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Well, they finally coughed up. After two days of consistent hassling by activists at the Department for Transport earlier last month, during which one person got nicked, the DfT sheepishly released the previously top secret (read: problematic and embarrassing) documents about the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road.
The findings, courtesy of Combe Haven Defenders:
A) The DfT fudged the question of whether or not public money should be used to fund the project, noting that one 'emerging option' was to 'decline funding approval'. (The other 'emerging option' was to approve funding.)
B) That the DfT noted that 'possible, alternative road-based solutions ha[d] not been fully worked through and tested' at the time of the decision.
C) That the DfT assessed the BHLR as being of "low or medium value for money" – and was therefore not a project that the Department would normally consider funding.
D) That East Sussex County Council (ESCC) had “significantly overstate[d] the benefits of the scheme”, "double count[ing] productivity improvements" and exaggerating the number of jobs that the project would create.
A spokesperson for Combe Haven Defenders says: “These documents show that, despite intense pressure from the Treasury, the DfT's own civil servants suggested that the Department should consider cancelling the project, and were highly critical of the exaggerated picture of the Road's merits put forward by East Sussex County Council. By forcing the DfT to give £57m of public money to fund this environmentally disastrous white-elephant project George Osborne has now lit the touchpaper for national peaceful resistance to the project."
Combe Haven defenders are nothing if not persistent: Their latest escapades have seen them camping not in trees but being a permanent, annoying presence outside the Department for Transport HQ in the search for the Truth about the link road.
Back at the beginning of March, anti road campaigners went to the Department for Transport (DfT) with an ultimatum written on a slice of one of the 400 year old oaks felled in January. ‘Unless the Department for Transport’s redacted recommendations regarding the Bexhill Hastings Link Road are released by the 5th April we, the people, will peacefully release this information ourselves.’
So on Monday the 8th April, Combe Haven Defenders and friends turned up looking for the complete versions of letters about the Department’s recommendations on whether the Bexhill Hastings link road (BHLR) should receive government funding. They were, not surprisingly, greeted by locked doors and uncompromising security guards.
A freedom of information request had previously produced two letters (see them at http://operationdisclosure.wordpress.com/key-documents) from a DfT civil servant to the Undersecretary of State for Transport, Norman Baker. The letters weigh up the pros and cons of the link road and conclude the Bexhill road is considered ‘medium to low’ value for money, depending on how you view the council’s well-massaged figures. The problem is that the crucial sections detailing the actual recommendations were blacked out.
The Department for Transport’s own guidelines say projects will only be funded if the DfT thinks they offer ‘high’ or ‘very high’ value for money. So you would normally expect the DfT to recommend not funding this road, as it is ‘medium to low value’, except they have just released £57million for the BHLR. However, in a bizarre interview the leader of the council, Peter Jones, who has been the figurehead pushing the road, claimed even he had not seen anything of these documents either. The road is due to cost about £100million altogether, the remaining part being funded by East Sussex Council taxpayers. Oddly enough, the amount being spent on the road matches the cut in public services locally. An anonymous source inside the DfT says that the Treasury are very keen to push the BHLR through as a test case for the other 190 road building schemes in the pipeline. This and other road building projects seem to be influenced more by the profits of landowners and construction companies than by concerns for democracy or the environment.
The document searchers of ‘Operation Disclosure’ were not easily deterred. They stayed all day, and returned on Tuesday, queuing up to take turns at trying to get into the building to find the documents. A total of 101 requests to go in were clocked up over the 2 days. Staff and visitors going in and out were encouraged to leak the documents as well. On Monday, one woman was allowed just inside to give a letter to a receptionist, who never returned with the promised reply. Emily Johns, an artist from St Leonards, was arrested when the security guards found her a little too persistent at asking to be let in. She was arrested by a whopper of a copper, the tallest in Britian, who’s 7ft 2in.
The Undersecretary for Transport, Norman Baker, tried to sneak past unnoticed but was instead accosted by the document searchers. When they challenged him he claimed it was standard procedure not to release what civil servants recommend to their ministers. Whilst that is a recognised policy for some situations, it does just seem plain crazy here: the taxpayers paying for both the recommendations and the road should surely be allowed to see the documents about how their money is spent. Unless, of course, there is something to hide. Norman suddenly remembered a terribly urgent something to get to when asked about his own opinion on the road, and scuttled off past his security goons on the door.
Talking of security goons, some of the protestors were a little disturbed to find the men guarding the door to the DfT were some of the very same security goons as had been pushing people around during direct action against the chainsaws in the valley. The goons in question were quite cagey about who actually employs them to do what, claiming they were not employed by Shergroup, the company in charge of security for the road building, nor by the DfT. Some more problems with accountability here, perhaps?
Holly, one of the protestors, told Schnews ‘This road is poor value for money by the standards used in the Department for Transport but when you take into account the true, intrinsic value of the habitats destroyed and the damage from climate chaos as carbon emissions continue, then none of the proposed new roads schemes are really worthwhile. We have too much to lose if we continue to let big business and ‘convenience’ dictate the future of our countryside.’
So the landowner came, saw the numbers of protecters, the lock-ons, the bike-powered smoothie makers and the music, and returned home after refusing to talk to either the protesters or the press. But it isn't over – bailiffs could return at any time. Email GH your phone number if you want to be part of the phone tree or join the mailing list on the website: http://www.transitionheathrow.com… email@example.com
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