William Walton’s attempts to block a 28-mile bypass saw him described by the First Minister as one of the "most disliked" people in Scotland - but he says he would do it all again
Nearly seven years ago a university lecturer and former town planner took on the role of chairman of a group of protesters angry at the way plans for a multi-million bypass in Scotland’s North East had been handled.
Not long after, as a qualified town planner and having a diploma in environmental law, he advised a local community group opposed to a housing development.This, he says, “set the ball rolling” for 15 years of assisting community objections to developments, giving evidence as an expert witness at public inquiries.”I saw my role as helping to redress the imbalance between a developer and local people who didn’t really have great knowledge of how the system worked,” he said.
But he was about to take a more central role.In December 2005, following a public consultation, Tavish Scott – thenScotland’s Transport Minister – announced the route for the long-awaitedAberdeenbypass. As with many major road or construction projects, some people had been concerned about the impact of the new roadThe minister included an extra eight-mile spur road linking the main A90 with Stonehaven – which had not been part of the original consultation. RoadSense was formed as a result and Walton became chairman.
Although his home in Westhill could have been affected by one of the rejected routes in the consultation, it was not impacted by the selected ‘Murtle Route’ – a fact that brought criticism later in the campaign. Instead, he said his objections were based on the way the matter had been handled by TransportScotlandand the Scottish Government.
In February 2006 about 1,500 people turned up to RoadSense’s first meeting. Walton said the mood at the meeting, featuring invited MSPs and civil servants, was “febrile”.
A four-month public inquiry was held, with the group drumming up about 10,000 objections, but the inquiry’s reporters believed the road should go ahead, with Cabinet Secretary John Swinney confirming in December 2009 that he was minded to accept their decision.”That meeting was a turning point,” he said. “We realised how much resistance there was potentially for the road and we could fight it.”
The group still felt that its central argument, that the exact bypass route had not been sufficiently open to scrutiny in the initial consultation and therefore, the Government’s decision was challenged, taken to both Outer and Inner Houses of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, then the Supreme Court in London. In addition, they went to Geneva to make a complaint under the Aarhus Treaty on environmental justice – where Walton says they were opposed by the UK Government and “a posse of civil servants”. The delays, the
Scottish Government has claimed, have seen the price of the road rise £230m in increased construction costs.
The legal challenges were in Walton’s name rather than that of RoadSense – partly because of the position taken in Scots Law on the rights of unincorporated groups to challenge in the courts, but also because minutes of the meeting when the group had decided to take legal action had been lost.
Walton was criticised during the legal process on the basis that he was not directly affected by the route – and in fact by the time of the Supreme Court hearing, he had taken voluntary redundancy from the University of Aberdeen and had moved to Newcastle- although this court acknowledged he still had a right to challenge the rulings.
He said: “The impression, not so much in the press, but in the blogosphere was that I was on some ego trip and that I was essentially going to court without an argument or basis for doing so. But we had legal advice al
After the Court of Session hearings – and before the final appeal to theUK’s highest court, Alex Salmond, whose Aberdeenshire East constituency includes part of the bypass, said Walton was “flying against public opinion and making himself one of the most disliked people in this country.”l the way through, at every stage we have taken advice from senior counsel.”
Walton said the comments were “highly inappropriate” for a First Minister.
“It demeaned his position in office to attack a private citizen in that way. I thought it was, frankly, outrageous.”
He added: “What many people didn’t focus sufficiently on is that further down his statement, he asked that I listen to the people and withdraw my appeal. That’s very close to contempt of court. Essentially, he was using a hectoring and bullying approach to ask me to withdraw my appeal and he has no right to do that.”
RoadSense’s campaign has been waged in the knowledge that despite support from groups including WWF and Friends of the Earth, many people, particularly businesses, politicians and commuters in the Aberdeen area, support the road, but Walton says: “If the procedure had been followed correctly in the first place by Tavish Scott, I think they would probably have had their road now.
“I would ask angry drivers to have regard to that simple fact.
“But the business community talk about the road as if it is the panacea for all ofAberdeen’s ills.
“That’s also something very much at the back of the mind of many of the objectors – that the perceived advantages and benefits of the bypass appear to be vastly overstated.
“I would say to drivers and the business community, if they believe that the bypass is going to mean the end of congestion and traffic problems – such as they are – then they are living in cloud cuckoo land. They simply haven’t looked in the way we have, but the figures presented by TransportScotlandin terms of traffic reduction and rerouting, they’re really not that spectacular.”
But does there come a point when, as critics of RoadSense have already said publically, the group has to admit defeat?
“That point might have come,” Walton concedes, “but I will say this, I know that we have members and supporters who would say ‘challenge this further’.”
Although TransportScotlanddid not begin work on the road until legal hurdles had been passed, this has now begun in earnest. But there is still the possibility of a challenge through the European Court of Human Rights and Walton says RoadSense is “considering every option”.
He said: “At this stage all I can say is we’re taking advice on that. We haven’t ruled it out. Unlike appeals to the lower courts, instead of having six weeks, you have six months.
“All the European Court of Human Rights can award you is damages – they can’t annul decisions or change the law. But having said that, when they award prisoners damages, for example, for slopping out, or not having the vote, the impact of that is that the law does really have to be revisited.”
When the group first discussed its opposition to the road, a QC advised the members that the costs involved could be about £300,000 – which has proved to be a fairly accurate description, even considering some of the legal work has been pro bono. So does the group, which has a committee of about 20 members and an email list running to about 500, still have the support?
“To a certain extent, inevitably with groups like ourselves, you get donation fatigue. There is an element of ‘Look, I’ve put in so much money and we keep on losing – and now you’re asking for more.’
“I think we still represent about 500 to 600 people along the route, I don’t think the figures have changed over the last four or five years.”
The issue of money has also brought criticism. Walton was granted a protected expenses order in court, limiting costs if he lost the case. At the same time, the revised costs, according to TransportScotland, have risen from £400m to more than £630m – but he insists the costs were understated in the first place.
Walton said he understood the perception that the group was backed by rich, country gentlemen, but insists this was not the case.
“I can see people’s perception of that, because many of our members live in rural Aberdeenshire in what are seen as nice privileged areas.
“We don’t have anybody bankrolling us; we don’t have any rich sugar daddies or wealthy benefactors. Our donations are put in by members and they tend to be in the region of £500 to £1,000.”
Being such a figurehead for the campaign, he insists the spotlight has not taken a toll on him personally – although he has now taken voluntary redundancy from the university and is working atNorthumbriaLawSchool after a restructure at the university, following a decline of student numbers in his department.
When asked if there was any element of being forced to resign because of his involvement with the bypass campaign – he said due to a compromise agreement signed as part of his redundancy package, he was not able to confirm or deny this.
He adds: “If you put yourself in the public eye, like I have, whether by my own volition or implicitly or explicitly in the sense that if you put yourself up then you will be reported, I think you have to accept that there’s going to be some things said about you that you may not like – that’s a free press.
“It hasn’t done me any harm. I remember speaking to Martin Ford, who opposed Donald Trump’s golf course, he said he had been vilified by some of the press but in a way, came out stronger.
“I wouldn’t want that to be misconstrued that I’ve gone into this for the wrong reasons, but people do know me now and have a respect for me.
“Perhaps if this hadn’t happened they wouldn’t have known me, the person I am and the values and the kind of fight I have within me.”