Opinion: The myth of the council war on motorists

Despite being nominally committed to localism, this government, with Eric Pickles as secretary of state, has been unable to resist trying to micromanage councils’ local policies, whether on bin collections, or imminent legislation on car parking enforcement.

Even leaving aside the argument that such things are better decided locally, is there any truth to Pickles’ belief that councils are ‘waging war on the motorist’? In my experience, no. Councillors of all parties and council officers alike are all too aware of people’s frustration about finding parking spaces or receiving parking tickets.

If there has been any kind of war it has come from central government. From the 1990s, when John Gummer was secretary of state, governments reversed their previous policies that had encouraged out of town shopping, while making it unviable to regenerate town centres. Instead they introduced new planning rules to restrict out-of-town development and enhance town centres.

To stop this leading to more traffic congestion and to encourage use of other transport modes, they introduced upper limits parking provision in urban developments. So if councils have sought to reduce car use it has been at the behest of successive secretaries of state, not because they wish to wage war on motorists – indeed I have regularly heard councillors lament government rules that left us with little choice but to approve development schemes with inadequate parking.

Most councillors and council officials are inclined to pragmatism, knowing that parking provokes strong feelings. Where parking restrictions are imposed it is normally done for good reasons, which can include: keeping traffic flowing; avoiding congestion; safety of road users; ensuring a turnover of spaces to keep local businesses viable; allowing residents to park near their homes (hence permit parking). Often these will be introduced at the specific request of residents or businesses.

Which is why Pickles’ 10-minute nationally enforced grace period is a nonsense. It seems to be based on an assumption that those parking where they shouldn’t or longer than permitted are doing no harm. But in fact they may be holding up traffic unnecessarily, causing a safety hazard, preventing residents parking near their homes or depriving shops of potential paying customers.

There are many ways in which councils are already under strict central government control on parking policy. The cost of fines is set nationally. There is a parking appeals service to which motorists who feel they have been unfairly ticketed can appeal. And under laws related to loading and unloading there already has to be a five-minute observation period before issuing a ticket.

Nor is it the case that councils use parking as a cash cow. Under national rules, councils must ring-fence money from on-street parking enforcement for transport use. It can fund public transport, walking and cycling, all of which can help to reduce parking pressures. If councils are denied this income though being obliged to issue fewer tickets, either there will be less money for transport schemes or the cost will effectively be transferred from those who park illegally to all council tax payers.

Parking is a finite resource, the management of which has to be considered alongside preventing traffic congestion, encouraging road safety and creating a healthy local economy. Nearly all of us who have ever driven a car will have at some point been irritated by the difficulty of finding a parking space, getting a parking ticket that we felt was undeserved, or being inconvenienced by someone parking somewhere really stupid. There are always going to be conflicting views in any community about parking controls – but the point is these are best managed on the ground by those who are aware of specific local circumstances – not by diktat imposed from Whitehall and Westminster.

* Iain Sharpe has been a Liberal Democrat councillor in Watford since 1991. To read more about the history of the Liberal Democrats in Watford, see Winning the Watford Way, published by the Local Government Association Liberal Democrat Group.

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10 Comments

  • Iain Roberts 12th Mar '15 - 9:40am

    Good article Iain – fully agree. Pickles’ poorly-thought-out attempts to dictate a one-size-fits-all solution from the comfort of his Whitehall office are helping no-one.

  • I agree with Iain, a good article. whilst I broadly welcomed the formal recognition of the 10~15 minute grace period many operators already give motorists to initially find a working pay-and-display machine etc. and also generally don’t issue a ticket just because the car is one minute over it’s time. I had may reservations about this established practise becoming formalised.

  • How come towns in France manage without parking restrictions? Or, in most cases, the utterly ridiculous one-way systems of the sort that make places like Watford such hard work. Councils, with abilities that are, as ever, a minute fraction of what they think they are, are killing town centres.

  • Chris,
    How come towns in France manage without parking restrictions? Or, in most cases, the utterly ridiculous one-way systems of the sort that make places like Watford such hard work. Councils, with abilities that are, as ever, a minute fraction of what they think they are, are killing town centres.

    Parking restrictions are routine in France, and cars are banned from town centre streets, other than for residents or shop workers, in many places where they are very narrow.

