Ed Swan looks back at a development that quite literally divided the community
The M11 link road is the four-mile dual carriageway running roughly parallel to the Central Line through Leyton, Leytonstone and Wanstead. To younger residents or those recently arrived in the area, it may appear unremarkable – just a somewhat ugly and noisy highway, but for those who remember the 1990s in Waltham Forest and Redbridge, the road is something else entirely – it is a symbol of popular resistance, government indifference, brutal dispossession and community spirit.
The construction of the road, which began in 1993 and was completed in 1998, was intended to provide a more direct route for traffic to central London, avoiding the high streets of the area. To make way, 350 local homes were acquired by compulsory purchase and demolished, along with several acres of green space.
The first site of protest was George Green in Wanstead, where campaigners initially occupied a 250-year-old sweet chestnut tree that was to be destroyed by construction work. Kate Hayes has lived in the area since 1956 and was an activist in the protests. She remembers how the arrival of the ‘dongas’ – a diverse group of environmental campaigners from the emerging direct action movement – signaled the beginning of 15 months of continuous protest in the area.
“The dongas were laid-back, they dressed up a bit, but they weren’t layabouts. Some of them were young doctors, lawyers and journalists who gave up their jobs. I was a respectable middle-aged lady, but I went in to take them food,” she said.
After the destruction of the chestnut tree in December 1993, the focus of the protests moved to squatted houses in the streets slated for demolition – most notably Claremont Road in Leyton, and Fillebrook Road in Leytonstone. Local residents joined forces with the dongas to resist eviction by whatever peaceful means they could.
Ann Williams, a former protester who moved to Wanstead in 1987, remembers the interaction between the dongas and the local people: “There was an extraordinary alliance of young hippies – some of them were covered in tattoos – and these respectable middle-class ladies… The security and the police were much less likely to manhandle the dongas if they were surrounded by residents.”
One fond friend of the dongas was Dolly Watson, who was 92 years old when she was evicted from the house where she was born in Claremont Road, and gained almost legendary status for her refusal to leave her home, famously declaring of the protestors: ‘they’re not dirty hippy squatters, they’re the grandchildren I never had’.
The protesters drew attention, partly for the unprecedented length of the campaign and their sheer numbers, but also for their quirky creativity, squatted houses were turned into living works of art, and their quick-wittedness in the face of the security crews and police sent to evict them.
Kate recalls: “There was a committee, a really bright bunch, they were the first to use mobile phones, and they were always ahead of the police. Our boys could move very quickly, they didn’t destroy anything; they used to just be there, and weld themselves to the wall of houses the road builders wanted to destroy. Then there were those who burrowed and dug down underground. The dongas could have run an army; they were always one step ahead.”
Locals and dongas set up a ‘telephone tree’ to alert each other on developments, which Ann took part in: “Everyone was afraid that they would come to George Green in the middle of the night, which they eventually did, so we all had five people that we would phone in order to spread the word to get down there as quickly as possible if anything happened.”
While the dongas may have had previous experience of protests, for many local people, it was the first time they found themselves in organised civil disobedience: “It was a strange time,” remembers Kate, “All of a sudden we were getting up at dawn, writing letters and protesting. I used to fit in early morning protest before I went to work. But I was a teacher then and we were expected to behave, I just had to make sure that I never had my photo taken.”
Twenty years on, and much has changed. There is greater acknowledgement at government level that increased road construction rarely solves traffic problems, and less appetite for public works projects which entail forced evictions, partly as a result of the public outcry and enormous expense caused by the M11 link road protests.
Although some locals initially supported the construction of the road, the promised benefits of reduced traffic on high streets never materialised, and the M11 link road quickly became one of the most congested roads in the country.
Most residents now agree that the effect of the road on the local area has been severe. As Ann says, “The long-term impact has been a huge increase in air pollution, and it’s directly due to the volume of traffic on the link road. That’s the most serious aspect of it, apart from the loss of the houses, the trees and a large amount of green space.”
Kate agrees: “When I was a teacher we never heard the word asthma, now we hear it all the time. What they did was wrong, people didn’t want the road, they rode roughshod over people’s views. The government was going to have this place, and they didn’t bother about what mayhem they caused here. I knew several people who packed it in and left, but where do you go if you’ve lived here all your life?”