M11 Link Road Protest

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The M11 link road was a significant local road scheme, proposed in the 1960s as an important prospective link between Central London and the expanding Docklands. Decades passed with the link road failing to be built, a result of urban road building being unpopular in public opinion.

The plan to connect the A12 in Hackney Wick with the M11 via Leyton and Redbridge, in doing so avoiding urban areas, would gain traction in the 1990s. Need for a road has since been questioned; transport planners of the mid 20th century had conjured the London Ringways plan, which proposed the building of four concentric circular motorways built in the city. The construction of the Ringways was not fully realised, leaving a number of unfinished motorway developments. The Westway, an urban motorway elevated over the streets of Paddington and Notting Hill, opened in 1970 with fierce criticism placed upon it. The busy carriageway was positioned within metres of homes and deemed as ‘completely unacceptable environmentally’ by local MP John Wheeler. Four years later, the Greater London Council announced that Ringway 1, an extension of the Westway development, would not be completed.

By 1976, the building of the M11 link road was once again being explored, leading to the formation of the first Link Road Action Group in resistance. The group sought to cease building and propose alternative developments, one of which was to build underground, leaving the homes in the vicinity of Wanstead and Leyton untouched. Such plans were dispelled due to potential costs. Local people were subjected to soaring levels of pollution, as a growing number of drivers travelled into the city via the urban single-carriageway roads. Traffic congestion within the suburbs worsened, forcing the government to publish ‘Roads for Prosperity’. Published in 1989, the paper outlined major expansive works that needed to be undertaken to improve the state of the highways in East London. The proposals were a direct response to rising levels of car ownership in Britain; it was to be the largest road building programme since that of the Romans. It’s embrace of Thatcher’s ‘great car economy’ was controversial and its unpopularity led to widespread road protests.

The proposed road was contested by local people and the Link Road Action Group; a report conducted by Newham Council in 1995 estimated that the M11 Link would not sufficiently reduce traffic congestion. Instead, an additional 75,000 vehicles were encouraged into the city via an alternative route. The M11 Link destroyed the landscape, consuming over 350 homes, displacing over 1000 people and ridding the community of important green spaces. Compulsory purchase of homes was offered along the route, though several original residents refused to sell or vacate their properties. Those that opted to leave, as with other examples of displacement in London, accepted a nominal fee in compensation for the loss of their home. By 1993, with local people resigned to the impending destruction of their community, an increased number of outside protestors travelled to the area in solidarity. Though directly impacting their lives, residents of the East London suburbs failed to mobilise en masse. This changed towards the end of the year, when residents learnt of the proposed fate of a 250-year-old chestnut tree on George Green, Wanstead. Jean Gosling, the local lollipop lady, was one of the most vocal supporters of the action, having been inspired by the children she served on a daily basis.

The Eviction of Wanstonia (photograph by Edward Sykes)

The ‘Battle of George Green’, as it would be labelled by media outlets, encouraged wider public debate and ‘helped to unite local residents and direct activists’. A perimeter fence was erected around the base of the tree, creating an intrigue in the protestation that had not been seen at similar motorway protests around the country. The people of Wanstead expressed their fury at the proposed loss of their village green, having previously believed that the motorway would pass underneath them via tunnel system.

Local people and seasoned activists unified in their action; scenes of ‘spontaneous revolt’ saw children and adults tear down the perimeter fence, fashioning banners with the recycled material and building a treehouse in the branches of the important local landmark. In her fluorescent uniform, Jean was present as the barricades surrounding the chestnut tree were torn down. She was subsequently suspended from her role for 3 months. After an article in the Guardian newspaper, one reader felt compelled to vocalise their encouragement of the cause. This led to more support from further afield, with over 400 letters of encouragement being delivered to the tree at George Green. These letters were used in the high court, when protestors attempted to set a legal precedent by declaring the tree canopy as a lawful dwelling. A stalling tactic, this action set the Department for Transport back by a number of weeks as they sought the correct permission to evict the tenants of the treehouse. On December 7th 1993, swarms of police officers and bailiffs descended upon the treehouse and enforced both the removal of activists and the makeshift encampment. The violence of the enforcers was overshadowed by the destruction of the historic tree, as its branches were snapped and trunk cut. The tree was uprooted.

