purchase, for hers was not the land they actually wanted. When they explained that the raised section of the highway would be no more than a metre or so above the present level and that the side roads and the three little roundabouts would be dropped under it through a cutting, the plan began to seem what I genuinely believe it is, an elegant solution to a serious and pressing problem. The plan as I had it was misleading; why did they not make a model? Early days yet, they said. Route has to be approved in principle by the Secretary of State.
They seemed anxious that I might oppose the plan, which was odd as I had no constitutional right to obstruct or even delay their operations. I began to suspect that, as they worked hard on their plan over years, they did not so much fear that I would obstruct their work as that I did not appreciate it. But I did. Even though the excavations would start at the northeast boundary of my land in the root run of my mature beech trees, I could see that the sunken mini-roundabouts were the right solution. The windy waste of the big roundabout, decked with billowing plastic bags and sweet packets and illegal signs, would become a series of interesting little dells, each with its own microclimate; there could be shale banks for hazels and Dunwich roses, chalk banks for cowslips and Daphne laureola, wet nooks for Iris pseudacorus, even tunnels for toads and hedgehogs.
If change had to come, and change always does, it seemed good that it should be this change, radical though it was. I decided to support the scheme. When a village elder came to my door with a petition complete with an alternative plan that looked as if it had been sketched on a beer-mat by one of our retired military men, I besought him to think again. The new scheme would not be ‘detrimental to the village’, which lies a good deal further away from it than my house does; it could not cause an increase in traffic flow; pushing the traffic through faster could hardly create more noise than we bore already. I marched the gentle old man up and down my roaring garden, made him stand in the gateway while the commercial travellers ripped past at 90 miles an hour, until his nose was blue with cold. We should cooperate, I said, so that the work got done faster with less blight to us all.
In the summer of 1990 the Secretary of State ‘announced his decision on the preferred route for the improvement of the A11 Trunk Road’. This was puzzling, since no one knew whether the road should pass to the north or the south of a protected wood or divide and go around it. Evidently the Secretary of State knew but was not telling. Though the wood had been declared protected, hurricanes, pollution, drought and root disturbance had been allowed to do their worst. Tree surgery and replanting would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds which the landlord was loath to spend partly because the regular dumping of latrine waste, including sanitary napkins and disposable nappies, by the gypsies who camped by the roundabout had made the wood anything but an amenity. Some of us thought that by adroit negotiation and co-operation we could persuade the road- builders actually to restore the wood. A fast carriageway on both sides with no vehicular entrance from the roadway seems a very good way of protecting such a wood from further dumping of human waste. But lo, the Secretary of State for Transport had spoken. And lo upon lo, none of us knew what he had said or why he had said it.
A contraflow was arranged from Six Mile Bottom. Temporary traffic lights were erected at Four Went Ways. Every morning we expected to see the first bulldozers. Then the contraflow and the traffic lights both disappeared. Had the European Commission struck?