Our meeting with Steve Rotheram: Grounds for optimism, or cause for concern?
On Monday, 20th January, we met with our Metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram, and members of his team, including the Liverpool City Region’s (LCR’s) Lead Transport Officer, Huw Jenkins and Rich Durber, his Political Advisor.
Three weeks on, we’re finally in a position to be able to share our update with you.
Our meeting came as a direct result of us attending the LCR’s inaugural Green Summit, last November. One of the key messages which came through on the day was that the channels of communication between members of the public (including campaigns like our own) and the LCR need to be more open. It is therefore to Steve Rotheram’s credit that he agreed to our request to meet with us. Furthermore, we had an hour of his time and were free to discuss whatever we liked – there was no vetting of questions beforehand.
We wanted to keep the meeting as focussed a possible, so went in with just four questions, as set out below. As can be seen from the minutes themselves the answers to some of these questions were lengthy and led to many other connected points being discussed. We’ve therefore summarised the key points here.
We’ll conclude this report by explaining where we think this leaves us, which is perhaps a little less clear than we initially believed.
1) Did he agree that the road scheme goes against many of the LCR’s ‘defined themes’ as set out in the Green Summit and would he and the Combined Authority oppose it?
He drew a distinction between what he as a Metro Mayor can say/do, versus statements and decisions of the combined authority, which need to be ratified by all members
We highlighted these themes: Air Quality; Climate Change & Resilience; Valuing Green Spaces, Habitats and Biodiversity; Connecting and Engaging Communities with Nature; Health & Wellbeing
He conceded that, if devolution had meant that transport and infrastructure decisions and the budget came via the LCR, they would be doing it differently
He was unsure what more he could do to oppose the scheme
He shared news that he is working with Greater Manchester’s Metro Mayor, Andy Burnham, on improving rail links between Liverpool and Manchester, including lines dedicated to freight
He believes that having a strategic rail solution which removes the need for HGVs going to the Port entirely by creating an inland hub near the motorway network, is what we should be targeting
We put it to him that Peel Ports were unlikely to be in favour of such a solution, having previously indicated to us that this wouldn’t meet the needs of more local customers. We also highlighted our recent FOI requests, flagging the dealings between H.E. and Peel Ports
He stated that the needs of the LCR’s 1.6m citizens will always take precedence over individual business needs. He pointed out that he is also on record as having disagreed with Peel Ports in the past
He advised that any solution to the movement of freight is not enough on its own to address the congestion issues Sefton is facing
We agreed and advised that one of our campaigns goals is to support and encourage the LCR and Sefton’s initiatives on increased use of significantly improved public transport and promoting active travel to tackle excessive domestic vehicle use
However, we explained that, in our view this didn’t change the fact that removing HGV traffic from the existing route is something that must be pursued and simply shifting the problem through Rimrose Valley was not the right solution
2) On the back of the statement he issued last year, what specific actions had he taken to support Sefton Council’s and our MPs’ calls for better alternatives to Highways England’s road?
He referenced the statement and advised that he had written to the Department for Transport (DfT) seeking a better outcome– at that time considering a tunnel – and he committed to sharing this correspondence with us
We explained that the previous statement – which encouraged Sefton Council, Highways England, Peel Ports and others to sit around a table and work through the issue – misunderstood the biggest issue i.e. that Highways England is involved in the first place. This is the part that needs to be addressed and raised with the DfT
We flagged that a tunnel does not solve the issue and discussed the problems associated with any road solution which invites HGVs into the road network in south Sefton
We explained that we need urgent intervention from the DfT and the Metro Mayor’s help in drawing this to their attention is vital
He committed to drafting a new statement, more reflective of the above and noted our concerns regarding a road solution
3) Would he join Sefton Council and our MPs in publicly and strongly opposing the scheme?
