Report: Meeting with Roads Minister
On Wednesday 10th March we were invited to an online meeting between the government’s Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, and our MPs Peter Dowd and Bill Esterson, further to their questions in parliament on the A5036 Port of Liverpool Access Scheme in January.
Also in attendance were representatives of Sefton Council – Executive Directors Stephen Watson and Andrea Watts – leading the efforts in exploring alternative solutions to the movement of freight, namely those outlined in the Arup report released by Sefton Council in December 2020.
Highways England were present in the form of Peter Mumford (Director of Major Projects) and Tim Gamon (Regional Delivery Director, North West). However, they did not contribute to the meeting, which was led by the Minister.
The Minister began by stating that she appreciated that Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) can be challenging and that she wished to seek pragmatic engagement, if not complete agreement. However, in her view, the opportunity to consider other options had passed and she believed that the best way of achieving this was through the various parties’ participation in Highway England’s mitigation exercise and the statutory consultation.
Peter Dowd explained the context of the road proposal, offering insights from his Bootle constituency. He restated his opposition to the scheme, adding that history was repeating itself, with the existing A5036 trunk road having already severed communities in two in the 1970’s. He explained that these communities have never truly recovered, with living conditions and air quality for the surrounding residents having deteriorated ever since. He highlighted that communities along the Princess Way stretch of the A5036 would suffer even more as a result of the proposed route, with it simply re-joining the existing port access road at this point. He asserted that the government was in danger of making the same mistakes and that there was an urgent need to look at the situation more imaginatively. He felt that infrastructure has been an after-thought with the port’s expansion allowed to proceed with no proper consideration given to the impacts of this in advance. He also highlighted that the road proposal goes against the government’s own commitments to decarbonise transport and that genuine multi-modal solutions must be considered. He went on to highlight that the budget allocated to this scheme does not match the scale of the task, comparing the £250-300m to the £8bn+ Lower Thames Crossing. Finally, he rejected the notion that the road proposal was a long-term solution, claiming that the projected growth of the port’s operations would mean that we would be in this position again within years, rather than decades.
Bill Esterson echoed Peter Dowd’s comments and said they speak as one on this issue. He highlighted that the life expectancy in some parts of the Bootle constituency, compared to parts of his own Sefton Central constituency can vary as much as 10-12 years and that he believed that air quality was a major factor in this. He disputed the Minister’s assertion that it was too late consider other options, given what the science is now telling us about the climate emergency, CO2 emissions and the loss of biodiversity, since the project was conceived. He stated that the work Sefton Council has been doing would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels when moving freight from A to B.
Before handing back to the Minister, both Bill Esterson and Peter Dowd raised the matter of their recent Freedom of Information requests. These were rejected by Highways England on the grounds that they were ‘vexatious’. Both MPs took exception to this term and were concerned by such a response from what is essentially a public body. They highlighted that they are elected representatives, acting on requests for help from their constituents. They requested that the Minister take this away and address the terminology used by Highways England and take the appropriate action. Bill Esterson said not only were the organisation out of touch environmentally, but also their attitude and approach to this project was inappropriate.
The Minister responded to the above by confirming it is not her Department’s intention to withhold information from anyone, so long as requests are focussed and reasonable and that she would follow up on this matter. She wished to draw a line in the sand and for all parties to have a new understanding. In relation to the references to a multi-modal solution, she believed that this is being pursued, but that a road was an integral part of this as a solution for getting containers out of the port. In relation to climate, she stated that the road could be ‘net zero carbon’ if filled with electric vehicles. She repeated that she believed in the NSIP process and that the opportunity to contribute and for opposing views to be heard would be during the statutory consultation, which Highways England advised would now not be until ‘spring 2022’. She urged Rimrose Valley Friends not to miss out on enhancements to the parkland by refusing to engage in mitigation.
The Minister then invited Sefton Council’s Executive Director, Stephen Watson, to talk about the work they are pursuing outside of this scheme to investigate port access. Stephen Watson acknowledged the limitations of rail to service the immediate vicinity in particular, which is the role HGVs perform today. He explained that the Arup report has highlighted a number of alternative technologies including automated guided vehicles and overhead container transfer which could perform this role. He added that the Liverpool City Region’s recently confirmed freeport status brings with it an opportunity to explore this in more detail, with the creation of inland customs sites potentially aiding this process. He concluded by saying that Sefton Council would welcome the opportunity to share the information – including modelling and connectivity solutions – with the Minister and the Department for Transport.
The Minister advised that she would be happy to receive any such reports and recommended that this be fed into the Port Access Steering Group, which Stephen Watson confirmed is already happening and includes input from the port operators, who are obviously a key stakeholder.
The Minister then invited Rimrose Valley Friends, represented by Stuart Bennett, to make any contributions.
We highlighted that everything covered above should be viewed in the context of the specific and unique location of the Port of Liverpool. Unlike out-of-town ports in open, industrial settings, Sefton residents live alongside and amongst the port’s operation and access to and from it is past people’s homes, schools and places of work. This should therefore be a major factor in determining what the most appropriate solution should be. Whilst a road may be acceptable for one port’s location, we feel is unacceptable for the Port of Liverpool. We highlighted that although we represent Rimrose Valley Friends, our ‘Save Rimrose Valley’ campaign is actually a misnomer. We care passionately about ALL of south Sefton and want an outcome which improves the lives of everyone. This is not a case of protecting Rimrose Valley at all costs. We do not seek to ignore the problems the Port of Liverpool’s expansion has caused, nor put this issue back on residents living along the existing route. We respect our neighbours, who are our friends and family and our campaign reflects this. We explained our position and why we will not engage in discussions around mitigation, namely that it is impossible to mitigate the impact of a HGV service road through Rimrose Valley. As a charity, we explained that we are not reliant on Highways England to deliver enhancements to the space. We undertake our own projects which are backed by the community that uses the park. We challenged the statement that this, or any road, could be net zero carbon. Electric vehicles are currently expensive and although this will change in the longer term, it is wrong to assume that everyone could afford them and that this alone will address emissions. Electric vehicles also continue to generate their own harmful particles and we highlighted the tragic Ella Kissi-Debrah case as the real-life consequences of roads and their pollution. Finally, we stated that referring us to the statutory consultation as the opportunity to have our say is an issue for us. We would be consulted on one road proposal, which we fundamentally disagree with. Rather, we requested that other options being explored by Sefton Council be considered and presented either before or as part of this consultation and we believed that this is still possible.
The Minister acknowledged our stance and concluded the meeting.