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Operation Disclosure protestors outside the Department for Transport, 8 April 2013

Operation Disclosure protestors outside the Department for Transport, 8 April 2013

Toeing the line…

On Monday 8 and Tuesday 9 April, anti-Link Road protestors marched to the Department for Transport (DfT) to demand the full DfT report on the Link Road was made available to the public. HOT’s Erica Smith put her cards on the table and joined ‘Operation Disclosure’ to search for the uncensored DfT report.

An Operation Disclosure participant tries to give a leaflet to the security guardsJust to make things clear… Hastings Online Times does not have an opinion on the Link  Road, it is neither for, nor against. But that doesn’t stop each individual ‘citizen journalist’ from having opinions! Citizen journalists are meant to write about what interests them – the joys and challenges of their everyday life.

I don’t think any of us would be very good citizens if we didn’t have an opinion about controversial local subjects like a 3.5 mile stretch of road due to be built across local countryside at a cost to the public of nearly £100 million!

 

 

Redacted documents from DfT with recommendations censored

I decided I wanted to attend the Operation Disclosure document search because Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary for the DfT had not replied to my enquiry about whether he really supported the Bexhill–Hastings Link Road (BHLR). I had sent my email to him 28 days before the document search, and still had no reply from him.

Norman Baker is MP for Lewes, and historically he has never been a believer in road-building for the sake of road-building. At a time of drastic public-spending cuts, and when we are being asked to reduce CO2 emissions, it seems counter-intuitive to build more roads – especially very expensive ones!

Thanks to a Freedom of Information request by Hastings Alliance, the DfT BHLR report had been made public, but it was released in such a redacted form (a.k.a. ‘censored’) that the DfT’s recommendations were not shown. Sections from two of the redacted documents are shown here.

Surely the censored recommendations would suggest that the DfT is not positive about the planned road? As a rule, all new roads that the DfT recommends are assessed as high value for money, whereas the BHLR was assessed as ‘low to medium value for money’. I can’t help thinking that the poor old DfT has been over-ruled by George Osborne’s unrealistic hope that a road building programme will drive us out of recession.

So, thanks to Norman Baker’s lack of response, I spent Sunday afternoon at a briefing session in the Tubman with a group of local anti-link road campaigners. The session could have been a team-building exercise for any large company. It involved one-to-one work sharing our concerns about the action, a group role play and a legal briefing so we were aware of what actions might be interpreted as an arrestable offence. We all took away a goodie bag with copies of the redacted documents, a notepad, an Operation Disclosure ID badge and a sweetie! I felt well prepared for the 7.30am liaison at the Buxton Memorial Fountain on Monday morning.

A protestor emerges from the Department for Transport after being ejected for trying to deliver cakesWe walked in single file to the Department for Transport building in Horseferry Road. It was apparent from the police presence that we had been expected. After an initial attempt to get in the building, thwarted by security guards in yellow tabards, we lined up behind a rope barrier which we had brought with us. Our intention was to be very well behaved. Emily, our ‘queue co-ordinator’ wore a peaked cap and held a loud-speaker which she used to give a running commentary with humour and impressive metaphors. She turned the dreary task of queueing into a theatre of the absurd, developing the characters of the security guards and imagining what the DfT staff were doing inside – shuffling through old wooden filing cabinets, wondering where on earth they had put that unredacted document.

Each of us in turn was asked to use the loudspeaker to say who we were and why we had come to look for the DfT report. Then we went to the front door to see if we could get in to the building to look for the documents. The ‘wall of yellow’ security guards wouldn’t let us pass, so we gave out leaflets and copies of the redacted documents to staff and visitors who were allowed into the building. A significant number of Operation Disclosure leaflets made their way into the building even if we didn’t! I did a count of protestors – about 15 – with at least as many visible security staff and police, and more police sitting in two vans parked nearby.

Norman Baker MP being grilled by Operation Disclosure participants

Norman Baker MP being grilled by Operation Disclosure participants

I had a print-out of my email to Norman Baker, which I put in an envelope with a message on a postcard. Amazingly, I was eventually allowed into the reception area, and was allowed to hand my letter over to a DfT employee. I also gave her copies of the redacted documents and asked her if she would help me look for the full versions. She was very polite, but wouldn’t let me go beyond the security gates that led to the rest of the building. She did assure me that someone would reply to my email – but I’m still waiting for that reply!

I spent the rest of the morning queueing. It was a very slow way to pass the time, but my fellow protestors were a diverse and friendly bunch which helped, and in the great scheme of things, it was a much more agreeable way to protest than being tied to a tree in sub-zero temperatures. Age and occupation of the document searchers varied widely. Most were local to the Hastings area, but some had come to protest because they have concerns about the national road building programme to come. The reasons people gave for why they had come to look for the documents were broad. Environmental issues were high up the list, but the waste of £100 million of public money was a big concern too. Please remember that this is national money that is going to build our flimsy bit of road, so people from all over the country have every right to protest too.

© Marta Lefler

At lunchtime I left, as Emily was standing stomach to stomach with the generously proportioned security guard whom she already knew from his presence at Combe Haven protests. At one point the security guard gave her a big shove, which she pointed out was assault, and the police agreed.

I must have just turned my back and walked away as the news of Thatcher’s death was released and Emily was arrested by the world’s tallest policeman for aggravated trespass. Later that afternoon, Norman Baker appeared and was grilled by the document seekers before slipping through ‘the wall of yellow’ to safety. I always miss the exciting bits!

Was it a waste of my morning? – Yes.
Was it a waste of money to have to employ extra security guards and van loads of police to stop a few people exercising their democratic rights? – Yes.
Is that road going to be a huge waste of money and resources and natural landscape that will just lead to more congestion and more unnecessary journeys? – Oh, YES!

And that’s why I don’t mind wasting my morning, and I don’t blame people who care enough to exercise their civil liberties to protest about the State censoring reports. Thatcher might have died on Monday, but I hope our democratic rights aren’t going to join her any time soon.

For more information about Operation Disclosure, visit the website.

Posted 22:53 Tuesday, Apr 9, 2013 In: Campaigns

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