The clock’s ticking for Highways England
It is a little over a month since allegations were made that Highways England deliberately attempted to block Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted in relation to its hugely unpopular Port of Liverpool Access Scheme.
The story was widely reported in the press, with one of the best summaries coming via industry publication the New Civil Engineer.
This followed the rejection of FOI requests from Sefton Central MP, Bill Esterson and Bootle MP, Peter Dowd.
Subsequent work undertaken by Bill Esterson’s office, led to them obtaining copies of communications between senior management at Highways England in which it was repeatedly implied that protecting their relationships with stakeholders – including Peel Ports, the single biggest beneficiaries of the road proposal – was more important than releasing information to the public.
Our immediate thought was: is anyone surprised by this?
To us, it was confirmation of a long-held belief that Peel Ports and its associated companies, business partners and clients are the real driving force behind these road plans. We’ve written about this before; you can refresh your memory here and here.
Despite what Highways England would have us believe, this road proposal is – and has always been – about the Port of Liverpool, big business and big money.
There were more revelations.
After refusing Freedom of Information Requests from both our own campaign AND our MPs Bill Esterson and Peter Dowd, the emails disclosed a clear strategy to attempt to prevent us from being able to access information in the future. The Assistant Project Manager for the scheme wrote:
“I suggested we hold our nerve on this […] if we accede, it will not be the end of the matter.
“There is of course no guarantee that, if we call their bluff and force RVF and/or the MPs to appeal to the IC, the Commissioner will rule in our favour – but we wouldn’t be much worse off than if we give way now.
“On the other hand, if she did rule in our favour, it could go a long way to closing down the FOI/EIR route for RVF in future.”
The above refers to the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham CBE.
When Freedom of Information Requests are declined, there is a right to appeal this decision via Highways England’s internal process, which we have done on a number of occasions. If the decision to withhold information is upheld, the next port of call is to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner, which we have done twice.
This is a lengthy process and it has taken up to a year for rulings to be made because of the sheer volume of complaints the Information Commissioner’s office receives.
The rulings we received were considered and – we believe – fair and reasonable.
However, the emails exposed by Bill Esterson’s office have prompted us to revisit these and to examine the representations made by Highways England in defending their decision not to disclose certain pieces of information to us.
We now believe that some of the statements they made are unsubstantiated and – in light of the strategy outlined above – may well have simply been laying the ground to make us appear as if we are an unreasonable, threatening and angry mob.
Painting us in a negative light would certainly be one way of attempting to ‘close down’ this route, wouldn’t it?
We’ll be sharing more on that soon.
What else was included in the communications?
During the email exchange, Highways England officials refer to the MPs and our campaign as “cheeky little monkeys” and “vexatious” for making the FOI request in the first place. A further comment is made about “the malign purposes of the RVF campaign”.
The definition of malign being ‘evil in nature’.
Who, us? Really?
A campaign run by a park charity, made up of old and young, teachers, civil servants and ordinary members of the public? Evil?
Although such petty insults appear frivolous on the face of it, they serve to highlight a more serious issue and a culture of obstruction across the organisation.
This is a publicly-funded company – effectively the government is its only client – which receives billions upon billions of pounds, via the public’s taxes, to do its work.
And yet when the public – and the people elected by the public – start to ask questions around its dealings with private, commercial businesses who have a vested interest in the road proposal, Highways England’s senior management don’t like it.
Not one bit.
Where does this leave us?
It certainly isn’t the end of the matter. Since the news made the headlines, campaigns fighting road proposals across the country have been in touch with Bill Esterson’s office, highlighting similar experiences to ours.
Far from being an isolated incident, or the result of Highways England having a bad day at the office, it would appear there is a pattern of such behaviour engrained in this organisation from top to bottom.
Billions of pounds are being spent on destructive road schemes, with privately-owned subcontractors such as Kier Highways profiting in the process.
And the people these roads would impact?
We are an afterthought and are left to start campaigns and to jump through hoops as part of a skewed planning process, designed to present the facade of genuine consultation and community engagement, when the reality is anything but.
Perhaps the best place to end this article is by sharing the statements from our MPs.
“These emails show an outrageously arrogant attempt by Highways England to cover up a legitimate request for information through the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
“In merely carrying out our duty as a Member of Parliament, representing our constituents, we were met with obstacles to transparency at every turn.
“It speaks to an insidious cover-up culture at Highways England which must be investigated.”
“The results from the freedom of information request leave a lot to be desired.
“Highways England say they aim to ‘ensure their activities result in a long term and sustainable benefit to the environment’.
“Rather than actively trying to obstruct Bill Esterson MP and me in representing our constituents, they should act on their own aims by bringing a halt to this proposal which, amongst other things, will strip out the only significant green space in my constituency.”
This has clearly touched a nerve and we are assured that our MPs will not be letting go of this any time soon.
And with others joining the calls for the government company to be held to account, Highways England should be looking over its shoulder.
For the sake of our own campaign and those fighting their own battles up and down the country, we live in hope that the days of Highways England getting away with treating the public with such contempt are nearing an end.