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True Spies Wednesday, 6 November, 2002, 12:07 GMT
Hired spy stopped Newbury protest
Newbury demo
Newbury protesters were removed from the trees

In the mid-90s environmental activists took to treetops and hid in tunnels to stop the Newbury bypass being built. The protesters looked like they were winning, until Special Branch hired a freelance spy.
Today motorists zooming along the A34 dual-carriageway from Oxford to the south barely see the once grid-locked Newbury as they swing around the Berkshire market town via its nine-mile bypass.

Newbury bypass opens
The bypass eventually opened in 1998
As the countryside flashes by, perhaps few remember the fierce battles fought by environmental protestors as they desperately tried to preserve this stretch of wooded landscape.

"To see an area of such beauty ripped apart by machines and tarmaced over so that people can take a few minutes off a journey time is devastating," says one of the Newbury protestors, Paul Gill.

Specialist army

In 1996, hundreds of protestors flocked to Newbury. They camped in the woods and took to the trees believing the authorities would not cut them down with people in their branches.


It was a big blow and demoralising, a lot of hope had gone into it

Protester Paul Gill
But they were wrong. The protesters were brought down by a specialist army with chainsaws and tree-climbing skills.

To Sir Charles Pollard, then Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, the protesters could not be allowed to win once the government had approved the building of the bypass the previous year. Newbury was a line in the sand.

Protesters in trees
Some took to the trees to halt work
"The ones who were planning and tried to carry out seriously illegal acts are very subversive in a sense of subversive to democracy," he says.

But the protesters devised another way to thwart the contractors. They dug underground tunnels and lived in them in the belief that lorries and heavy machinery would not drive over them in case the tunnels collapsed and lives were lost.

Informers used

Special Branch resorted to their usual methods of gaining information on the opposition's plans.

Trees being cut down
Protesters had not reckoned on chainsaws
They recruited informers and paid them anything from 25 to larger sums of money - even up to 1,000 a week.

Such sums may seem breathtaking but they're a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of policing such a protest. A piece of vital intelligence might, for example, save tens of thousands of pounds.

Despite this, stalemate still loomed and costs were rising, Thames Valley took the unprecedented step of recruiting an agent outside normal procedures.

Sir Charles Pollard authorised use of the spy
Sir Charles Pollard authorised use of the spy
They'd heard of a particular individual who worked for a private security company with unique skills and a perfect pedigree to infiltrate the protesters.

The police normally keep such private security companies at arm's length as they're in the business of making money from intelligence they gain.

Despite these reservations, Thames Valley decided to bite the bullet and hire the agent.

The Chief Constable gave the go-ahead for a contract to be drawn up with the individual and the security company for which he worked, calculating that the value of his intelligence would far outweigh the cost of hiring him.

Tunnel fears

With the contract agreed, the agent's main task was to get as close as possible to the leaders and in particular to let his handlers know of the best time to take the main tunnel that was holding up the contractors' operations.

Construction work on bypass
The bypass cut through woodland
It was 10 feet deep, 90 feet long and becoming increasingly unstable because of the heavy winter rains. The tunnel had to be taken before it collapsed and young lives were lost.

In the dead of night, the agent phoned his handlers, saying that the entrance to the main tunnel was only guarded by two protestors - a man and a woman - in a shelter covering the entrance and a third protestor asleep in the main shaft.

"It was obvious there'd been a good deal of drinking and discarded cans of Tenants Super were all around the camp," says Mervyn Edwards, one of the police officers involved in the intelligence gathering operation.

Protester being removed
Many police and security staff were drafted in
In the early hours of the morning, the man guarding the entrance went off to relieve himself, whereupon he was promptly detained by officers hiding in the bushes.

When her companion did not return, the woman went off in search of him. She too was then detained.

The police then approached the entrance to the tunnel and made noises. The person in the entrance shaft woke up and emerged to see what was happening. He too was detained and the tunnel was taken.

Hopes dashed

"It was a big blow and demoralising," says Paul Gill. "A lot of hopes and a lot of effort had gone into it."

He had no idea how the tunnel was finally taken and that it was entirely due to the agent.

Paul Gill
Paul Gill: No idea a spy had infiltrated the protest
"He'd have to be paid a lot of money, because if anybody had found out, I should imagine it would have been quite dangerous for him."

Mervyn Edwards was delighted. The gamble over hiring the agent had paid off: "We couldn't have done it so successfully, so quickly and so safely without him."

The bypass was finally completed and Sir Charles Pollard felt vindicated: "If the protestors had succeeded, it would have been a serious precedent not just for road building but for democracy."

And what of the Newbury agent? His cover was so good and his information so accurate, that Special Branch then directed him to infiltrate the animal rights movement.

He might still be there today, or inside some other protest movement. Perhaps he has retired. We simply don't know. Nor do the protestors.


True Spies: It Could Happen To You was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Sunday 10 November.
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