Friday, 8 February 2019

Two hours free Town Centre parking and the elephant in the room!

The latest edition of Oracle dropped through my letter box this week and I see that the magazine is encouraging readers to download a petition form calling for Southend Council to make the first 2 hours parking in Town Centre car parks free to help stimulate town centre business.

This was one of the recommendations of an informative initiative facilitated by Philip Miller before Christmas to help save the Town Centre which included other excellent suggestions such as the reintroduction of vehicles to parts of the High Street and an increased emphasis on residential use.

It is difficult to argue against the claim that to introduce free parking would assist the retailers in the Town Centre however the problem with current calls is that no one is addressing the obvious elephant in the room namely what would fill the resulting and significant hole in the Council’s income.

In my time as Leader of the Council I asked officers to cost an initial period of free parking, but other than for a very limited introduction at Xmas, it was simply financially undeliverable. Instead we had to fall back on freezing the charges for 6 of the relevant 7 years and introducing other user friendly policies such as “pay on exit” – whatever happened to that!

For this to be deliverable there has to be a clear indication of how the hole in the Council’s finances would be filled – funding which would have to be income not capital and be sustainable moving forward.

There are other issues such as:
1. users would still need to take a ticket to check when the “free” period had expired;
2. what charge would apply after 2 hours? If at present levels the hit for staying slightly more than 2 hours would be dramatic and discourage stayers and to reduce would further erode income;
3. if the concession is limited to the Town Centre how would this affect parking on the seafront and preventing the Town Centre car parks filling with visitors not seeking to support retailers?

It is easy to say that the Council wastes money and it would be a brave man to deny that some waste existed however not at this level, particularly in circumstances where central government funding continues to decrease and demands for council services increase.

One option would be to increase council tax but this would be likely to require a local referendum and my experience of campaigning in local elections in the Town for the last 40 years is that it is highly unlikely that residents would support a council tax increase for this reason. Similarly money strapped businesses are unlikely to be able (or enthusiastic) about subsidising the scheme.

So a great idea but there needs to be a sensible debate on funding. In the meantime “pay on exit”, the return of 1 and 3 hour bands and machines that take cash would all help make council car parks more user friendly rather than downright hostile as they sometimes seem at present!

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Is cash no longer legal tender in Southend?

I have commented before on the efforts Southend Council appear to be making to dissuade visitors from using the Town's car parks by making payment as difficult as possible.

This came home to me again last week when my wife and I decided to go to the Odeon to see the latest Mary Poppins film. Perhaps I am showing my age but my mobile telephone is not permanently attached to my body and knowing that it would not be needed in the cinema I left it at home.

We were delighted to find a space in the small car park to the north of London Road close to Pizza Express and indeed were surprised to note the number of spaces available. Having got out of my car to find the payment machine the problem then dawned - the only available payment option was by phone or via the app and with no phone I was completely stymied. So there were spaces and I was happy and willing to pay but was unable to do so because of the absence of a payment machine which accepted cash or credit card.

There was someone else also trying to park who did not want to download the app and was trying to follow the directions to pay be text message but her attempts were being rejected.

So in the end we both left and parked further down London Road opposite Nazareth House avoiding any payment. Ok so this parking fee would not have underpinned the social care budget for the coming year but how often is this happening and how many visitors, like my fellow unsuccessful parker, are threatening not to return!