A further form of unification came from the declaration of an autonomous republic, known as ‘Wanstonia’. Homes stretching along Cambridge Park, a set of Edwardian terraces due to be demolished, were declared independent from the British state. Passports were gifted to those friendly to the cause, and residents approached the foreign office and UN to recognise the patch of land as its own nation, all in a bid to halt the destruction of homes. The few terraced houses became fortifications against the ensuing police. Doors and windows were barricaded; an old car was filled with rubble and positioned in such a way that its removal could only be achieved at great cost; the declaration of Independence came after a referendum that saw participation from protestors and long-time homeowners. Trenches were dug outside the homes where there were once gardens and atop the roofs, chimney stacks were repurposed to fit human arms. Activists would push their arms through the brickwork, or into metal drums set with concrete, attaching their wrists with mountaineering callipers, thus trapping themselves and preventing their release. The campaign was never sufficiently funded and these callipers were often traded for bent nails, a cheaper but less reliable alternative.

With the tip-off from sympathetic police and security officers, the protestors were able to prepare for the day of eviction from Wanstonia. As the cherry picker moved in, rising level with the roof of the terrace block, protestors readied themselves in position. The bailiffs smashed each door and window, removing protestors individually and placing them into numerous riot vans outside. Some police and bailiffs revelled in their power, tearing protestors from their arm locks and wielding sledgehammers with mal-intent. The bent nails failed to provide the same resistance and allowed the enforcers to work swiftly. Operation Barnard involved 600 police officers and over 250 security guards, at a cost of over £250,000. Though eventually successful, the Department of Transport had achieved their goal of destroying the homes at significant cost. Additionally, their planned destruction of East London afforded protestors with time to access new locations along the proposed route for the link road.

A protestor sits on the roof of a home on Claremont Road, on the final eve of action (photography by Gideon Mendel)

Many of those who had been removed from Wanstonia moved to a new site on Claremont Road. The homes of the road became an art installation, with colourful paintings, messaging and flags adorning the facades of the condemned buildings. For a period of seven months in 1994, Claremont Road was occupied by many hundreds of protestors. A community was formed around the houses, with art and music a fundamental aspect of the protestation. The beauty of the painted homes and idealism of anti-capitalist thought exudes from the archival footage of the time. The roofs of the homes were connected with a spider's web of nets, which attached to a scaffolding tower that protruded over 30 metres into the air from ground level. The community that formed was ‘vibrant and harmonious’ and ‘begrudgingly won the respect of authorities at the time’.

Activists had created a tunnel that linked each of the 30 homes on Claremont Road by dismantling the inner walls of the houses. This strategy created a warren with which bailiffs could be evaded, with temporary barricades and walls within the properties to be used as a final defence once the exterior walls had been breached. The scaffolding tower was deemed a ‘crowning glory’ and could be seen across the borough’. Its dramatic presence on the skyline a testament to the dogged perseverance of the M11 Link Road protestors. As with the eviction of Wanstonia, word had been leaked to the community that the police and security enforcement were to embark on Claremont Road. People descended upon the street on the evening of November 27th 1995, in what was to become the longest eviction in post-war history, as 500 protestors were faced with over 1,000 enforcement officers. Every tree was occupied, the rooms of each property were packed full and the roofs were crammed. The removal of legal observers and members of the press served as a warning for how the police had approached the eviction, nullifying the ability for protestors to complain about violence.

The photographs of Gideon Mendel and documentary footage of Neil Goodwin capture the final days at Claremont Road. As demolition crews tore down the homes, protestors were removed via the same cherry pickers that had been used at Wanstonia. Chained to the towers, police utilised industrial bolt cutters to pull people from their position. Many bailiffs gained respect for the peaceful protestation of the action group, having expected to be met with flailing arms and flying bricks. After a four day siege, the final protestors were removed from atop the scaffolding tower.

The direct action utilised by the M11 Link Road protestors was successful in stalling the progression of the Department for Transport for a number of years. Fundamentally, the protestors understood that the M11 Link Road was a dated plan that could no longer fix the issue of traffic congestion. The urban free-way destroyed a proportion of Leytonstone and failed to alleviate the issue of traffic congestion in East London. In 1994, the Guardian voted the action of the M11 Link Road protestors as the ‘Campaign of the Year’.

The images featured within this article were captured by Gideon Mendel, Tim Brown and Edward Sykes. Neil Goodwin's archive is an exceptional record of the protests; his film 'The Lock 'n' Rollie Years' can be viewed here.