I arrived at the Bexleyheath Shopping Mall for 10:40 and thought I would
observe the Parking Consultation in action as I enjoyed a coffee nearby. The
Council had set up their effort off of the main thoroughfare and it was merely a
couple of notice boards plastered with laminated excerpts from the consultation
document that you can read online and a desk with a bowl of sweets and some
paperwork on it. Frankly, I have seen better efforts at a primary school
parents’ evening but of course if the point of the exercise was to try not to
get a great deal of interaction the location and set-up
certainly played their part.
After 40 minutes or so - in which I saw about half a dozen individuals stop and read the boards; and two people actually complete the questionnaire - I thought that I should go over and have a closer look myself. There were four young ladies from Bexley Council, one of whom approached me straight away and handed me a copy of the Strategic Parking Review, Issues & Options paper and very politely said she would be more than happy to answer any questions that I might have. She then left me to read the notice boards which I discovered had the same information on both sides and almost nothing that was not in the document that I had been given – and read online previously.
Clearly I had done my homework and come prepared with 15 or so questions that I thought would test the Council’s commitment to the whole affair. I returned to the Council employee that had previously approached me and asked her how it was all going? She was very positive and upbeat claiming that they were very happy with the level of responses and considered it quite busy so far. Really? That was not what I had observed but as I did not want to alienate her, yet, I let this little white lie pass. According to her absolutely nothing had yet been decided and the Council was completely open to all ideas and questions from residents. She assured me that Bexley Council really wanted people to challenge the Parking Review. I didn’t feel the need to enlighten her as to what was probably the real agenda here and her naiveté was rather refreshing. She appeared to genuinely believe that this was all a good thing even assuring me that all questions have to be answered owing to the importance of the consultation. I pointed out that not all replies by Bexley Council always give a reasonable level of detail which she seemed to struggle to accept. We agreed to differ on this. I discovered that she had volunteered for this stint on the consultation and was not getting any pay or flexitime for her pains. (It transpired that all present felt somewhat pressured to please the Council management in order that they would not be the first candidates for any upcoming redundancies) - I actually felt a bit sorry for them.
Interestingly, none of them came from the Parking Department at the Council and there was not a Bexley Council manager in sight. I mean why would you want a parking specialist wasting their time if the point of the exercise was just a public relations exercise? And perhaps no manager fears for their cosy post. Unfortunately, I must confess that by this juncture I feared that their detailed knowledge might not quite be up to my own and my initial suspicions were soon confirmed.
It was agreed that when the consultation included a main objective that ‘Council Car Parks will be provided ONLY where they are the ONLY practical way of effectively meeting the parking demand in the area and the available land is used in the most efficient way’ then this was carte blanche to sell every car park in sight. This one statement clearly precluded everything else and the fact that it had been stated meant the whole exercise was meaningless as these restrictions limited any other course of action. It was agreed to feed this back but as she took no notes I will not hold my breath.
We both chuckled at how the Council could claim that parking should support social and environmental objectives without managing to indicate any social or environmental objectives at all. Meaningless tosh, but then par for the course here in Bexley.
I enjoyed pointing out that the financial difficulties highlighted in relation to parking in Bexley seemed somewhat fatuous given a stated £4.6 million income and a surplus of £1.7 million in 2011-12. I enquired how the Council could justify more than doubling the surplus in a year that had seen parking charges, and residents parking permits, massively increased and was informed that the cost of living is always going up and there was always room for financial improvement. I suggested that her wages did not rise this sharply and she commented that she had never had a pay rise in the three and a half years so far spent at Bexley Council. Poor girl, I think that this really did give her pause for thought!
One key fact on the board really caught my attention and that was the canard about it costing £2.50 to park for an hour in Greenwich town centre. My young lady really struggled to explain why this was deemed so important to Bexley Council’s Strategic Parking Review. She did not know it was actually free to use the car park after 6:30pm whereas the Bexleyheath Civic Centre car park is a 24/7 payment option and that there are multiple car parks in Greenwich Borough that cost less than many in Bexley. She does now! Fancy Bexley Council choosing to deliberately mislead residents and not compare like with like?
I was curious how the consultation document could claim that not all car parks are well used and cost significantly more to run than they make in ticket sales; and then in very next sentence indicate an as yet incomplete assessment of the council car parks to confirm how they are performing and their running costs. The Council employee thought they might be using some old data to ‘guess’ (her words, not mine) this. I couldn’t have agreed more. Surely the Council would never jump to premature conclusions? Or perhaps they are just busy finalising their data to make sure that it demonstrates precisely what they want it to. I wonder why the spurious Residents Parking Permits report sprang so quickly to mind?
The Council has asked whether it is right to try and generate a financial surplus from parking? I countered by asking to be provided with the legal basis for generating this surplus from parking revenue? Alas my amiable council employee had no knowledge of the law in this area and again seemed very surprised that the Council might in fact be breaking the law if its sole intention was to raise revenue from parking. It can legally cover costs but generating a deliberate surplus to fund benefits to general service delivery may well fall foul of the law. Bexley Council really should be much smarter in this area.
At some point a colleague came over to give the lady dealing with me some support - was I really making that much of an impression? Perhaps it had more to do with the fact that in the 25 minutes I was there only about five people came over to the consultation displays; and one of these only took some sweets whilst mumbling he had come by bus today. I tried the new lady with how a regular member of the public could be reasonably expected to provide a meaningful answer to whether private operators are best placed to deal with poorly performing car parks? I asked, what could they possibly base an answer on? She thought there might be a worry that the private operators would raise prices. What even more than Bexley Council? I actually laughed as I explained to the pair of them that it was only 50p per hour in the Sainsbury’s car park and £1 here at the Shopping Mall got you two hours. Now that is double what it would cost you in the Bexleyheath Council car parks. They seemed surprised and I began to wonder if as council employees they ever had to pay to use car parks in Bexleyheath.
I enquired where the numbers being quoted in the consultation originated from but this was not known. I asked for a copy of the Bexley Parking Accounts but was informed that this was not something that any of them knew about or had to hand. I was now convinced that whole exercise was a sham as how could anything meaningful be achieved if there were no real data to consider or valid comparisons of business models and plans to be provided to those genuinely curious about the whole affair. Well done Bexley Council, another pointless exercise to your credit. I certainly will not be holding my breath to see if any residents’ comments or ideas make it into the final plan suggestions for action. Fat chance!
One interesting aside that arose during my conversation with the Bexley Council employees was around our old favourite councillor Peter Craske. I think that I was saying I was glad he was no longer running the show as he had been such a poisonous influence in the past. One of them seemed aware that he had stepped down as a Cabinet member but was not at all sure why? Suffice to say I was able to bring the pair of them up to speed with his arrest for misconduct in public office, as reported in the News Shopper, and we may have speculated amongst ourselves what transgressions this offence might encompass. I can only hope that they do not go straight back to their other work colleagues and share this idle gossip. I would be really upset if he could not walk into his old department without someone saying ‘no smoke without fire, eh?’
Report by Nicholas Dowling
22nd September 2012