A tale of parking (and a very expensive suit)

Parking was always one of the trickiest issues for local government; it is at one and the same time a potential moneyspinner and political dynamite.  The reason?  Quite apart from being in effect a stealth tax (though not a very stealthy one), parking arrangements are about access to resources which affect livelihoods so passions are bound to run high.   The issues are not new but with many councils revisiting parking charges in response to financial pressures and reorganisation (see for example here and here), I thought I would describe my experience of some years ago. 

In the borough where I then lived, a new Labour administration decided out of the blue and without any consultation to introduce a pay-and-display scheme in our suburban village.  The Conservatives had done the same about 3 years earlier but reversed it very fast when locals started discussing putting up a ratepayers’ candidate – they would have lost at least one ward and with it the borough.   Labour clearly had no difficulty with the idea of ‘taxing’ an area that had, after all, continued to vote Tory.

Then what should have been a simple administrative exercise, blew up in their face.  Small businesses remembered the impact of the earlier impost – up to 30% loss of revenue for some traders apparently – and a committee was formed.  I suggested a survey to generate some hard data which we could comb through for stuff that would help the locals’ case. 

Bingo!  Some expected no change to their business but many saw their strength as providing convenience shopping, believed that convenience stores that are not convenient because of parking restrictions are problematical at best, and expected that they would lose trade.  (They had the earlier experience to go on so this was not fanciful).  They expected that they would have to lay off staff, in aggregate nearly 200. 

Hence the headline in the local paper next week was along the lines of, “Labour plan to cost 200 jobs” with the article noting that these were mostly shop assistants and the like and not the richer local residents.   The lying little ratfink who was committee chairman tried to claim that the proposals were not about raising revenue but were done at the request of local traders but could not/would not substantiate this claim in any way.   The Labour group leader had to take over to save the situation. 

Where it got really bizarre was when a delegation went to the town hall to meet the director concerned.  (I should explain that the town hall is about 30 minutes travel time away even outside the rush hour which rather calls into question what ‘local’ government actually means.)

We arrived and were shown into a small meeting room.  A few minutes later the Director swept into the room followed by two acolytes clutching notepads.   Two things struck me immediately about him, his incredibly arrogant attitude – he came in looking as if he had just stepped in something mildly unpleasant – and his suit.  It was an amazing suit, a really beautiful, hand-made Very Expensive Suit.  Somewhere out there, I thought, is a young couple living in a modest terraced house who fondly image that their Council Tax for the year is buying bin collections and schooling and stuff, but actually most of it’s gone on this suit.

After minimal introductions he kicked off.

Very Expensive Suit:  “I think you should understand from the outset that you have no chance of getting us on a maladministration charge.  Lots of people have reported us to the Ombudsman but we always win easily.”

Peasants (for that was the sense of it):  “Uh!!!   What???    Actually, we just wanted to talk about parking.  We agree there’s a problem; some people just park all day while working.  This blocks access and creates the impression that parking is difficult.  We want people to think of coming to the Village as an easy and user-friendly experience.”

VES (clearly taken aback and somewhat deflated):   “Oh!  Right then.  Well, we’re going to make the hourly rate less than it was before.  And we’ve always had parking charges in the big centres in the Borough”

Peasants:  “Yes, but it’s not just about the rate.  It’s convenience as much as anything; not all centres are equal, the bigger ones are destinations, this area is primarily about convenience and if it’s no longer convenient some of the businesses will be toast.  And anyway Cllr Lying Ratfink has said it’s not about revenue, only about rationing access to stop long-stayers blocking the best bits.  Also we doubt that you can successfully charge here because the people who still come will have the option of parking for free on surrounding residential streets.  That is a big difference between the Village and the larger centres where that isn’t really an option.”

VES:  “Unfortunately we can’t ration access except by charging but we’ve done what we can by reducing the proposed hourly rate.”

Peasants:   “Oh yes you can.  Parking disks are an excellent way to ration use, they’re a really cheap system to operate and user-friendly.  Young mums with a baby or a pensioners with arthritis don’t have to go to and fro in the rain or snow getting a ticket and putting it on the windscreen.  In fact, it’s really important to get it right for everyone.   The hardware shop complains that he is being squeezed out of existence by the hairdresser opposite.  They employ six girls and all drive to work and park outside all day every day.   He’s tried asking nicely if they wouldn’t mind parking just a few yards further away but they can’t be bothered.”

