A stirring victory for people power or an ignominious political climbdown? Either way, much debated parking charges are not coming to a clutch of Cotswold towns – at the moment. But what does this episode tell us about political engagement and how are increasingly cash-strapped local councils going to find the money to keep services going? ALAN GEERE investigates
When the end came it was short and, for hundreds of campaigners, sweet:
“After carefully considering the views of the public, parish and town councils, and businesses, Stroud District Council is stopping proposals to charge for car parking in Dursley, Nailsworth, Wotton-under-Edge and Stratford Park in Stroud.
“We have listened to concerns and it is has become clear during the past months that high street traders face a rapidly changing commercial challenge from a wide range of online services. I am keen to continue dialogue with traders and councils about these ongoing challenges for town centres.”
That carefully worded statement from Stroud District Council (SDC) leader Doina Cornell brought to an end months of ‘consultation’ – in the form of angry voices from every quarter – which signalled an unprecedented level of political engagement from people whose previous dealings with the council stretched from putting the right stuff in the recycling bin to paying their council tax by direct debit.
The three towns on the western edge of the Cotswolds rose up in righteous indignation and, for the time being at least, appear to have staved off the threat of parking machines, attendants and fixed penalty notices.
Nailsworth, especially, wore its heart on its sleeve plastering the town with banners proclaiming ‘Don’t take the P out of Nailsworth’ (above) and organising a public meeting that was attended by 300 people.
“This is great news for Nailsworth and the other towns in the review,” said Nailsworth mayor Jonathan Duckworth, who led the protests from the front. “We'd like to thank all those that have taken part in the fight for our town's future; there have been very many people involved and it is the united front that has been most powerful in this.
|On Patrol: The parking attendant at Morrisons in Nailsworth|
“We will work with SDC in the coming months but this will be more productive in an atmosphere of openness and partnership. We hope that their approach will now be different.”
Under consideration were eight parking areas in Nailsworth, four in Dursley and three in Wotton-under-Edge. The proposed charges ranged from 50p for an hour up to £2.50 all day and would have been introduced in January 2019.
Detailed proposals were first put forward by council officers in 2011 but the idea of parking charges has been around since the 1970s.
SDC commissioned a 36-page report from consultants Arup – ‘We shape a better world’ is their claim – which concluded that charging actually benefits the local economy.
“Fair charging encourages commuters to park in long stay locations, leaving the prime parking spaces for visitors and shoppers,” says the report, also concluding “there is no evidence to suggest that introducing car park charges will lead to a decrease in footfall”.
Not so, says Mayor Duckworth, who says the report fails to provide evidence of congestion in Nailsworth and does not acknowledge the Nailsworth has very few public facilities and gets almost no funding from SDC.
“Nailsworth has no secondary school, no museum, no canal, no Sub Rooms, no railway station, no sports centre, no swimming pool, no shopping centre for SDC to invest in. Nailsworth is different,” Duckworth countered.
|A resounding ‘No’ from a packed public meeting at Nailsworth Town Hall|
But back comes council leader Cornell: “Yes, well that is the Nailsworth view which is quite interesting. I think what is also interesting having talked to people in Nailsworth, about some of the things we do is that people aren’t always aware of the services the district council provides.
“Because a lot of our services might be for quite vulnerable individuals not everyone gets them. Nailsworth is having its sheltered housing redeveloped or we are working on anti-social behaviour so not everyone necessarily knows that’s going on.”
Two weeks before the end of the public consultation period last month 300 people packed into a public meeting at Nailsworth Town Hall to make its voice heard with a resounding ‘No’ to charges.
"We're lucky if we usually get 50 or 60 to any kind of meeting," said Duckworth. "But it was clearly an emotive subject which helps account for the fantastic response."
Nailsworth had put aside a fighting fund of £20,000 to go down a legal challenge route if the charges had made it through the council chamber. While that's not needed right now there's every indication that the issue could find its way back on to agenda.
