Full Report: Our meeting with Sefton Council
Last month, we met with leaders from Sefton Council to discuss its latest stance on Highways England’s plans.
We did this because we believed the statutory consultation was imminent and because the Council has an important role to play in ensuring that the consultation is organised and conducted properly; not like the hastily arranged, ill-timed information events we saw a few weeks ago.
We have since learned from these information events that the statutory consultation will now take place in ‘the first half of 2020’.
Whilst this offers us some more time, it’s vital that not only the campaign, but also Sefton Council is ready for it.
In addition to members of our campaign team, the meeting was attended by Deputy Leader Cllr John Fairclough; Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care, Cllr Paul Cummins as well as Council Officers Peter Moore (Head of Highways and Public Protection) and Stephen Birch (Transport Planning & Highway Development Manager).
We first requested this meeting back in June and it therefore took quite some time to arrange, so we used the opportunity to ask some other questions we thought were relevant and have summarised the main topics meeting here.
Copies of the meeting minutes are available on request.
Dealings with Highways England
As reported in the press, via statements issued to the media, the Council reconfirmed that there remains a policy of non-cooperation with Highways England in relation to the matter of its preferred route “Option B” – a road through Rimrose Valley. Obviously, they deal with Highways England regularly on other matters, but we were told that this topic is off limits.
We were also told that – in attempts to delay and frustrate progress – the Council have not replied to any requests or communications coming from Highways England in relation to the scheme. Specifically, HE’s requests for permission to go on the valley to carry out exploratory groundwork had not been responded to at the time of our meeting. However, they confirmed that HE has statutory powers which mean it will eventually secure access to the land with or without the Council’s permission.
Shortly after this meeting, HE announced its public information events, so we now know a little more about this, but not when this work will be happening.
We have therefore asked Sefton Council whether any further requests have been made and whether there is any indication as to when this work might commence. We have also asked whether they have been engaged in discussions about what the process will be, whether it will be safe, and what risks of air and land contamination exist which may threaten public health and the environment.
This work will be carried out on Sefton’s land, in a public place. Surely, they must be involved in the process, ‘sign it off’ and ensure that they are happy that all steps have been taken to protect the public both during and after the work is completed?
We will update you as soon as we receive a response.
The Statutory Consultation
At the time of our meeting, HE’s proposed date for the statutory consultation of ‘spring/summer 2019’ had come and gone. We therefore wanted to understand how ready the Council was to respond to any announcement if and when it came.
We knew that HE was planning public information events and suggested to the Council that it would be a good idea to hold similar events themselves, where the public could attend, understand their stance and ask questions about it. However, in response, it was felt that these sessions could be counter-productive and that continuing the approach of issuing statements via the media was the best way to proceed.
Regarding the ‘real’ consultation itself (not these information events), we explained that the advice we have been given is that it will be vital for Sefton Council as the impacted host authority to engage with HE in what is known as the ‘Statement of Community Consultation’ (SOCC). This is because this is the point at which it is possible to influence the format of the consultation and make it as simple and easy as possible for Sefton residents to attend and to contribute. Furthermore, if there are any subsequent concerns about the format of the consultation which might form the basis of future legal proceedings against the scheme (see below), it would make it very difficult for Sefton Council to take issue with this, if it had turned down the opportunity to shape it.
Our fear at that time was that HE would give the minimum amount of notice required (4 weeks) and target a winter date; clashing with Christmas, New Year and important family time, resulting in a low turnout.
Thankfully, it seems that risk has gone away, for the time being at least.
The initial response from the Councillors was that they did not intend to engage with HE at all. However, both Council Officers in attendance made it clear that this was a different scenario and that, as a responsible authority, they would indeed engage in this process and fulfil their statutory responsibility to secure the best consultation for local people. This was very reassuring to hear.
They confirmed that a draft SOCC had been prepared around 18 months ago, prior to the judicial review and that they were awaiting a revised version. We asked for sight of this previous draft, so we can anticipate what HE might be planning for next year. Again, we will share this information if it is received.
We then asked what the Council’s approach would be to reviewing and potentially challenging the various pieces of documentation that will be produced during the subsequent phases of the planning process. This is because, to be blunt, our campaign simply does not have the time, expertise, nor the resource to become environmental experts, air quality experts, public health experts, transport & infrastructure experts. We referenced a previous commitment made by the Council in which it said that resource would be made available for this work, so we wanted to know if that was still the case.
Again, it was the Council Officers who confirmed that this would happen, referencing their analysis and response to HE’s first, public consultation and the previous documents they have produced. However, a concern that both the Officers and Councillors flagged is that the resource challenges and a reduction in staff numbers mean that decisions will need to be made on a case-by-case basis in the future. For our part, we offered to explore making connections with the universities to see if they would be interested in taking part in this process and this is something we are following up.