  • Steve Griffiths 12th Mar '15 - 3:53pm

    @Chris

    “How come towns in France manage without parking restrictions? ”

    Simple. France has a similar population to the UK; slightly higher car ownership per head; over a million km of roads, as opposed to our around 400,000km and 2 to three times the land mass.

  • Alex Sabine 12th Mar '15 - 6:07pm

    Indeed, Steve. The more interesting question is not whether to ration scarce road space within congested cities (it will happen one way or another, including through traffic snarl-ups) but how to do so most effectively. Often the most subtle and adjustable mechanism is price (as with the congestion charge).

    Likewise, in an economically efficient system, parking will inevitably be more expensive in busy areas at busy times. I’m sure councils and the mayor need to improve traffic light sequencing and traffic flow management, roadworks and so on – but there isn’t a magic solution that will reconcile the desire for free parking and free travel with the desire to make road travel in a city like London somewhat tolerable.

  • Alex Sabine 12th Mar '15 - 6:37pm

    And I agree with Iain Sharpe that a nationally enforced 10-minute grace period doesn’t make much sense.

    For one thing I don’t see why this sort of thing should be a matter for central government at all. Likewise there are few more ludicrous manifestations of our over-centralised state in Britain than the Communities Secretary telling local councils how often they should be collecting the rubbish. I happen to agree with him about weekly bin collection, but it is none of his business other than as a private citizen. If we can’t trust councils to make decisions over things like this, and to be accountable to their voters for them, then we might as well dispense with the whole pretence of local government altogether.

    The other reason I don’t think it makes sense has to do with incentives and the likely behavioural effects of such a policy. It seems to me that all that will happen is that people will factor the extra 10 minutes into their allocated parking time. It is rather like extensions to essay deadlines at university. Once you’ve secured one, you rest easy again until the new, extended, deadline looms and panic mode sets in!

  • Stevan Rose 12th Mar '15 - 8:35pm

    “If we can’t trust councils to make decisions over things like this, and to be accountable to their voters for them, then we might as well dispense with the whole pretence of local government altogether.”

    Over 80% of people can’t name their councillors. I can’t myself as once elected they seem to have completely disappeared. So no, I can’t trust my council over things like this. There are way too many councillors giving them the ability to hide in the crowd. Cutting councillor numbers by 80% might restore some accountability and trust.

    Bolton town centre was utterly destroyed by the high cost of parking whilst free parking in surrounding retail parks attracted shoppers. Next door Bury has very reasonable parking charges and retail parks within walking distance of the centre. Guess which town centre I would use. Guess which town centre attracted major retail investment during the recession. Council policy over parking can make or break a town and some councils are incompetent. Iain may be right about Watford and the balance may be spot on there. It has been spot on in Bury under both Tory and Labour administrations. For a couple of decades it was wrong in Bolton and the once vibrant town is a wreck. An early Pickles intervention may have saved it.

    And I’m happy with my bin collections. 4 bins on 2 or 3 week rotations encourages maximum recycling. Want more, pay extra for a premium service as businesses do but don’t ask me to subsidise you.

  • ” Council policy over parking can make or break a town and some councils are incompetent. ”

    I would be interested to understand the drivers behind council policy on parking. In my area prior to the 2008 crash, town centre parking was practically all pay and display. Post crash, all the private (including NCP) parking has been free (provided you obey the constraints like no out of shop/shopping centre opening hours parking), whereas the council run parking has continued to be pay and display. The only concession being in 2008 £1 brought you an 1.25 hours parking, now it buys considerably less, but the minimum payment is still only a pound!

  • SIMON BANKS 16th Mar '15 - 1:32pm

    The grace period is not only centralising interference, it’s ridiculous. If I park where I’m permitted to park free for one hour and know that if I overstay by one minute I’m vulnerable, then unless I’m extremely forgetful or something demanding and unanticipated happens, I make sure I get back within the hour. If I know I’ve got ten minutes’ grace, then I know I can stay 69 minutes in the space safely and I’m then just as likely to complain if I’m booked after 71 minutes as I would have been before after 61.

    All it does is to change 60 minute parking spots into 70 minute ones.

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