DePoLARiZE (Delivering Port of Liverpool-Associated Road freight Zero Emissions)

The project aimed to identify potential practical measures for decarbonising freight traffic and to convene relevant stakeholders in transforming freight mobilities to and from the Port of Liverpool, so as to kickstart an ongoing process for collaborative and effective action on this challenging issue.


The project aimed to identify potential practical measures for decarbonising freight traffic and to convene relevant stakeholders in transforming freight mobilities to and from the Port of Liverpool, so as to kickstart an ongoing process for collaborative and effective action on this challenging issue. The relevant stakeholders are from diverse sectors that rarely interact – the freight sector, the Port and its tenant businesses, local and city region government, residents, unions (e.g. drivers, dockers), transport NGOs and thinktanks etc… – so the objective was to establish connections and demonstrate the viability and productiveness of such an approach over the medium-term.  

What was the challenge?

The Port of Liverpool is England’s third largest maritime port, by cargo volumes passing through it. It is set to grow considerably in the medium term, especially regarding container traffic, following the construction of the UK’s only port capable of accommodating the world’s largest ships and following redirected trade flows following Brexit. While the Port itself has a net-zero goal of 2040 for its own operations, this does not include the freight moving into and out of the Port. The overwhelming majority of road freight traffic enters or leaves the Port along a single dual carriageway (the A5036) that cuts through a densely populated and socio-economically deprived area. The road is already congested and polluted, with a ten-year reduction in life expectancy compared to elsewhere in the borough. For instance, in 2017, this freight mobility generated more than 5000 HGV journeys every weekday, before the projected increase from greater container traffic, such as a 'record' single container delivery of almost 6000 TEU (maybe 4000 containers) that was recorded in March 2022.   

National Highways has been tasked by central Government to relieve this problem by developing a new road through scarce green space, taking traffic north to a relatively new bypass that connects the motorways to the main road going north to Southport. This scheme, however, takes no positive action regarding decarbonisation of this key national infrastructure and would likely lock-in yet higher traffic emissions. Moreover, it is highly contested and a source of much local grievance. The new road has been rejected by the local council, MPs and the Metro Mayor and is the target of campaigns by many local groups, while others (especially resident groups for those living along the existing A5036 road) support the new road plan in pursuit of any relief from the current situation. The Port itself, and the freight industry more broadly, has insisted it maintains a neutral stance on plans to rectify the situation, but is nonetheless treated with suspicion by many local stakeholders. Alternatives including tunnels, overhead cables and mini-rail systems have been discussed in a major report by Arup commissioned by Sefton Council. Transfer of freight to rail and (ship) canal alternatives are limited by costs and delays of additional transshipment, or limited suitability of the goods involved.  So without major investment, road freight will dominate for the foreseeable future; and even with it, it will continue to dominate in the medium-term. 

Decarbonising of freight traffic associated with the Port is thus both an urgent challenge and yet one that has been hindered through poor and/or non-existent connections amongst all the relevant stakeholders. Conversely, meaningful action on this key issue (potentially of national significance given the cargo volumes passing through this key British port) will need a robust and durable consensus amongst these stakeholders that is capable of supporting a willingness to experiment, be flexible and compromise given the complexity of the issues involved. This is all the more important given a ‘you move first’ stalemate that characterises the sustainable transition of the freight/hub industry more generally: e.g. the sector looks to government for clear leads and support, but the government in turn looks back to the sector regarding, say, technology choice for zero emission vehicles.

Finally, and by no means least, the freight sector is already facing a ‘perfect storm’ of challenges, from Brexit, Covid (e.g. driver shortages), post-Covid supply chain disruptions and now fuel prices. Since many freight companies are small businesses on tight profit margins, and already fighting for their business survival, at best this means much of the freight sector simply does not have the capacity to grapple, meaningfully and urgently, with decarbonisation. At worst, decarbonisation risks being not just the proverbial straw, but a whole new bale, that breaks the camel’s back of many freight businesses, which could in turn spell serious disruption for the entire economy, both businesses and households. Conversely, though, if grasped as a strategic opportunity for the medium-term, it is possible decarbonisation could be a real catalyst of broader positive change for the industry and the economy more broadly. Such strategic action, however, inevitably involves the freight industry cultivating relations with actors who have been largely irrelevant to their operations to date, especially diverse local actors relevant to the major infrastructural decisions that must unfold in parallel with decarbonisation of the sector and their vehicles.

