Representatives from groups opposed to the plans delivered an ultimatum to Norman Baker MP.
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‘Release Combe Haven redactions or face peaceful office search’ – protesters tell DfT
March 11th, 2013
by Paul Creeney
Campaigners against the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road gathered outside the Department for Transport’s London offices on Monday to launch Operation Disclosure. Paul Creeney reports...
It’s been over three months since the first rallying cries of angry residents sparked demonstrations and protest camps throughout a picturesque valley between Hastings and Bexhill.
Campsites and tunnels have all been built up and torn down in that time, along with hundreds of trees in preparation for the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road. But Monday saw the launch of the latest phase in the campaign to save Combe Haven Valley - Operation Disclosure.
On a cold but sunny afternoon outside the Department for Transport’s (DfT) main office in central London, representatives from an alliance of groups opposed to the plans delivered an ultimatum to the minister responsible for local transport, Norman Baker MP.
The message - painted onto a section of a felled, 87-year-old oak tree - was simple. Either the DfT released redacted sections from it’s report on whether or not to provide funding for the road – or campaigners would forcibly but peacefully enter the premises in a month’s time and search for the documents themselves.
Charles Secrett, a former director of Friends of the Earth, was present in support of the demonstration outside Great Minster House. He said:
“An alliance of environmental organisations came together to kill off the crazy, Tory-led road building programme through direct action and civil disobedience in the 1990s.
“We are now seeing this programme resurrected by the coalition government, and this so called ‘by-pass’ is one of the craziest of their plans.”
Mr. Secrett, now a national coordinator for the ACT Alliance, also tore into the redacted documents relating to the road, saying:
“The Government only has stuff to hide. It isn’t being transparent because it’s scared that the public will realise how crazy this road proposal is - and if you don’t have transparent government, you don’t have democracy.”
The crowd of over twenty people stood outside the DfT’s Horseferry Road headquarters for around half an hour, chanting slogans and unveiling a banner reading ‘Cut the Roads, Save Billions’.
After a sermon-like speech that included all protesters voicing different concerns on the project, demonstrators attempted to enter the DfT and personally hand over the ultimatum, only to be denied access by police and security. After an initial struggle and some negotiation, a member of staff took the wooden warning into the building.
A variety of local and national groups took part in the demonstration, with the Combe Haven Defenders, the Bexhill Link Road Resistance, the Hastings Alliance, the Grannies Action Group and the Campaign for Better Transport all handing out leaflets, some dressed in leaves and extravagant costumes.
Despite the issuing of the ultimatum, Andrea Needham of the Combe Haven Defenders is hoping such action won’t be needed. She said:
“I actually think it’s less likely we will have to search the offices now than I did a week ago! In the last two days, two MPs have said they will table questions in Parliament over this precise issue. There has also been a lot more media coverage, so it’s in the public domain more prominently. Last week I would have said we would definitely be back in April, but now I’m more optimistic.”
The two MPs tabling questions to Parliament on the link road are Shadow Secretary of State for Transport Maria Eagle and the former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas.
Despite these recent developments, it is still probable that should the DfT ignore the ultimatum, arrests will be made if activists attempt to seize the documents themselves, however peacefully.
The decision to risk arrest is currently being mulled over by protesters, with some already refusing to feel threatened by the prospect. Felicity Radford, a volunteer for both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who lives in Bristol, said:
“I probably would [join in with a document search], yes.
“I believe in non-violent direct action and have done that in the past. At my age, the threat of criminal proceedings doesn’t matter as I don’t have to worry about my CV anymore!”
Ms Needham is slightly more cautious, saying:
“I’ve been arrested many times in my life, but I’ve got a small child now so probably not. I think that there will be a number of people willing to risk arrest by searching the offices though.”
Demands for the release of redacted sections of the document refer specifically to the conclusion, which was entirely censored.
Siân Berry of the Campaign for Better Transport, who are also opposed to the construction of the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road, said:
“The document is relentlessly negative about the economic claims East Sussex County Council are making, but without the conclusion we just don’t know what recommendations were made.
“It seems to me that the conclusion ought to match the rest of the document and be negative – in which case it would appear that ministers have overruled the decision of their own officials on funding the road. If not then we should know why officials wrote a conclusion that contradicts the rest of the document.”
Ms Berry also stressed that in agreeing to partially fund the link road, the DfT are contradicting rules they themselves have made. She said:
“Guidance given to the local transport boards who have since taken over similar funding decisions, says they are not expected to fund projects rated as less than ‘high’ value for money.
“They assessed this road as being ‘low to medium’ value for money, and right at the bottom of medium – there’s a very good chance it could provide low value for money.”
East Sussex County Council have claimed the road will bring in around £1billion to the local economy and create around 4,000 jobs – figures which have been criticised by both the Department for Transport and local protest groups.
When asked, the DfT did not comment on the possibility of a document search being carried out on it’s premises, or on the documented criticisms of East Sussex County Council’s estimated benefits of the link road.
However, a DfT spokeswoman did say:
“There was a very difficult balance to be struck between the interests of regenerating and promoting economic growth in the Bexhill-Hastings area and the impact the scheme would have on the environment.
“This is why we had a review to look very carefully at all the transport options and the environmental mitigation measures planned by the promoter, before making the funding decision.”
According to Operation Disclosure, the DfT have until Friday 5 April to release the redacted sections of the document. If the information has not been released, peaceful document searches will be carried out on Monday 8th to Tuesday 9th April.
Ahead of the search, campaigners will also gather outside the DfT’s Information Rights Unit in Hastings on Monday (11th March) and blow whistles, in a bid to encourage would be whistleblowers to leak the documents.
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Paul Creeney is a freelance journalist focusing on environmental issues, development and social justice.
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