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.