Our challenge was thus to begin the process of forging the necessary relations for this action to happen, convening the diverse range of stakeholders around this agenda and in ways they themselves would attest to be productive. 

What was the solution?

The project convened a series of three professionally-facilitated workshops to bring together a diverse set of stakeholders, many of whom had never before been in discussion with each other. Stakeholders were drawn from the freight sector itself (both large and smaller companies), the Port and its tenant businesses, local government (both local authority and combined authority), professional consultancies, academics and think tanks, and local groups and residents. A total of 23 participants from such roles (though not all attended all sessions) took part in a tailored set of three online workshops. These were based on the established Organizational Development method of ‘Appreciative Inquiry’. The workshops provided an opportunity to look collectively at the challenges anew and so open up imaginative ways of tackling them going forward. These online events were held in late May and early June. A final workshop, wrapping up the process and formulating ‘next steps’ was held in person in October. 

Alongside the workshops, a desk-based review of the existing measures and interventions for decarbonising road freight was carried out. The pros and cons of the different interventions and the potential scale of implementation for each intervention were identified. That information was presented as part of the workshops both to illustrate the challenge and to support discussion of what steps were likely to be most effective and most deliverable in moving towards a net zero scenario.  

The project has certainly not delivered a clear and final ‘solution’ to the challenges, in terms of an agreed plan to decarbonise freight in and out of the Port, but this was never our (unrealistic) goal.  Rather, through the series of workshops, key new connections amongst the stakeholders and relations (crucially, of trust) have been forged, and all involved offered strongly positive feedback about the potential for convening in ways similar to that delivered in this project as a constructive way forward to unlock the current stalemate. More specifically, through the workshops a set of principles, recommendations and concrete next steps were identified.   

Regarding the recommendations, these were: 

  • Establish a forum for ongoing participatory and place-based decision-making regarding action to deliver expedited freight transition servicing the Port, and platforms to build and maintain stronger relations between port, freight sector and city (e.g. a museum, visitor centre or open days on site). Both of these initiatives should manifest a commitment to a medium-term process of collective learning-by-doing. Commissioning research for an in-depth exploration of past failures to convene or sustain such multi-stakeholder fora could be an important contribution to this learning process.  
  • Continue to explore innovative and non-road solutions to improve connections and reduce carbon, for both containerised and non-containerised freight, between inland and the Port. 
  • Provide information on the effectiveness and suitability of various freight (and/or technological) options, with this made widely available, to logistics companies, their customer businesses, local government etc… (e.g. as scorecards). 
  • Explore who could deliver on demands for more accurate, granular and real-time data regarding freight movements, specifically into/out of/around the Port.  
  • As a key way to redefine the infrastructural challenges founded on clear win-win gains for all parties, actively explore the construction and provision of proper facilities for drivers, perhaps in conjunction with high-quality training for young people, at an appropriate location near the Port; possibly inland at a location easily reached by the motorway network. 
  • Continue to lobby national government for its support of Liverpool’s infrastructural needs, as identified over time by the above processes, and, more broadly, for development of a nationwide strategy and policy for re-rationalization of freight mobilities. 

And regarding concrete next steps: 

  • Expedited introduction of a Clean Air Zone policy for the T-shaped corridor of access to the Port (i.e. the A5036 and the A565 north and south of the Port entrance). 

  • A locked-in decision on the construction and siting of an inland hub, that will include adequate facilities for drivers and infrastructure for EV-HGV charging 

  • Consultation and recruitment of big shipping firms to the transition agenda for the Port of Liverpool (e.g. regarding points 1 and 2 in the first instance) 

Both these next steps and the recommendations will be pursued beyond the end of the project through new collaborations emergent from the project, including between the Lancaster University team, a firm of local organisational development consultants (Ai Change Management) and the newly established Liverpool Freeport, as potentially key hub and platform for such discussions and decisions in the Liverpool City Region.  

What are your top three lessons learned?

