We Must Take A Calculated Risk And Halve Wentworth Street Car Park Fees Immediately : 15 March 2004

There was a sense of deja vue at the last Council meeting. I remember car park fee setting debates very well from a former life. Then, as the legal officer, I had nothing to say or do but listen in a totally detached and disinterested way to long debates between some members, on the one hand, trying to bring the charges down, and the officers and other members urging that they should be put up!

Now that I am a member, this is a subject which I have to take very seriously, for the benefit of the public I represent, and so I found myself taking up the argument on the public’s behalf against the establishment. It is not hard to do this, and be entirely objective at the same time.

The point is that the circumstances which existed when car park charges were first introduced were very different then than they are now. In those days, Ryedale was a large authority with limited resources. The only way to finance major capital projects was by extracting money by way of “planning gain” from large developers. I cannot recall if Safeways was in business in Malton at that time, but, if it was, it certainly did not have the massive free car park it has now, and Kwiksave was not on its present site.

Today, Ryedale is a small but very rich authority with reserves of over 7 million pounds, which produces interest annually in the region of 400,000. Ryedale does not need to rely on “Planning Gain” any more, and the Council Tax can be subsidised through interest receipts. In the meantime, the local superstores have expanded and increased the size of their free car parks, and this has had an impact on local traders who do not have their own huge “free” car parks. They are right to think this is unfair. So, it is not unreasonable to expect the whole of the council’s car parking policies to be re-assessed in this up to date context. No-one would suggest that our car parks should not pay for themselves: the issue is whether the income from car park charges should be used to subsidise other council activities, and, if so, to what extent.

I thought it would be difficult to argue that car park charges should not go up in line with inflation. So I took a different approach. I said the council should find ways of maximising its income from its car parks, without necessarily putting the charges up. I suggested that, for example, if car park charges were to go up in line with inflation, then those car parks, like Wentworth Street Car Park, which are underused should have their fees halved. Wentworth Street Car Park could then be marketed as a “long stay” car park, and the public could be encouraged to use it and have a choice of walking further to the shops and paying less.

The opposite argument is that to reduce car parking charges in Wentworth Street by half could cost the Council 20,0000 to 30,000, which would have to be made up through the Council Tax. I don’t agree. If a reduction in charges by half resulted in a doubling of the use of Wentworth Street Car Park, there would be no loss of income at all. Of course, we don’t know if this incentive would work as well as this. So, it would have to be given a trial over a long enough period for the public to get used to it. Even in its poorest days, the council had to keep a contingency reserve of several hundred thousand pounds. So, if the trial period were to result in an initial loss, that loss can be recovered from reserves – not from Council Tax. So this would not be an irresponsible experiment – it would be what businessmen would describe as a “calculated risk”.

I am very concerned about the future of Wentworth Street Car Park. Without it there is no other suitable site for the fair. Without it, it would not have been possible to put on the “Track Rod” rally, and without it, future events of this kind which are designed to promote the whole district as well as Malton town, will be doomed to fail. I believe the proposed police station development is unlikely to go ahead. Even so, a Council Report has recommended that the licence to the fair should only be renewed for one year (instead of the usual five) “in view of the potential redevelopment of Wentworth Street Car Park and the forthcoming review of the Council’s car parking strategy”.

So there is clearly an agenda to redevelope at least part of Wentworth Street Car Park. Why, I do not understand! Hasn’t the council enough money already? Why should it need any more? Aren’t there enough potential sites for housing – in the Malton/Norton rail/river corridor, for example?

The result of the debate was to refer the matter to a “Car Parking Strategy Working Party”. Now, I believe some other councillors take the view that, rather than a trial be made of Wentworth Street Car Park, the Council should try out the idea first in the much smaller car parks of the parishes which they represent. So the public might wonder if anything positive is likely to happen this side of next Christmas. In my view this simply will not do. The best time to do a trial of this kind is in the Summer months. Any delay will merely strengthen the argument of those who would like to see Wentworth Street Car Park be redeveloped. We could lose Wentworth Street Car Park, if we don’t act now.

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