Everything in Motion – of Swallows and resistance to the Lower Thames Crossing

6 Sep 2016 james
A Hobby hunting
A Hobby hunting

Looking up through the skylight I catch only a glimpse of it soon after dawn. Less than a second. The effortless power of a confident killer. The shape of the dark sickle wings against the depth of the blue. A Hobby passing over the house, flying south down the Hoo Peninsula.

It is only at this time of year that I have seen this rare raptor over the marshes and fields of the Thames Estuary. They pass this way following the migrating flocks of Swallows, feeding on the weakest, like Lions seizing the straggling calves of Wildebeest from herds undertaking their annual passage across the Serengeti.

A Swallow in flight
A Swallow in flight

Later in the day I sit sweating in the August heat, skin tacky, squinting up into the bright sky. Between me and the cumulus clouds everything is in motion. Up there is the excited chatter of Swallows chasing the flies that fill the air above ditches of the marshes. They have come from nests far to the north, from Durham or Dundee, from Louth or Leith, and they are heading south to spend our winter in Durban or De Aar, Cape Town or Greytown. As the year turns, as the summer closes, they begin their southerly migration. A rhythm they have maintained throughout the Holocene, since the ice sheets retreated. There is no reason to suppose that the passage of birds over the Hoo Peninsula hasn’t happened every year for ten millennia. I imagine the Swallows over Anglo-Saxon farmsteads and Roman pottery works.

Annually the Swallows migrate back and forth using exactly the same routes, along the western North Sea and the Bay of Biscay, across the Sahara and Gulf of Guinea and on. The entirety of the space between the British Isles and South Africa is their territory, is their home. Generation after generation are utterly committed to this ‘place’, a place which encompasses the mouth of the Chatty River in South Africa and the mouth of the Thames in England. They pay no heed to national borders, they are no more or less South African than they are English.

Yet we are altering their ‘place’. The fate of yet another section of the Thames marshes hangs in the balance.

Faced with the threatened Post-Brexit depression this autumn, will the Chancellor Phillip Hammond pronounce that spending on infrastructure needs to be cut back or that the ‘economy’ needs to be stimulated though public works? Will Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport, pronounce that the Lower Thames Crossing should go ahead, blowing the starting whistle for a long battle to protect another section of the marshes from bulldozers and pile-drivers, from concrete and tarmac? A ‘public consultation’ closed on 26th March after 47,000 people had taken part, and a ‘final decision’ is due to take place before the end of 2016.

The Highway Agency's image of the proposed Lower Thames Crossing passing under Shorne Marshes
The Highway Agency’s image of the proposed Lower Thames Crossing passing under Shorne Marshes

The plan is to construct a dual carriageway that will pass under the Thames in order to link the A2/M2 in North Kent with the A13 and M25 in Southern Essex, to alleviate the congestion over the Dartford Bridge and help trucks to thunder from the Chunnel at Folkestone to the East Coast container ports and the squalid, sprawling grey hangers of the Midlands’ distribution mega-hubs such as Magna Park. The utopian desire of the transport planners is to create a frictionless system with the minimum of delays in the passage of goods from farm and factory to hub and home. An estimated £6 billion will be spent in an attempt to ensure that everything is kept in motion.

The proposed Lower Thames Crossing running between Kent and Essex
The proposed Lower Thames Crossing running between Kent and Essex

The Lower Thames Crossing is being driven in part by the desires of the Dubai government who own ‘DP World’. The latter constructed the London Gateway container port on the south Essex shore of the Thames. The profit that Dubai aims to generate off this investment depends upon truck movements too and from the terminal, which in turn depend upon the proposed Lower Thames Crossing.

But the pursuit of a ‘frictionless system’ in itself creates friction and there is already strong opposition to the Lower Thames Crossing and the threat that it poses to the habitat of the marshes and the homes of those of us in Kent and Essex who live close to the scheme. The fields and ditches that the tunnel would destroy on the Kent side have SSSI status* and are in part owned by the RSPB. The Gravesend neighbourhood that the planned entrance motorway would thunder past is Denton. Already one of the poorest communities in the region, it would be hit by a new wave of air pollution.

If it did go ahead, the day and the night would be split by the constant roar of combustion engines as the traffic hurtles under the river heading north and south. The feeding grounds of the Swallows would be treated as a tabula rasa, the land and animals rendered into non-beings by the drive for capital reproduction. We live now in the hiatus waiting for the government’s decision, but if it does decide drive it through, determined friction, relentless resistance, will be unleashed.

Opposition to the Lower Thames Crossing in North Kent is linked to the fight against the Silvertown Tunnel that is planned to pass under the Thames near Woolwich, and the opposition to the proposed expansion of Heathrow. All of these massive concrete constructions aim to further facilitate, and entrench, a distinct image of London, as a site of international finance capital.

Why should the beloved space of the marshes of the Lower Thames and the lungs and sleep of the people of Denton and elsewhere be destroyed for the benefit of international finance? Why should this place be turned into a non-space, a space of capital reproduction? Why should the government and Treasury of the UK assist in this process rather than care for the citizens of this country, both human and other species?

Protestors in the village of Higham, North Kent - Spring 2016
Protestors in the village of Higham, North Kent – Spring 2016

But when I think of the resistance to the Lower Thames Crossing I’m put in mind of the long struggle against the M11 link road in the 1990s, and the successful battle to prevent a road scheme being built through Oxleas Wood in Greenwich. The residents of the Hoo Peninsula have successfully fought off two international airports and a refinery, so there is little reason to suppose they cannot successfully defeat the proposed Crossing.

All the more so because this, like Heathrow expansion and La Zad in France, is a ‘Red Line’ in the struggle to prevent Climate Change. The proponents of the scheme say that we need to have ‘boldness of vision’ to deal with ‘the traffic problem of Dartford Bridge’. But what the climate justice movement propose is the boldness of vision to say that traffic needs to be radically constrained and the passage out of fossil fuels speeded up.

The planners want to spend £6 billion trying to keep the trucks in motion. We say, we want to expend every effort we can to keep the transition to the post-Carbon world in motion. And inspiration comes from the unfailing migration of the Swallows overhead.

*Site of Special Scientific Interest

Thanks to Jane Trowell & Anne Robbins

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