A group of MPs and environmental campaigners have condemned the “cover-up culture” at Highways England, after emails revealed the agency’s attempts to reject Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Bill Esterson, MP for Sefton Central, said the emails were obtained by his office after he submitted an FOI request for the minutes of meetings between private companies partnered with the A5036 Port of Liverpool access scheme.
In the emails, which were sent to Mr Esterson through an FOI application, Highways England officials described similar requests made numerous times by campaigners, including Rimrose Valley Friends (RVF), as “manifestly unreasonable” and “vexatious”, and that they represented a “concerted campaign to disrupt the work of the authority”.
One official on the Liverpool scheme said a reason for continuing to resist the FOI request “is the damaging effect that releasing the records is likely to have on our relationships with stakeholders”.
The email goes on to say that if campaigners made an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and if it ruled in Highways England’s favour, then “it could go a long way to closing down the FOI/EIR (environmental information regulations) route for RVF in future”.
Highways England said it has “acted appropriately” to the FOI requests and that the project team is open to discuss concerns about its plans with interested parties.
The scheme aims to build a new route to connect the motorway network with the Port of Liverpool which would bypass the A5036, but it has been met with heavy criticism from campaigners who are against building a road through Rimrose Valley Country Park.
Mr Esterson’s FOI request was rejected despite Highways England telling him in a letter that they “do hold information that is relevant to your request”.
Mr Esterson said: “The A5036 Port of Liverpool Access scheme is a breathtakingly destructive project that would tear a rift through a really important Merseyside country park.
“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.”
And the Labour MP for Bootle Peter Dowd, who also opposes the scheme, said: “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.”
Supporting the MPs are countryside charity CPRE, The Wildlife Trusts and campaign groups Transport Action Network and Save Rimrose Valley.
Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, said: “Rimrose Valley is a green lung for many in Liverpool and a vital tool in the fight against the climate crisis.
“We are campaigning to protect it despite the hurdles and stumbling blocks put in our way by Highways England.”
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “It seems extraordinary that a huge dual-carriageway right along the length of the beautiful Rimrose Valley could even be considered.
“The proposals are an appalling affront on local communities, on nature, and any sort of suggestion that our society might try to ‘build back better’ after the pandemic crisis.”
A Highways England spokesperson said: “We have acted appropriately when handling these FOIs.
“There is a defined route for complaints via the information commissioner.
“Highways England takes its legal and ethical responsibilities under the Freedom of Information legislation very seriously and is fully committed to the transparency agenda and meeting all the requirements of the FOI Act.
“As part of that commitment we are working towards automatic publication of all FOI responses and exploring methods of publishing more of our data.”