Best and worst of local democracy

THE recent special Northumberland County Council meeting on car parking strategy amply demonstrated the best and worst of local democracy, with the leader of the Conservative group, Peter Jackson, being the biggest loser.

Now he compounds his failure to grasp the opportunity he has craved for three years by suggesting it is the Liberal Democrats who are divided.

Car parking strategy in Northumberland was always seen as one of the most problematic challenges for the new authority.

Given the political make-up of the council it was also a policy area ripe for political shenanigans.

One cannot argue with the laudable concepts of equality and fairness of service provision; achieving them insofar as car parking is concerned is another matter altogether.

Passions are raised, political expediency abounds and rationale and clear thinking take a back seat.

The Liberal Democrat administration has attempted over the last 18 months to develop a strategy which establishes a consistent rationale for managing car parking across Northumberland; a strategy which recognises and allows for the differences of approach necessary in all of the county’s major settlements.

Crucially we have tried to separate ‘strategy’, i.e. why do we need a policy, from ‘charging’, i.e. should we charge and if so, how much?

Neither Labour nor Conservative councillors have ‘bought into’ the strategy.

The Tories have campaigned for ‘fairness’, which translates into imposing charging in the south east.

They have ignored or rejected suggestions that their approach would also mean charging in smaller settlements such as Haltwhistle, Ponteland and Rothbury.

Labour, representing almost exclusively the south east, stick rigidly to a ‘free parking’ concept and sought on Wednesday to get council to extend that idea to the whole of Northumberland.

There are no charges in any council owned car parks in the former Blyth Valley and Wansbeck areas.

The Labour councillors choose to forget that those former urban districts were much better funded than the four rural areas, and could therefore subsidise car parking.

Both opposition parties chose to ignore the extensive consultation exercise carried out by the administration over November, December and early January, and the consequent survey results.

Following a scrutiny review of the strategy developed as a result of the consultation results, and endorsed by the executive earlier in the summer, the recent meeting was about attempting to throw that strategy out.

A Conservative inspired motion was deemed inadmissible and a redrafted motion was superseded by a Labour amendment which called for cross-party working on a parking strategy.

The Liberal Democrat administration could support that as it meant the strategy approved by the executive would stand, and bizarrely a call for a named vote saw that part of the amendment carried unanimously.

Not so on a second motion seeking to have free parking extended to the whole of the county.

Now here was the chance for the Tories to achieve their aim – with both opposition parties combining the minority administration had to lose.

All but one of the Liberal Democrats voted against this proposal, simply because the financial implications haven’t been examined.

The Tories all abstained when they could have imposed a policy they have advocated vociferously for months – equality in charging across Northumberland.

As an executive member heavily involved in the consultation exercise I am clear the management of on-street and off-street parking to minimise congestion is the priority of many members of the public who came to the meetings.

Local businesses are naturally concerned that a car parking strategy should assist rather than frustrate their sales.

Non-car users are unhappy where their council tax subsidises car users; drivers get frustrated if they cannot find anywhere to park.

Balancing these different priorities is at the heart of the strategy.

Finance is important. The introduction of Civil Parking Enforcement (CPE) has been the aim of the council for some years

Northumberland is the only area within the Northumbria Police area where CPE remains with the police.

Abuse of the on-street parking restrictions is widespread; it just isn’t a consistent priority for the police.

The cost for Northumberland County Council to take on CPE will be significant but it is clear from all the consultation that controlling on-street car parking is a priority for many residents. Abolition of all car parking charges would mean the council has to find around £6m from council tax to fund the service.

Given the authority has saved £100m since 2008, finding £6m would mean cutbacks in other services.

Yes, by all means let’s have a shoppers’ permit scheme in all major settlements where charges are levied; and encourage residents to purchase the annual permit – at £2 per week excellent value for money.

Tourists expect to pay car parking charges so why should Northumberland residents fund car parks through council tax for tourists to use.

And I repeat that the administration has not made any decisions about charges in any settlement.

The final part of the strategy, which can now be implemented, is to hold discussions with each major locality to determine what should happen in that town.

So much misinformation has been sent out, I believe readers need to have the administration’s position on car parking.

ANDREW TEBBUTT

Executive Member for Corporate Resources

Northumberland County Council