VES:  “But we don’t use parking disks anywhere in the Borough.”

Peasants:  “But you could, with potential advantages across the Borough.  Eden DC is one example of a council that uses them sensibly.  The big car parks in Penrith are pay and display.  Peripheral car parks and parking in small towns like Appleby-in-Westmoreland where the ‘market’ just wouldn’t stand charges just use disks.  And of course enforcement is much easier because you don’t have to catch the same car twice an hour apart to know it’s overstayed.  Once time is expired a car is immediately exposed to being caught so revenue from this is likely to be higher.”

VES:  “But there is a problem.  The government [the Major government] is worried that councils aren’t ‘sweating’ their assets, so they’ve introduced a new rule.  We must make a commercial return on every asset we have and they deduct this from the funding they give us whether we actually make that return or not.   So we must have an income from the car park.”

Peasants:  “Ah!  So despite Cllr Ratfink’s assertions to the contrary this is all about funding.”  A thought strikes, “You do realise that economically it stands to reason that if businesses are harmed their rateable value will ultimately be reduced, not to mention the loss of jobs and tax revenue and so on.”

A strange thing is happening.   VES is beginning to enjoy the debate and he visibly morphs into a Human Being, sort of like the ending of Animal Farm, but in reverse.  Also we’re clearly promoted to real people.

HB:  “Oh, yes.  We understand that perfectly but we don’t get the Business Rate, it’s just parcelled up and handed over to Westminster leaving us with no choice.”

People:   “Ooh, err.  That’s completely mad.”

The Director is now very relaxed and is getting positively genial.  He begins to let his hair down a bit.

HB:  “You have to realise that the success or failure of small businesses in the Borough doesn’t matter to us at all;  it makes no difference to us.”

People:   “Uh!!!”

What he’s just said is mind-boggling but literally true in the financial context in which it was said.  The implication is that the lack of financial footprint on the council means that they don’t respond to economic logic but to other forces – and that means lobbying and that in turn means big business who have the time and the means to exert all sorts of pressure.  We’ve done well to get as far as we have since small business can normally be disregarded from a lobbying point of view.   Government is behaving like a drunken elephant, as likely to tread on you as to help.  I get a new insight into why all those well-meaning initiatives from central government to help business never seem to get any traction but run out somewhere in the sands of bureaucracy.  If you haven’t already done so I recommend you head over to the Royal Society of Arts and read David Boyle’s excellent piece on the Perils of Obsessive Measurement (which is just the same thing by another name.)  

To continue:

People:  “The way you’re talking it sounds as if you would sell your grandmother for sixpence never mind the consequences for tomorrow.”

HB:  “Oh, yes.  Sixpence for granny sounds like a really great deal from where I sit.  The pressure on us is intense”

People:  “And what of tomorrow?  Is there no strategy?”

HB:  “Tomorrow will have to look out for itself.  We only have time for firefighting, not strategy.”

(Obviously, I’ve had to reconstruct this conversation from 14 or 15-year-old memories and use minor poetic licence to do so, but it’s not a lot wrong.  In particular, the opening ‘ombudsman’ quote, the ‘small business doesn’t matter to us’ quote and the grandmother exchange are pretty much spot on.  I could never forget those.)

It was still a very expensive suit but we parted on good terms with me thinking that the whole sorry mess ought to be right in the Lib Dem’s sights.  Who would not wish to argue for rational resource allocation, a system that is genuinely open to all and not just the big players, local government that is actually local and not tied in knots by Westminster rules nor one that behaves like a distant Raj, one that is open and always on the look out for better and more efficient ways of doing things?  And this is a people-friendly and green solution;  if government action did inadvertantly push the Village over the brink into commercial failure the hardest hit would be the least mobile while congestion would certainly increase as locals would have to go further (i.e. drive further) to do their errands.  

The council eventually settled on an alternative but stupidly expensive scheme. 

So, to all the councillors who have to make tough calls on parking, good luck.  You’ll need it.   Please avoid Ratfink’s bad example and be straight about the real motive – rational allocation of scarce spaces or fundraising and if the latter, remember to include all the costs and benefits in your evaluation.   If Westminster rules don’t allow this then lobby to change them (and especially to repatriate business rates to local control).   And remember;  one size rarely fits all, although it may be more bureaucratically tidy.

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