Labour's dirty love affair with the car

The scene is an anti-bypass camp near Newbury, Berkshire, summer 1995. Protesters cling to the tops of trees; rope walkways and webbed cargo nets festoon the branches beneath. Yellow-jacketed security guards march through the mud, heading for the camp. The head guard - the one with the white helmet - shouts upwards: "We're looking for a Brian." There is a pregnant silence. A hidden voice shouts back. "I'm Brian!" Someone from a neighbouring tree chimes in: "No, I'm Brian!" A cacophony erupts: "I'm Brian. No, I'm Brian, and so's my wife!" Even the white-helmeted security guard has to laugh. Everyone knows Monty Python. It's a moment of shared culture in a bitter and drawn-out campaign.

A few months later the protesters were gone, forcibly evicted by black-clad bailiffs, specialist rope climbers, and many more yellow-jacketed guards - orcs to the Department of Transport's unseen Saruman. At the height of the eviction, amid the yells of fear, anger and pain, the roar of chainsaws and the blue smoke from burning trees, a lone piper played "Amazing Grace".

It was one of many moments of high emotion in a campaign that changed the lives of everyone who participated in it (including me). Indeed, the campaign lacked only one thing: victory. The Newbury bypass was built, the protesters were dispersed or imprisoned, and Granny Ash, Reddings Copse and parts of Snelsmore Common were all buried for ever under tarmac. Where once there were badger woods and quiet brooks, today echoes the constant thunder of traffic.

We lost the battle, but won the war - or so we thought. In 1997 the incoming Labour government cancelled the Tories' road-building programme, and John Prescott made his now fam ous promise to cut traffic on Britain's roads. The optimism didn't last, however. Labour talked, but did nothing. Traffic levels continued to grow inexorably, and are now 10 per cent up on 1997. In autumn 2000, the government took fright as a handful of lorry drivers brought the country to a standstill, and decided that from then on the motorist would be king. Traffic reduction was off the agenda - and road-building schemes began to pop up around the country like poisonous toadstools. Ministers were soon back on the radio, justifying the return of chainsaws and bulldozers on the pretext of tackling congestion.

The renewed roads programme now costs the taxpayer £1bn a year. Compare that to the £2m the government just disbursed to help persuade people of the benefits of more climate-friendly lifestyles. Do the arithmetic. The government is, by this calculation, spending 500 times more on causing climate change than it is on preventing it. It is largely because of road traffic that British greenhouse-gas emissions are going through the roof. The government's own climate targets have been abandoned, and the only reason we are likely to make the weaker Kyoto targets is that international aviation is kept off the books.

Even judging the matter on its own terms, the Tories' new roads have failed. Peak-time traffic in Newbury is back up to pre-bypass levels, according to a study published on 3 July by the Campaign to Protect Rural England. The predictable phenomenon of "induced traffic" has made the number of car journeys soar throughout the whole area; these involve 13,800 additional vehicles in total per day. As a result, the noise impact is worse and more widespread than even anti-bypass campaigners feared. To compound it all, lorry traffic here has grown four times faster than the national average, and the Highways Agency's worst-case scenario for traffic growth by 2010 was exceeded six years early, in 2004. The M65 Blackburn southern bypass - another Tory road, supposedly intended to "regenerate" Blackburn and other former mill towns in the Calder Valley - has had an identical effect to the road at Newbury, and also exceeded 2010 projected traffic flows in 2004.

Among the anti-roads campaigners of old, there is a depressing sense of déjà vu. One of the most dedicated and inspiring personalities of the mid-1990s, Rebecca Lush, has emerged from "retirement" to set up Road Block, a coalition to tackle Labour's renewed love affair with the car. She must be asking, in tones just as des pairing as mine, why we must again fight battles that were won more than a decade ago.

How can any of our political leaders, Tony Blair not least, keep a straight face as they bang on about the terrible urgency of the climate problem even as they unleash the bulldozers? Will these people never learn?

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.