COMMENT: Transparency? Accountability? It seems not...
At Highways England’s public information events held in October last year, there was very little in the way of information, but they did provide an opportunity for members of the public to submit feedback on the scheme via paper forms and a box to put them in.
We saw children, mums, dads, grandparents and countless individuals sitting down with pen and paper and spending a significant amount of time and effort completing these.
These will clearly have been a cross-section of differing views on Highways England’s proposals to bulldoze Rimrose Valley Country Park – both for and against – although given the turnout and statements made by of a lot of those we spoke with, we were confident that most people were against the scheme.
Many came up to us asking what would be done with the hand-written feedback forms they had completed at these hastily arranged sessions? At the SING Centre session, Highways England’s staff had to print more copies.
The box, when we left, was overflowing. It was extremely important to people that their views were recorded.
In fact, this had proven to be the one useful part of the event.
On the back of these sessions, we emailed Highways England requesting that all feedback forms be scanned and made available to the public via its ‘citizen space’ website for this project.
This is the response we received from Assistant Project Manager, Paul Burroughs:
“Regarding the comments made at the public information events in October, we have read, scanned and saved the feedback sheets. We do not believe, however, that putting those comments in a public place for all to view would be the right thing to do. The feedback forms were available on request at the events, but they were not the focus of the events. The events were advertised as information events, not consultation events; and we did not systematically set out to ask visitors’ views nor advise them that the forms would be published.”
Which begs the question; what was the point?
In any case, we disagreed and subsequently submitted a Freedom of Information request to have sight of these forms. We were aware that some of these would have contained names, so we asked that all personal information be removed.
A simple enough request, we thought.
This was refused on what we believe were tenuous grounds, but primarily data protection, even going to so far as to suggest that people’s handwriting could be identified.
Really? Even so, would anyone care?
We responded by requesting an internal review, detailing some simple steps Highways England could take to protect people’s identity in order to make this information available to the public, as below.
1. The redaction of "personal details" from the requests is a straightforward process. How, exactly, is this "much harder" than removing a name or an address?
2. We believe that the argument that handwriting may lead to a person's identification is tenuous and deliberately obstructive: other than family members, who would be able to identify another's handwriting?
3. If, however, #2 above is upheld, the forms should be typed up
4. If it is held that typing up these documents is too time-consuming, scanning software automates this process – Google has lots of different options available, depending on the system being used
5. Regarding no contact details having been provided: If steps 1-4 above are followed, there would be no breach of data protection – the person could not be identified
6. We contend that the public interest in sharing this information far outweighs the data protection elements raised, once each of the measures above has been taken
7. Citing the use of Commonplace as the equivalent to the completion of paper forms is incorrect and deliberately obstructive. Many of the people who attended these sessions are not online and this was their first opportunity to have made their views known on paper since 2017's public consultation. Many asked us to ensure that these would be shared
8. If it is still maintained that this information cannot be shared, what was the purpose of this exercise?
Again, this was refused, meaning that we are now in a position whereby Highways England gave the public an opportunity to submit feedback, but it is unwilling to share this information.
Worse still, we requested a summary of the findings, with no personal information at all, but this has also been refused on the grounds that it would be too time consuming.
So, to repeat what many people have already posted on social media, what exactly was the point of this exercise?
Was it simply to make us feel like we were being listened to?
We can only come to the conclusion that this was yet another box ticking exercise – literally – which Highways England will use to demonstrate how it engaged with the public and sought its views on this scheme.
This would be a joke, if it weren’t so serious.
Time and time again, we are left questioning Highways England’s conduct. Are they really so inept, or do they simply not care?
This is a publicly owned company with one job (building/maintaining roads) and one client, the UK government. Unless you count Peel Ports as another client, given the tone and content of many of the communications we’ve seen between the two parties.
On that point, don’t forget that we weren’t given all of the documentation we requested then, either. Highways England has withheld emails and other documentation between themselves and Peel Ports on the grounds of it not being in the public interest to share them.
Don’t we get to decide whether or not that’s the case?
We’re still waiting on the outcome of our report to the Information Commissioner on that particular case.
Either way, ask yourselves: how can a company that is paid for by us, with a client that is made up of MPs and civil servants, be so completely and utterly unaccountable to the public?
The longer this scheme goes on, the more it begins to feel like a stitch up, and the stronger our resolve to expose this and to stop this road.
Please continue to support us. Public and political opposition is vital in our fight.