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Parking panic - u-turn confirmed

August 19, 2011 12:16 PM
By Trevor Carbin

Wiltshire Council's all-Conservative cabinet met on Friday 19th August to attempt to undo the damage done to the Salisbury economy by their decision to double parking fees in the city. In order to discourage too many protesters from attending, the meeting was held in Devizes, at the old Kennet District Council offices, beginning at the unusually early hour of 9.30am.

The meeting was called after council leader Jane Scott and the cabinet member responsible for the parking fiasco Dick Tonge met representatives from organisations including City Centre Management, Salisbury City Council and Salisbury & District Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

At that meeting on August 8 it was proposed that one-hour parking should be reintroduced at a charge of £1.50, and the two-hour parking charge should be increased again to £2.50.

The cabinet report estimates the cost of the changes to be £540,000. However WC's attempts to forecast parking income have previously been wildly inaccurate because they failed to take into account changes of behaviour by drivers in response to increases. WC now say they'll work with accountants to attempt to get a better way of assessing likely income.

WC had previously said it was impossible to implement changes to existing prices quickly because of the legal processes involved. Now they admit that it can be done, and the new charges will start on September 19th.

The two-hour minimum stay was introduced earlier this year after the council racked up car parking charges across the county - allegedly following consultation with local people and business leaders. WC has repeatedly claimed that any surplus revenue raised by car parking would be used to subsidise bus services.

When the changes to parking charges were being drawn up by Wiltshire Conservatives, Salisbury was treated as a unique case for a number of reasons including that it has a Park & Ride service unlike other towns in the county. It was, therefore, the only place in Wiltshire where a two-hour minimum charge was introduced.

WC thought that a two-hour minimum charge in Salisbury would encourage people to stay in the town longer and visit more retailers. In fact it encouraged them to avoid Salisbury and visit retailers in Southampton.

At the cabinet meeting parking supremo Dick Tonge failed to attend and it was left to council leader Jane Scott and deputy John Thompson to propose and defend the u-turn. A number of Conservative backbenchers also attended and a concerted attempt was made to deflect the blame onto retailers themselves, the global economic situation, and the City Council. Salisbury councillor Bill Moss gave a detailed history lesson which tried to pin the blame for the fiasco squarely onto the shoulders of the late minister John Prescott.

Speaking for the Liberal Democrats Cllr Peter Colmer asked about the effects on the council's budget of the £500,000 drop in income added to the £540,000 per annum costs of the changes. He also asked what was to be done to help other towns across the county.

In reply to a statement by John Thompson (Con), that even the big supermarkets were seeing a 4% drop in trade, Lib Dem leader Jon Hubbard pointed out that many independent retailers would be glad if their trade had dropped by only 4% since charges were hiked up in April. "The council should support retailers and not be a burden upon them," he stated. Jon also said that attempts to deflect the blame were phony - Wiltshire Council's Conservative cabinet, and no-one else, was responsible for setting parking charges. He was concerned also that the proposed review of the impact of the doubling of parking charges would get lost in the WC bureaucracy.

Jane Scott responded by saying the evidence would be collected over the first six months and then examined. She claimed the change of policy in Salisbury was a victory for democracy: "We're not u-turning," she announced.

Thompson also stated that anyone with a bus pass can use the city Park and Ride for free. He said the new charges would be introduced from September 19th, and there would be a cross-county review of the affects of parking charges over the winter.