"They will have to come back with some sound reasons," says Duckworth. "At the moment it just looks like a way of raising money which is not a legitimate reason for doing it."
|Worried traders Lee & Janet Buffrey in their Dursley sweetshop|
But the mood is clear. "Introducing car parking charges will kill this street," says Lee Buffrey from behind his counter at Hewitts newsagents and sweet shop. "We've already had customers say they would not come in to town if they had to pay 50p to park."
His wife Janet agrees. "It would have made a big difference, but I don't think the politicians expected such a backlash from the towns."
But there is a problem with parking. People queuing to get in to the car parks block the town centre roads quickly causing gridlock, if that doesn’t seem a perverse expression for a charming Cotswold town of 6,700 people.
Supermarket Sainsbury's has the biggest car park in the town and campaigners point out that this would still remain free so are concerned that charging would not help ease congestion.
Interestingly, there is no mention in the Arup report of either this Sainsbury's car park or a similarly popular parking area at Morrisons in Nailsworth. Both supermarket giants confirmed to the WDP that they would continue to operate a free car park 'for customers' but were less clear on enforcement measures.
Morrisons does have an attendant who monitors comings and goings, but there is no empirical measurement, like a ticket machine or Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) that would make it a transparent exercise for all involved.
Clearly the presence of these car parks knocks a bit of a hole in the ‘tackling congestion’ argument and Cllr Cornell admits: "I don’t know where we are with the supermarkets.
"There was a conversation which officers did have with all the supermarkets and as far as I understood they would continue to operate their free car parking, but there may have been some schemes as regards people going into shop there."
So, for the time being, those strident banners can be taken down. But who knows when they might need to be dusted off…
Council leader says issue has not gone away
For the council at the centre of ‘Parking Wars’ it’s more a case of a break in hostilities rather than a wholesale surrender.
“I think we’ve got to look at it again. Personally, I’ve always felt it was important to look at how car parking charges can be used as a way to manage congestion,” council leader Doina Cornell (right) told the WDP in an exclusive interview at her Stroud District Council office.
Cornell leads a cooperative – some may say, unholy – alliance of Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat councillors who together outnumber the Conservatives by just seven seats. Political considerations are, by necessity, never far away.
“I represent Dursley which is one of the towns affected and I think there is an issue with car use. Traffic nationally and in rural areas is going up and up and our town centres are finite so it is inevitably more and more of an issue.
“People drive a lot and public transport isn’t good enough so the alternatives aren’t ideal for people either. There isn’t enough public transport and in rural areas buses are really expensive, so even if you want to use the bus and are happy to use a bus it’s not necessarily practical so we can’t just completely do nothing.
“I think we have to look at it again but I think we’re going to have to talk to town councils. Town councils are saying charges are very difficult for local businesses. That’s fine, but we’ve got to ask ‘okay, so what do we do, how do we manage this going forward?’”
Cornell also feels the parking debate highlights a bigger issue in the towns. “I think what it’s brought out for us is the question of viability of the high street. Since we made the initial decision to look into this as a possibility last year there’s been a lot of bad news stories and so that’s something that’s come across quite strongly about retail, the state of the high street particularly in small towns.”
And how has she reacted to the vociferous opposition? “Proportionally of course if you look at the population of the Stroud District the people who have engaged with this is actually quite tiny. It’s a minority but still more than on other issues.
“It’s interesting that obviously car parking is one thing that people have engaged with, maybe because it’s so visible. I mean there are other things we’ve done which no one seems to have an issue with.
“I’ve never had anyone protesting about planning application charges going up so it’s interesting what people pick up on politically to engage with.
“I suppose to take some positives out of the whole experience. I’ve had lots of conversations with people and had emails from people which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Perhaps it was rather unusual way to engage with lots of people but it has given an insight into what people are thinking.”
- The article originally appeared as a 'Long Read' in the Western Daily Press of August 28 2018