The project has delivered many lessons for all the diverse stakeholders.  The top three, however, could be summarised thus: 

First, the project confirmed that a new and different approach is needed to build consensus on the way forward– specifically, a place-based and participatory approach. This will be essential if meaningful progress is to be made on this agenda, involving all the diverse stakeholders affected. This approach has been test-run in this project and proven capable of stimulating significant collective interest and of being potentially scalable. Such an approach is also particularly promising because the transformation of specific commercial operations and of infrastructures affecting multiple localised stakeholders are inseparable and must happen in parallel. Meaningful decarbonisation of freight, associated with central trade hubs like ports, will involve complex, potentially costly and intrinsically place-based decisions on the upgrade and transformation of associated infrastructures, of many kinds. In short, an ongoing forum is needed to enable collective learning and intervention over the medium-term in key locations, such as around the Port of Liverpool. Convening and establishing such a forum will certainly not be a quick or easy task. It will demand significant time, coordination and careful curation, given the potential for crossed wires and miscommunication across such diverse stakeholder groups. But it seems by far the most promising way forward to enable the forms of action-based collective learning needed to tackle these entrenched, contested and urgent challenges.  

Secondly, two key hurdles, or rather questions, to achieving transition to net zero were identified, namely: 1) where does the money come from for the significant infrastructural redesign that will be needed?; and 2) how do we break the chicken-and-egg stalemate of selecting between emerging technological options for decarbonised freight? In both cases, though, these issues are potentially opened up, over the medium-term, by such place-based participatory processes where they build unified localised voices lobbying for specific investments and infrastructure. In short, enabling new relations congregated around a newly and more productively framed discussion can begin the process whereby these knots are progressively loosened. The key is to begin acting together in whatever ways are possible and to build shared commitment through such action. This then relates to the final key lesson.  

Thirdly, taking an ‘oblique’ approach may also be more effective for such complex, place-based issues than seeking to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ as it is already defined. This would involve tackling a seemingly distinct issue but in a way that significantly reframes, on altogether more promising grounds, the currently paralysed and contested issues of redesign of the Port-associated freight infrastructure adequate for the 21st century. Specifically, focusing on the freight sector’s separate but urgent priority of building adequate facilities for drivers – in this case, probably inland, near the motorway network – is potentially one way of introducing new ways of looking at the central issue of ‘final mile’ freight movements to the Port, while also itself delivering clear win-win outcomes in the meantime. This may also create the potential for a low-carbon transport hub, providing essential refuelling/charging facilities. The productive ‘win-win’ possibilities of this approach, however, only emerged through discussion enabled by the place-based participatory process of this project.   

Project impact

1.a. What have the outcomes of the project been so far? 

The project has formulated a decision pathway over the medium term, distilling the discussions from all the stakeholders involved, towards decarbonisation of all road freight in/out of the Seaforth Port. This is now being actively discussed with relevant local government bodies, at both local authority (Sefton, as partner to the project) and Combined Authority levels, as well as national freight bodies and firms. All stakeholders participating in the workshop series have also been put in touch with each other, with a view to continuing relations newly established.  

The results of the project have also been presented to and discussed at the existing formal Port Access Steering Group in September 2022, with a follow-up discussion to be arranged, at which the outcome (i.e. the ‘next steps’) of the final project workshop will be discussed. The lessons learned from the approach taken are expected to inform the developing Freeport programme of innovation focussed on decarbonising freight operations across the City Region. 

1.b. How will these outcomes be sustained? 

Through the emergent partnership with Ai Change Management, a follow-up event (likely for early 2023) is also now in the process of being organised.  This aims to convene a broader set of key stakeholders across the wider Liverpool city region, including from central government, with a view to taking up the next steps identified by the project.  On an ongoing basis, this event will also launch what we hope will become a regular monthly open forum on ‘Clean Growth’, hosted by the Athenaeum club in central Liverpool.  Crucially, the professional and commercial commitment of Ai Change Management to this agenda, and its strong existing connections to the Liverpool Freeport (as a key actor in the region), secures a regional champion for this agenda sustaining the momentum from this project in the longer-term, and with whom the Lancaster University team can collaborate. 

2. What is the anticipated longer-term impact on progress towards net zero (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions savings)? 