Ensuring that there is some kind of independent analysis of these reports and not simply accepting HE’s own version of events as gospel is a concern that many of our supporters have flagged.
A multi-modal, non-road approach?
As a campaign, we neither accept that the road ‘is a done deal’ nor that a road is the only solution to the congestion issues being experienced in the borough, much of which can be traced to the Port of Liverpool’s activities and plans for even greater growth. We therefore wanted to explore the Council’s appetite for joining our calls for the Government to go back to the drawing board, to scrap this road scheme completely and to revisit the whole issue again, from a holistic perspective, with an emphasis on public health, the environment and sustainability. In short, we asked whether the Council would support our calls for a non-road solution.
The Council repeated that their stance is for HE to properly explore and offer a tunnel in order to protect Rimrose Valley and address the congestion issues. We explained that, as a campaign, we have moved on from this on the grounds that a tunnel creates the same problems as a surface road and potentially more with the creation of pollution black spots at the tunnel entrances. There is also the issue of a potentially greater number of CPOs being required for any tunnel entrance/exit in Seaforth. However, the Council’s position is very much that, as Highways England have been given the job, their options are limited and will always be road-based. This is something we already know.
In demanding a tunnel, they believe that they are making the best of a bad situation and getting a better deal for Sefton residents. They did reference that a rail solution would be preferable, but again, pointed to the fact that Network Rail had not been instructed by the Government to solve this problem. In response, we acknowledged that in layman’s terms a tunnel would be a better outcome, but flagged that we have serious concerns about the long-term sustainability of ANY roads filled with HGVs, whether they be over or under ground.
We went on to explain our stance on the wider transport initiatives which we believe need to be introduced as part of ANY solution. This is because, whilst addressing the movement of more and more freight is a priority, we must also recognise that measures need to be introduced to encourage a change in all our behaviour. Reducing our reliance on cars for short trips and journeys which can be made by an improved public transport service, or by walking, cycling, or running is vital if we’re to live in a cleaner, greener and healthier borough.
Cllr Cummins advised that the Council’s upcoming action plan on the back of the climate emergency declaration made earlier this year will include new transport policies, so it will be interesting to see what comes of this. It was also encouraging to learn from the Council Officers that this type of thinking forms part of the wider Sefton transport plan, which feeds into LCR’s objectives and initiatives. Initiatives are already being considered and progressed with a focus on sustainability and improving public health, with examples including new cycle and walking routes. Generally, it is felt that north-to-south connectivity in Sefton is good, but that work and investment is required east-to-west.
On the back of this, we learned more about the work being done in this area at the Liverpool City Region level at their Green Summit on Friday 8th November, which we’ll report on separately.
Speaking of the LCR, we were interested to find out what dealings Sefton Council have had with either the Metro Mayor or the Transport Advisory Group of the combined authority regarding Highways England’s plans for Rimrose Valley.
We wanted to know whether the Council felt supported by the LCR, or whether there may be any conflicting interests between the goals of the LCR and the needs of Sefton Council; for example, balancing the need for investment in the region against protecting the public’s health and the environment.
It was a little surprising to learn from Cllr John Fairclough that “there has been no detailed dialogue on this matter”.
This is something that needs to change, urgently.
The Metro Mayor – and our MPs – are incredibly important ways in which the Council can access the UK Government to voice its concerns about the approach to the entire scheme: not just about what kind of road we want.
If it were us, we would be banging on the doors of anyone and everyone who could feed back our dissatisfaction with what has been offered.
At the LCR’s Green Summit, one of the key messages is that dialogue with campaign groups such as our own needs to be prioritised. We will be taking them up on this in order to ensure that our situation isn’t seen as just ‘a Sefton issue’.
It has wider implications for the entire city region and their input and influence is therefore vital.
On a similar note, we pointed out that, with each of our local and regional political entities being Labour-led: our Council, our MPs and our Metro Mayor, isn’t there an opportunity, or even a necessity to formally agree a stance together and to issue a joint statement, with a consistent message going forward?
We have secured various statements from each over the course of the past two years. However, surely, they all need to be saying the same thing – both to LCR citizens and the UK Government: What you’re proposing isn’t good enough.
Cllr Fairclough advised that a conversation on this specific point was currently taking place, so we look forward to hearing more and will be following up on this point.
Further Legal Action?
After last year’s judicial review, Council Leader, Ian Maher, stated that the possibility of further legal action had not been ruled out at a later stage of the planning process.
We wanted to check whether this still applied and to offer our input.
