Friday, 13 January 2012

My letter to todays Courant about the parking permit

Dear Editor,
I was surprised to read the article about the councils proposed shoppers parking permit ("Town parking charges may leap",  6th January). The only leap that was accurately reported was the leap made by the journalist to go from the fact that as yet no budget has been freed up next year for this scheme to the idea that all or part of the cost would be recouped from increased parking charges. The council reviews it's charges every year and parking is no exception. But that does not mean that the parking permit will be funded from other parking charges. It will be funded from the general budget. If anyone had asked a member of the Lib Dem administration at county hall we would have been happy to clarify this issue.
I join the Hexham Business Forum in welcoming the scheme, which will encourage local residents to shop in times of lower demand for parking by rewarding them with free parking during that time. The Tories Peter Jackson position on this is now laughable. At Castle Morpeth, when he was leader of the council, he made no attempts to change the shoppers permit in Morpeth from the model that is now being rolled out county wide. When offered the chance to push through free parking across the county by Labour in a meeting in July 2011 of the council he refused to support it.
He then said that he wanted everyone to pay the same charge in all NCC car parks, then changed that to exclude Ponteland, Prudhoe, Corbridge and Haltwhistle and just charge people who don't vote Tory in the South East of the county. In the media favours his so called "peoples pass", which he has never presented the full details of to Northumberland County Council. At the recent cross party parking working group that we have established at County Hall he voted to support the shoppers permit proposal that went before executive on Monday and was approved. It seems that on this issue his policy changes each time the wind changes direction. Our scheme is about congestion and rewarding hard up Northumberland residents, whilst still ensuring people from outside the county pay their fair share for maintaining the car parks. I hope people will recognise that even iun hard times, the council is strecthing every muscle to help them.
Cllr Neil Bradbury

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Priorities for the year on Prudhoe Town Council

On Prudhoe Town Council, I sometimes plough a lonely furrow. Every now and then I find myself in a group of one on a lot of issues. Its the most important meeting of the Town Council next Wednesday, when we set our budget for the year. Increasingly the Town Council is becoming an important body, both in terms of the amount of tax it raises as well as the range of activities it undertakes. Play parks, cemeteries, Christmas lights, floral displays, a view on planning applications, environmental schemes, town signage, funding for local charities and services such as the youth service and the CAB etc.

Over the last few years, I have been somewhat sceptical as the administration costs of the council have shot up, massively outstripping the increase in budget for actual service delivery. This year  the council has had a reasonably big team for a year or so and is now ready to take a range of responsibilities from the county council, in line with all other parish and town councils in the county.

One of the things I think the council has a strong responsibility for is help for the elderly in the town. The main way it has done this in the past is through the subsidy of the TV licence. Residents over the pension age got £15, now £30, towards their licence fee by going to the post office and getting a form filled in.

Since the TV licence was made free to over 75s, this benefit has been less well targeted at the most vulnerable and old and I have consistently argued that it is not taken up by a lot of people (if it was it would probably bankrupt the council) and does not target the most in need and for many does not make a big difference. As it swallows up a major percentage of the town councils budget, I am keen to see if there are better ways to help the elderly in our town.

The town suffered last year when it lost the town 111 bus service. Unfortunately it just wasn't popular enough but it was valued by a lot of elderly people as a way to get into town. We have revamped the 686 service to cover this at county hall but it's been clear that a targeted door to door service run by a dial a ride company was what would do the best. I was really pleased at how successful the Adapt dial a ride service has been since launching last year. It operates in the town once a week and has a Hexham trip once a week as well. Both are over subscribed.

So I have developed a plan to expand the dial a ride service, with County Council willing to fund a scheme 50:50 if the town council joins in. This will fund an extra days service in Prudhoe for six months with a 4th day after 6 months if there is enough demand. I will be taking my plan, which will cost the town council a maximum of £3,120, to the Town Council - as well as an appeal that the Town Council contributes to the cost of a new accessible bus for Adapt in Prudhoe. I accept that I am unlikely to get the TV licence scheme money moved to a new way of spending it but I am hopeful that I will not be in a minority of 1 on the dial a ride scheme! I will also be pushing for continued funding for the Prudhoe East centre and the CAB as well as making sure the council focusses the majority of its money on service delivery rather than bureaucracy.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Half truths and parking charges

If my local weekly newspapers, the Hexham Courant, new year resolution was to start reporting news in a balanced way that gave all parties a chance to have their say then I am afraid it has already broken it in its first edition of 2012!

In a front page article entitled "Town parking charges may leap" (my italics) -  it goes on to say in it's first paragraph "Parking charges in Hexham are set to soar - to pay the bill for a free shoppers permit!" (my italics again). It gathers this by adding two and two together and making 36! Because the cabinet paper, to be discussed on Monday by myself and other members of the councils executive, states that we do not currently have budget to fund the new shoppers permit the paper assumes it will be funded by a rise in parking fees. The truth is that the council regularly makes decisions in principle for the next year without allocating funding until the time of the budget.

I know for a fact that no Liberal democrat councillor was approached for comment but Tory leader peter Jackson (of wind turbine lies fame) is given extensive space. The Tory "plan" (which has never actually been officially presented at council) to give all residents free parking everywhere is also totally unfunded from the budget. Indeed I am told it was not even approved by the councillors in the Conservative group before it went into the press. Previously, their position was that all car parks should have the same charges and that towns without parking charges (such as Prudhoe) should pay their way. Then they clarified this (during a by-election in Ponteland where residents were understandably annoyed about having to pay for parking for the first time) by saying they only meant that towns in the South East of the county (where no one votes for them!) would also have charges implemented. The only voice of reason is the chair of the Hexham business forum, who welcomes the scheme - even if it meant that parking charges went up at other times! He says that "this shoppers permit will certainly increase the footfall [for shops].

So to the truth. The council is looking at a Shoppers permit, which will give local residents free use of the main car parks in Hexham, Morpeth, Alnwick and Berwick in the non peak hours in the morning and afternoon when shops get less customers. Our approach to parking charges has always been one of traffic management. We do not want to see shopkeepers and workers parking in the best spots all day blocking spaces for shoppers and if we did not charge for parking in peak hours in the main market towns you would not be able to get a space. This scheme will give people a chance to make the shops busier when they are at their quietest. It is based on the successful Moprpeth shoppers permit scheme. Now all residents in Northumberland will be able to buy a permit to get free parking for towns such as Hexham rather than just for Morpeth.

I am afraid that the Courants article falls below the standard expected of a local newspaper. They should be unbiased and give both sides of the argument. They should not invent stories on the most flimsy of evidence bases. Another example is how a health and safety dispute about a train is now labelled "torchgate" despite both sides saying they are having constructive talks. As for the Tories spreading half truths, it is par for the course I'm afraid.

My position has always been that Prudhoe, and other towns close to Tyne and Wear (the Metro centre in particular), do not have sufficient parking demand to need it to be rationed by parking charges. In fact imposing parking charges on towns like Ashington, Prudhoe, Ponteland, Cramlington and Blyth would deal a major blow to the sustainability of the shops. The Tories (and the Morpeth chamber of trade) argument that parking should be "fair" and if imposed anywhere should be equal ignores the reason it was introduced in the first place, traffic management, and would mean that Prudhoe would get parking charges. The decision on the parking permit is at Mondays executive.