It is very difficult to specify or quantify the longer-term impact on progress towards net zero at this stage. However, by opening up a long-paralysed but key infrastructural challenge regarding freight transition that is of regional, and national, significance, we anticipate that the pathways initially mapped out by this project could have major impact in the medium-term – specifically, by enabling the kinds of collective learning that is absolutely essential in moving from situations of locked-in high-carbon mobilities to entirely redesigned zero emission infrastructures. 

3. How has this project evolved your approach to net zero (e.g. approach to stakeholders/ways of working)? 

The project has developed, rather than redirected, approaches to delivering net zero that the Lancaster team were already working towards. From this perspective, ‘sustainable transition’ remains an issue that is best approached as a process not a goal or end-point, and with the priority being to build new relations, connections and ways of working, that are then themselves self-sustaining. Undoubtedly, though, the project has deepened the project team’s experience of such work, and reinforced the importance of committing significant time and consideration to the most productive ways of reaching, involving and including diverse stakeholders. This is the learning process that will surely form the lion’s share of the ‘work’ of transition and the contribution of academics specifically to its expedited realisation. It has reinforced the need to build consensus in tackling the challenges of decarbonisation and demonstrated an approach that can help to reach that consensus position. 

4. Who will benefit from your project (please consider benefits to other parts of your organisations and your community)? 

There are some direct benefits for those individuals and organisations that took part in the project. The main benefit is that it has provided them with a ‘voice’ and an opportunity to participate in an open discussion of the issues and challenges facing the industry and the communities affected by freight operations. The project has invited some people and groups into the discussion about the way forward that had previously had no involvement and there has been a direct benefit for those groups that had previously felt excluded from any such conversations. 

The majority of potential benefits are indirect and would result from the implementation of the recommendations and next steps of the project. This will include widening the partnerships and stakeholders involved (e.g. to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital). The primary beneficiaries of the project will ultimately be local residents, especially those living (or going to school) in the vicinity of the current dual carriageway. Major improvements in air quality benefitting this group, however, may take some time to manifest; though, given the health emergency associated with this issue, it is for this reason specifically that our primary next step is to push for a Clean Air Zone along this corridor. 

Beyond this, other major beneficiaries of the project will be the freight industry and the Port, which will be significantly assisted in their respective net zero goals, as the multiple stalemates identified above are loosened. These actors will also benefit, via the suggested inland hub and drivers’ facilities, by the construction of new infrastructures that significantly improve the working conditions of their workforce. This, in turn, could contribute to improvement of industrial relations and, potentially, alleviation of chronic staff shortages. Of course, the drivers themselves will also benefit directly from those new facilities. Finally, all the relevant bodies devoted to local regeneration and ‘clean growth’ (e.g. local government, Liverpool Freeport etc…) will also benefit, as Liverpool becomes potentially an exemplar of net zero freight mobilities and, crucially how to achieve that, thereby attracting policy attention and investment.

Partnership development

Describe how your partnership developed over the course of the project 

The council and university partners had not worked together beforehand so this was an entirely new partnership. It quickly settled into a productive collaboration, supported by both sides attending the full programme of NZIP preparatory sessions. These enabled the formulation of the project and issues of effective collaboration and communication were addressed.  Regular progress meetings and a rough ‘division of labour’ were agreed. The university team (of 3) led on the day-to-day organisation of the project and its workshops (with the support of the professional facilitator). The council partner led on key introductions and data for the project, as well as advising the university team on local government or place-based issues.   

How will the partnership be sustained in the medium and longer term? 

The council lead officer directly involved in the project moved on to a new job in 2022. Nonetheless, the partnership between university and Council will continue through the involvement of the latter in the ongoing work noted above, now to be led by Ai Change Management, but with the university partner’s ongoing committed engagement.  Through the personal connections established between the partners, and the continuing relevance to this agenda of the new organisation to which the council officer has moved, the partnership will also be sustained by that organisation’s involvement in the work as well. 

Both parties are open to investigating opportunities for funding to continue the partnership work and extend the degree of stakeholder engagement and involvement in tackling the challenge of reducing freight transport carbon emissions. 

Further information

Email contacts from both partner organisations:  

Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University: [email protected]  

Sefton Council: [email protected] , [email protected]  

Relevant documents/tools produced in the project:  

DePoLARiZE nontechnical summary

DePoLARiZE technical summary

DePoLARiZE road freight decarbonization options

DePoLARiZE workshop report

DePoLARiZE workshop decision pathway