Both Cllrs Fairclough and Cummins advised that Sefton Council will attempt to do as much as it possibly can to continue its opposition to the scheme, subject to funding, but there will come a point at which this is a real issue as there is money to find across all of the Council’s various departments. Cllr Cummins therefore advised that any decision would have to be balanced, which was confirmed by both Council Officers. However, they also confirmed that they have been briefed by the Council’s Chief Legal Officer, David McCullough, with a list of points in the planning process at which further challenges could be made, which was reassuring to hear.
For our part, we obviously realise that there isn’t a bottomless pit of money and that no, frivolous challenges should be made. However, over the course of the last two years or more, we have connected with some really important environmental organisations who, we believe, could and should make a valuable contribution to any legal argument, should this arise. We asked for this to be noted. We need to make the strongest possible case against building this road and we should take advantage of all expertise on offer.
Crowd-funding any future legal action would be a huge challenge, but isn’t something we have dismissed.
Church Road & Princess Way living conditions
In adding this to our agenda, we want to make it clear that we aren’t meddling in other people’s business.
The reason for raising it is that it is impossible to ignore the connection between the congestion and pollution issues being experienced in these communities and plans for what Highways England are now claiming is a ‘relief road’, to alleviate these issues. This, despite the fact that HE’s own “Option A” would happily have seen this route made even worse – something they seem to have conveniently forgotten all about.
We therefore asked what steps the Council is taking to tackle these issues. The thinking being that, if residents in these areas – and all across Sefton for that matter – feel reassured that steps are being taken, that they aren’t being ignored, or even worse, forgotten, it could help to address the perceived divisions between our communities and to reduce some of the influence HE apparently has in this area. We have long suspected that they are taking a divide and conquer strategy; promising one community a better future, with the implied threat of nothing changing if its plans for the road are unsuccessful.
If we could all work together to pursue a non-road solution to movement of freight to and from the Port of Liverpool AND give assurances that positive action was being taken to tackle air quality and non-port vehicle use on the existing route and surrounding roads and streets, this would surely make for a better future, for everyone?
In response, all present on behalf of Sefton Council advised that they are genuinely trying to pursue policies and measures aimed at tackling the issues being experienced along the existing A5036 route and cited the example of their ongoing work to establish clean air zones, which we have subsequently seen in the press.
Council Officer Peter Moore confirmed that everyone involved wants a cleaner, healthier environment for all residents, across the borough.
This led on to a discussion around plans we have seen in the press for a bitumen plant on Peel Ports’ land.
We communicated the view held by many of our supporters and the wider community that such a development would be a terrible move for air quality and the environment and could even be linked to the proposed road i.e. Peel Ports facilitates the tarmac required for the road’s construction and profits in the process.
Both Cllrs Fairclough and Cummins reaffirmed that the Council opposes this outright and that no application had been received at the time of our meeting. There was some uncertainty around whether this would fall under ‘permitted development rights’ but, for its part, the Council was demanding an environmental impact assessment. They assured us that we would be kept informed if and when there is any movement on the issue.
Leaving the road plans and the bitumen plant aside for one moment, Cllr Cummins addressed a wider point, stating that he believes there is a public misconception about Sefton’s approach to the planning process and the legalities that follow. He explained that Council cannot simply decline every application for housing, industrial developments etc, as it then has to foot the bill for any legal challenges that follow, which returns to the point about funding. Rather, they have to take a tactical approach, seek compromise and try to get the best deal for Sefton residents.
We covered a lot of ground and whilst there were some encouraging noises, there are also some concerns about how ‘joined up’ our politicians’ thinking is on this hugely important issue.
We believe that much more needs to be done – at every political level – to link up and to present a unified, consistent message to the UK Government which is ultimately behind this project and no doubt has one eye on the future role of the Port of Liverpool and Peel Ports’ best interests; not those of Sefton residents.
We need our Council, our MPs and our Metro Mayor to be saying the same thing.
Any new road – over ground or underground – on this scale, in this location, for this purpose is not acceptable. Full stop.
As soon as this happens, and as soon as there’s a genuine belief that better options are out there, work can begin on getting a better deal for the people of Sefton and the wider LCR.
We will therefore step up our efforts to make sure the relevant people are talking to each other, connecting our politicians with anyone and everyone who is willing to help, and continue to demand that better, more sustainable solutions are researched and presented to the public in a true and meaningful consultation, not the sham we witnessed in 2017.
If the UK Government and its Department for Transport isn’t willing to carry out this research, then it falls on our local and regional politicians to take the lead and to fund and commission a report to find a better way.
We’re convinced it exists and we know we deserve it.