He said his own position is more strategic and it is therefore difficult to align with any individual campaign such as ours, as it goes against the planning decisions of the constituent authorities. If he supported our campaign, he would be asked why he wasn’t supporting others
We explained that this isn’t a planning decision of Sefton Council, rather a Government-led NSIP being imposed on one of his combined authority members. Objecting to this road scheme would not undermine Sefton Council: quite the opposite
He stated that neither he, nor the LCR are formally or legally involved in the proposed option and that it was a matter for Sefton MBC as the host authority in which the project is happening
He wondered why this additional layer of opposition was required, on top of that of our Council and MPs
We explained that unified political opposition is essential in order to form the strongest possible legal challenge if/when the time comes. This is based on advice we have been given from the various campaign groups who support us
We also explained the urgency of the situation, given that the statutory consultation was due the first half of this year and could potentially lead to construction starting in 2022
We suggested that now is the time to be challenging the Government on its supposed desire to invest in the North’s infrastructure and that this scheme was a perfect example of where such investment is needed
4) If a viable alternative could be found which addresses the movement of freight to and from the Port of Liverpool in a sustainable manner, would he and the LCR support this?
·The short answer was ‘yes’: if it’s achievable, he would get behind any such scheme
He said that for him, the cost “isn’t the dominant factor”; we need the right solution and that we should not be accepting “a sub-optimal option" (which roughly translates as ‘second best’)
He wished it to be known that he does not and has never supported the road scheme: he welcomes the investment, but not the proposed solution
As you can see from the above, there were some real positives to take from this meeting; in particular, learning about the work being done to develop rail freight. Connecting the Port to an inland hub is exactly what is needed. The Metro Mayor grasps that HGV traffic, their emissions and the congestion and queues they cause on roads around the Port of Liverpool are a real problem. It was also clear that he is ‘environmentally aware’ and shares our wider concerns over the proposed road scheme’s impact on biodiversity, loss of habitat and the climate emergency.
We are left wondering if there is a true understanding of the status of this project, an appreciation of the urgency of our situation and whether there is even an appetite to challenge the Department for Transport to halt these road plans in order for non-road alternatives to be properly explored and presented to the public.
More importantly, we are left wondering whether we asked the right questions and whether we were being given the full picture?
Why is this the case?
Since our meeting on 20th January, the results of our latest Freedom of Information (FOI) request to Highways England have come through.
We wanted to find out how closely Highways England has been working with the LCR in relation to this scheme. The documentation we’ve received appears to cast doubt on the assertion that the LCR has not been formally involved in this project, as explained to us in this meeting.
We know that the LCR is not the local authority with ‘legal responsibility’ for this road project. We could also reasonably have expected that both the Metro Mayor and the LCR’s transport bodies would have been contacted by Highways England as part of its stakeholder engagement strategy.
What we didn’t expect to discover was that Merseytravel, the executive body which advises the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority on transport matters, has been heavily involved in Highways England’s efforts to connect with other stakeholders, coordinating meetings with the Combined Authorities and other interested parties. Documentation shows that Merseytravel has more than a passing interest in Highways England’s progress.
Surely those in our meeting would have been aware of this? There was certainly ample opportunity for this to have been discussed with us in the time we spent together. We’re currently going through the documentation we have received and will share our take on this with you soon.
However, if what we understand is true, it fundamentally changes our understanding of the LCR’s role in this scheme and means that we have much more work to do in order to convince our Metro Mayor and the various bodies within the devolved administration that this road is a terrible idea and must be fought every step of the way.
This is because unified, political opposition is vital to our fight in trying to secure a better outcome for the people of south Sefton. We need to reach a point very quickly where our Council, MPs, Metro Mayor and all of the Local Authorities are saying the same thing: that cheap, dirty and lazy infrastructure isn’t good enough for the people of Sefton, the constituents of Sefton Central and Bootle and citizens of the wider Liverpool City Region.
If this Government is serious about investing in the north of England, they need to prove it. We therefore look forward to ongoing dialogue with all of our politicians and to working together to secure a better deal for south Sefton.
Notes: To view the full minutes of the meeting click the link below