Westminster optimism? We think so.
On Tuesday, 12th February, representatives from our campaign went to meet Rachael Maskell MP at Westminster. Joined by our own MP for Bootle, Peter Dowd, it was an extremely positive and encouraging meeting and we wanted to share a summary with you here.
The meeting itself is a significant development and has been one of our top priorities for some time. This is because Rachael Maskell is part of the Shadow Transport team and therefore works directly with the Shadow Transport Secretary, Andy McDonald. In addition, we have previously shared an article by Transport for Quality of Life (TfQL), policy advisors to the Shadow Transport team and progressive thinkers, so this was a fantastic opportunity on a number of levels.
Highways England’s hugely damaging and unpopular scheme is being driven by the UK Government with little accountability. Whilst opposition from Sefton Council and our MPs Peter Dowd and Bill Esterson is vital, we have to take our campaign to Westminster to try and stop it.
So, that’s exactly what we did!
We’re happy to report that we were able to cover everything we set out to and discussed each of the key issues in detail.
We began by sharing detailed ‘Google Earth’ images of Rimrose Valley to illustrate the diverse landscape it provides and the proximity of residents’ houses.
We overlaid the nature reserve and wetlands as just one example of the local environmental damage which would result if the road were to go ahead.
We marked out all of the footpaths and cycle routes Rimrose; big and small. We talked about how the land is used as a safe, tranquil and ‘green’ route to and from schools and places of work, free of HGVs, vans, cars and the risk of accidents and the pollution they bring.
We plotted each nursery, children’s centre, primary and secondary school in the vicinity and talked about the long-term effects air pollution causes to the very youngest in our society. We shared statements from a number of schools who wanted their views to be known, along with a supporting statement from the Clean Air Parents Network on its own activities in our area.
Finally, we overlaid the proposed route; a thick, red line, showing how it would sever our country park in two. The role Rimrose Valley plays in linking communities – physically and emotionally – should not be underestimated.
Politicians often talk about the importance of community cohesion and the need to build links in society. The proposed route would destroy these links and create a physical, visual barrier between communities, families and friends.
We moved on to talk about just how important a place Rimrose Valley is.
We highlighted its role as Sefton’s “green lung” and how it provides respite from the fumes (and noise) found just a short distance away. We talked about its role as a free recreational resource where people can exercise, soak up nature, clear their heads and use as they see fit. We talked about its importance as a means of tackling childhood obesity – getting kids out of their houses and into the fresh air. We talked about mental health and how the latest research shows that access to green space can help to alleviate many of the symptoms of mental illness. We talked about the vast array of wildlife and habitats which are at risk.
We shared a selection of some of the best images of Rimrose Valley and went over them in detail. Landscapes; nature; cyclists; dogs & their owners; runners; families; children; activities; the Leeds-Liverpool canal.
We then provided the background and context to the position we find ourselves in today.
We talked about the Port’s expansion; capacity on the existing A5036 route and the conditions experienced by those living alongside it; how Highways England were appointed to find only a road-based solution from the outset; its public consultation; its preferred route; Sefton Council’s Judicial Review; the Judge’s ruling.
We finished this section by sharing Highways England’s map of the proposed route, illustrating how it simply rejoins the existing one, compounding the issues already experienced along Princess Way and not actually addressing the problem of HGV traffic at all. Then we talked about the issues.
In truth, we could have spoken about these for the whole meeting.
We covered the complete lack of infrastructure planning; how there is no long-term vision or even an appetite to find a better way of solving this problem; the flawed and divisive public consultation; the embarrassing level of funding – both when looked at in isolation and when compared to similar schemes in the UK; the complete disregard for the environment at a local, national and global level; the complete disregard for the public’s health and wellbeing and knock-on impact to our NHS; how it is set to be funded completely by the tax-payer, when the single, biggest beneficiary is a privately owned, multi-billion pound company; the unsubstantiated claims around job and wealth creation attributable to the Port’s expansion; the inconsistent and confusing statements Highways England has made on the future of the A5036, the artist’s impression funded by public money, the u-turn on CPOs, the ever-increasing number of CPOs it claims would be required for a tunnel, and how it champions the environmental and health benefits of tunnels elsewhere in the country; and finally, how this solution does absolutely nothing to address the issue of domestic, non-Port related traffic.
It simply delivers a new stretch of tarmac, waiting to be filled.
Recognising that we aren’t civil engineers, we at least wanted to offer up some alternatives to the issue of HGVs, such as an improved rail network and increased use of the Manchester Ship Canal.
