On 24 July the Environment Committee considered an item raised by Cllr Alan Schneiderman for 30 minutes of free parking in all Town Centres. Alan is clearly and properly worried that we will lose our High Streets which are valuable places of social cohesion.
The Lead Commissioner for Housing and Environment (Barnet Council delight in abstract titles for their staff) produced a report which left Alan dazed and confused, as it did Mr Mustard at first sight, as the cost for this eminently sensible idea was £3.2 million which was more than the entire parking income for the year (£3.0m).
At the meeting, quite wrongly, some pre-prepared information was handed out, but only to councillors. Mr Mustard wanted it and asked for a copy afterwards. This is the response he got:
I can confirm that all the papers circulated at committee last night will be appended to the committee minutes when they are published.
There is a question whether any decision taken would have been lawful as all papers should be published 5 days before the meeting. Mr Mustard doesn't personally mind too much if extra information is published a bit late as long as it goes on the website and copies are available at the meeting. Governance please take note.
Nearly a month later and the minutes have not yet been published which is rather tardy. It is a good job that a kindly soul pushed a copy through Mr Mustard's letterbox.
Mr Mustard turned on armchair audit mode and studied each figure closely.
He couldn't argue with the first 30 minutes representing 32% of all paid for parking, it seems to be in the right area and he hasn't got any data about income by time period. if you do, please let Mr Mustard know where to look.
The figure derived from reductions in PCN given out for codes 05 (Parked after the expiry of paid for time) and 82 (not 83) the same contravention in car parks, is utter tosh. In the year ended March 13 there were 3,054 PCN for code 05 and 389 for code 82. The value of those PCN at £45 each (average collection) is £154,935 and Mr Mustard ascribes half of those offence to short term parking periods.
The traffic warden (CEO) having to return to make sure you have not re-parked for another free 30 minutes (how many people could be bothered, really?) would not prevent the issue of 10% of PCN across the whole borough as for much of the time the traffic wardens are patrolling CPZs looking out for missing and expired permits and there are other roads outside CPZs where they are looking for dropped kerbs that are blocked, double yellow lines and parking on the pavement.
Secondly traffic wardens issue 2 PCN an hour. They can issue a PCN in under a minute if they are so inclined and they frequently do, let us take 2 minutes as the average time. So 4 minutes per hour are spent issuing PCN and 56 minutes per hour spent observing & patrolling (imagine a vulture circling in the sky) popping into Barclays in High Barnet and then using the cash point (yes that was Mr Mustard watching you Mr Traffic Warden) popping into High Barnet post office leaving their scooter outside, chatting on their mobiles and hiding from the rain, so there is no shortage of free time for logging.
Signs do not cost £150 each as a freedom of information request 2 years ago showed the true figure to be about half of that.
Extra income generated by more transactions, presumably by more people visiting the town and then deciding to stay longer than 30 minutes is about £166,000 as PayByPhone charges are about 10% of income. Someone forgot to put the (inconvenient) extra income into the chart. Mr Mustard has redone the figures, as follows:
|30 minutes free||£|
|Cost of free parking – income foregone||976,000|
|Reduction in PCN income -||78,000|
|No return logging – slower PCN issue||0|
|New signs – 433 * 2||65,000|
|New car park signs||4,500|
|Reconfiguration of meters||20,000|
|Increased paybyphone fees||16,600|
|Total lost income / extra costs||1,160,100|
|less, extra income generated||166,000|
That is a much more palatable figure and split across the 20+ Town Centres is only £50,000 per town, which is chickenfeed compared to the potential benefits to Barnet society as a whole. Was the write of the report biased towards making the cost as high as possible? These are some snippets from the report which you can read on this link at item 6.
- There is an absence of data ... means that parking utilisation and turnover levels are not known (or, we have completely failed to properly track usage in the past so make decisions based on gut feel or revenue)
- free parking, would undoubtedly increase patronage (why not not just get on with it?)
- a free 30 minute parking period ....have a financial consequence (now we see the meat)
- Committee will... need to consider where funding for the other projects will come from (this is completely and absolutely the wrong way to look at things).
- for the financial year 2013/14, there is a surplus on the Special Parking Account of £7,543,640, and this money has been earmarked to pay for permitted projects. If 30 minutes free parking is introduced...this is expected to have an impact on the surplus by reducing it by £3.2million meaning that earmarked projects will not be viable or funding for these will have to come from the general fund.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
For a start the SPA for 20-13/14 has been made and cannot be changed. The SPA will only be reduced in the year that free parking were to be introduced. It is not permitted to rely on the SPA as a profit making centre in its own right. Any surplus generated can only be spent on certain transport related spending but that does not mean that those items, such as the Freedom Pass (which costs us about £10million in Barnet and wipes out the SPA surplus on its own) have to be funded entirely from the SPA. The SPA should not be relied on. Let us suppose, for a moment, that Barnet Council ran the SPA on a break even basis such that there was a zero surplus at the year-end. the Freedom pass would still have to be funded and it would have to come from the first line of payment, the general fund. that is what the general fund is for. Now Barnet can generate money from paid for parking and PCN and instead of accepting whatever amount happens to be generated each year an estimate is put into the budget and is then treated as a target to be achieved by hook or by crook; indeed,w hen the surplus was going to be lower than expected, a parking recovery plan was put in place mid-year.
So, if free parking were to be implement, we would be in a situation, based upon Mr mustard's figures of having a surplus of £6.5m rather than £7.5m, that is still £6.4m which could be used to subsidise the general fund. The £6.5m can then be earmarked, the "free parking" money which has been foregone never could be.
What was missing from the report? Any consideration of how much money might be generated for traders who pay a fortune in business rates and appear to get very little for them. Their business success is largely dependent upon the willingness of the council to invest in and properly manage the town centres. As business rates largely go to central government and as Barnet Council plead poverty all the time, they aren't rushing to make town centres fantastic places to visit. Free parking, rationed by time and not by money, would make a huge difference to the viability and popularity of town centres. What the report should have suggested was taking one town centre, one with low usage but half decent shops (Lodge Lane Car Park in North Finchley is at least half empty every time I look in it) asked some shop keepers for turnover figures for a 3 month period and then tried free parking for the same 3 month period this year to see if turnover went up and by how much. They could also have measured if the parking receipts & PCN went up or down overall. This would be by nature of a trial the results of which could then have been used to decide upon a borough-wide policy. The council don't seem to have the wit to try something so sensible. When our High Streets are in their death throes is probably when they will react and it will be much harder to revive them by then.
Officers need to turn their thinking around. The SPA is not a valid substitute for Council Tax. Did you learn nothing from the Residents Parking Judicial Review?
Please may we see more accurate and less biased reports to council committees in the future. If they relate to parking, be aware that they will be thoroughly dissected by Mr Mustard.