Operation Disclosure forces DfT London lockdown

| 18th April 2013

Even an offering of organic home baked cakes wasn't enough to convince staff at DfT to leak the files, but the campaigners remain confident that they will access them eventually. 

Last Monday (8 April) campaigners against the Bexhill-Hastings link road (BHLR) held a nine-hour vigil outside the Department for Transport, attempting to search for redacted documents on the road. Paul Creeney reports......
It seems that we are in a police state and not a democracy

Emily Johns has been standing outside the Department for Transport’s (DfT’s) offices for nearly an hour, unable to penetrate the fluorescent wall of security guards that form an indomitable barrier between her and the entrance to Great Minster House.

Instead she hands out leaflets to staff entering the building, imploring them to leak documents that campaigners against the BHLR have travelled to London to peacefully search for as part of Operation Disclosure – if they can get access.

Eventually, however, Emily’s efforts begin to test the patience of the security guards and police officers protecting the offices and after refusing to back down she is arrested for aggravated trespass, being led away by Britain’s tallest (7ft 2in) policeman.

“It’s an inevitable outcome of the situation” says fellow campaigner Gabriel Carlyle, who works in publishing and lives in St. Leonard’s, just west of Hastings.

“The DfT are on lockdown - you can see a large number of security guards and police behind me, and it isn’t because we have been involved in threatening behaviour or violence. We have been peaceful but we have been persistent.”

Protests against the BHLR have certainly been persistent. Serious resistance to the road began in earnest in November last year, when protest camps sprang up in woodland through Combe Haven Valley, along the planned route of the road.

They were eventually dismantled towards the end of January, with numerous arrests made and campaigners chaining themselves to trees for days at a time in an attempt to delay the road’s construction for as long as possible.

This was followed by the launch of Operation Disclosure, an ultimatum to the DfT to release the redacted conclusions of its recommendations on whether to fund the road within 28 days, or campaigners would attempt to enter the offices and search for the documents themselves.

Sections of the DfT’s recommendations stated that the BHLR would provide only ‘low to medium’ value for money, leading protesters to question why the department ignored its own guidance of not funding projects rated less than ‘high’ value for money.

It seems that we are in a police state and not a democracy

Further pressure had been applied to the DfT in the days leading up to Operation Disclosure by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), who stated that “most of the redacted information was incorrectly withheld” by the DfT as “the public interest favoured disclosing the information”. 

However, the ICO also state that the DfT was also right to redact some of the documents, and chose to keep confidential which sections had been wrongfully redacted.

The attempted search had been peaceful up until Emily’s arrest, with police only intervening on one previous occasion to block another campaigner who had taken the more direct approach of simply walking through the DfT’s front door.

But despite the arrest going against the atmosphere of the protest, campaigners such as Gabriel are not surprised.

“It shows what they are prioritising, and is a manifestation of how they have behaved for the past year. We first requested these documents over a year ago as they’re essential to the debate on the road.

“Every time you open a paper in Hastings you’ll see council leader Pete Jones claiming the road will bring in £1billion of investment to the area, something which the parts of the document we can see say is completely wrong.”

Upon arriving at the DfT’s Horseferry Road base, campaigners had initially attempted to enter the lobby, only to find the doors locked by security guards. However, a ‘Plan B’ was put into place, with activists placing a sign reading ‘Queue here for secret documents’ outside the DfT’s main entrance, and promptly forming a line behind it to take turns handing out leaflets and trying to get in whenever the doors were unlocked for members of staff.

The queuing, tea and Emily’s charmingly polite attempts to negotiate with the DfT through a megaphone all combined to give the demonstration a distinctly British flavour. Campaigner Sally Phillips had even baked a tray of cakes to send up to employees working on level two of the building, where the documents are believed to be stored, hoping that a sweet treat may encourage them to leak the files. 

“I have been in to try and deliver these cakes I’ve made to the people on the second floor. I was thrown out by the police, so I can only assume that this is a police state and not a democracy,” she explains, instead handing the cakes out to both campaigners and police officers. “They wouldn’t even take the cakes!

“I even put a message on top saying they were made with the best ingredients and organic, free-range eggs.”

This politeness, however, turned to stern questioning when MP Norman Baker, the Undersecretary of State for Transport who the redacted recommendations were made to, attempted to enter the building early in the afternoon. 

When questioned on why a project that was rated as having ‘low to medium’ value for money was being funded, Mr Baker said: “We do usually only fund projects that are high value, although we have funded projects that are lower value such as the Jubilee Line to Canary Wharf, which actually had a negative value for money assessment.”

“The redactions were made because of the long-standing convention that advice to ministers from civil servants is kept secret. Otherwise, we would be back in a Tony Blair, super-government situation where everything is required to be written down.”

When asked what his personal opinion was on the road, Mr. Baker declined to comment and promptly hurried into Great Minster House.

Campaigners from the Hastings area were joined outside the DfT by protesters from across the UK, who fear that the government is about to embark on a sustained campaign of road building similar to the ‘Roads to Prosperity’ programme introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989.

Benjamin Adams, a web developer from Brighton, had donned an ironic suit and tie for the occasion and spent the day handing out leaflets to people in the street. He said: “I thought naively that we had got past the 90s idea of building ourselves out of congestion, but now it’s been rehashed as building ourselves out of austerity.”

Keith Wilson, who works in woodland management, had travelled from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire to take part in Operation Disclosure.

“We need to accept the fact that this society that we’re living in is on a suicidal course to mass extinction” he explains, whilst helping to hold a banner reading ‘DfT: Release the Documents! Save Combe Haven Valley’.

“We need to completely change the way we do things - this business model of ‘economic growth’. Throwing loads of money at projects like these so large companies can profit from building them, whilst at the same time trashing other environments to produce the construction materials they need has got to stop.

“It isn’t just Combe Haven Valley that’s been affected – it’s the quarry where materials to make the road are mined and the oil burned to produce the tarmac that will surface the road. It all does a catastrophic amount of damage.”

As the afternoon turned to evening, the cold began to bite and already aching joints groaned even beyond the help of tea. By the end of the protest over 100 attempts had been made to enter the DfT and, despite none of them being successful, campaigners were optimistic that a breakthrough was not far off.

“We’ve had people from BBC South East here today, I’ve spoken to people from a transport journal, there have been other people filming and we got to question Norman Baker, so there has certainly been value for us to come down here today,” explains Gabriel.

“I’m quite confident that we will see these documents soon. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but we will see them soon."

“As long as the road hasn’t been built, we will try to stop it.”

For more information on the campaign against the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road, visit: combehavendefenders.wordpress.com

Paul Creeney is a freelance journalist focusing on environmental and human rights issues.



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