We asked why it is being left to “the people” to investigate and explore these and other, more dynamic alternatives. Why weren’t the “experts” in Government and Highways England doing this?
We talked about the need to increase the level of investment in the project and if this meant impacting the timescales to deliver it, so be it. We talked about the equally pressing need to invest in better public transport links and other measures which could be introduced to encourage people to move from car use to greener forms of transport.
We talked about our campaign, sharing some of the highlights from the past year or more; the media coverage; the demonstrations, the protests at High Court, “Hands Across the Valley”; the hundreds upon hundreds of people who have turned out to these and other events and the thousands who follow us online.
We wanted to convey the level of anger and opposition out there and the fact that we were representing many, many people’s views.
We explained that we weren’t simply looking to shift the problem back onto the existing route. We are fighting for better options to be put forward which respect and improve the lives of all people, from all of the impacted communities.
As we were meeting with the Labour Party on a national level, it was really important to reiterate the fantastic Labour support we have locally. It was great to be able to say that both of our MPs and our Labour-led Council oppose this scheme. We also discussed Steve Rotheram’s stance, explaining that, whilst he supports the efforts of Sefton Council and local MPs, we would like him to go further.
Following some of our other recent work, we were able to say that we have secured cross-party support, with statements from Labour, the Conservatives, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats, which was well received.
In other words we had a lot to get through, but we managed it.
The overriding feeling both during the presentation and afterwards, was that Rachael Maskell was hugely sympathetic to our cause.
It was heartening to learn that she shares the same vision of protecting the environment and the public’s health through the implementation of sustainable transport policies.
In her words, in asking for her support and highlighting the challenges we face, we were ‘pushing against an open door’.
Furthermore, she feels strongly that road-building should be a ‘last-resort’. It doesn’t solve the problem it is intended to; it simply exacerbates it. This is a view shared by the policy team she works with and is something they would wish to act upon, should the Labour Party come into power.
On this point, Peter Dowd questioned how seriously a rail solution for freight has ever been explored and advised that he has contacted Network Rail asking for more information and an idea of the costs that would be involved to deliver this.
Rachael Maskell confirmed that under a Labour Government, any road-building projects would have to pass the strongest environmental tests in order to be considered and/or approved.
This echoed statements made in our meeting with Clive Lewis MP who was tasked to investigate sustainable economics. She stated that, like Clive Lewis, she is environment-focussed, interested in sustainable options, which reduce emissions – not increase them – and that we need to be doing everything in our power to tackle climate change.
Schemes like the one we are fighting fly in the face of this thinking.
It goes without saying that this was fantastic to hear and we feel we have found a real ally in our fight to stop this road from going ahead.
We finished by asking for her help, which was the primary reason for our meeting.
Whilst it was encouraging to hear what the Labour Party would do in Government, we explained that we need its support now in its capacity as the official opposition. The clock is ticking on this project as it moves through the various phases of the planning process and, in theory, construction is due to start in 2021.
However, it was also important to stress that this wasn’t simply a “list of demands” and that we welcomed any other steps which could be taken to help our cause.
We requested that the Labour Party condemn the scheme at a national level; for the Shadow Transport Secretary to raise this matter directly with Chris Grayling and to call for better solutions to be researched and put forward; to encourage and support our Metro Mayor to be more vocal in opposition; and to encourage Transport for the North to lobby the UK Government to look at this again in order to find a sustainable solution.
In return, we committed to continuing and expanding our own efforts and to keep the pressure on. This is because she believes that grassroots support for ours and similar campaigns across the country is vital in our efforts to get the Government to think again.
Rachael agreed to take this away and to discuss our campaign and the wider implications of the A5036 Port of Liverpool Access Scheme with Andy McDonald and her colleagues, in order to explore ways in which the national Labour Party can support us.
We will share any updates with you as soon as we’re in a position to do so.
In summary, it felt very much like a significant meeting and we are optimistic to see what action follows. More generally, being in an around Westminster was an incredibly positive experience.
In our short time there, we bumped into former Green Party Leader, Natalie Bennett, who remembers visiting Rimrose Valley and continues to support the campaign.
We were joined by Clive Lewis MP who recalled our meeting last autumn and spoke positively about the campaign. We were even joined briefly by Jeremy Corbyn and Lord Falconer; both of whom who took an interest in what we were discussing and assured us we were in good hands.
For all its flaws, we have come away from Westminster feeling that anything is possible, that ours is far from a lost cause and with the knowledge that there are many “national” politicians who do care about what is happening around the country.
We sincerely hope it represents a major step forward in our goal to get the decision-makers in Westminster to change their minds.
The fight continues.