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North Beach Car Park Call-In

North Beach Car Park Call InThis was an interesting little meeting.

To us it looked like a good example of a whole committee who had made their minds up before they came into the meeting.

That's not supposed to happen these days, its called 'prejudicial interest.' But to be honest, we never were too enamoured of the process that says you can only take account of what you hear in the meeting in reaching your view.

The whole point of having lay-people as councillors is to use their experience of life - and that includes the prejudices they get elected with. If you don't like someone and the beliefs, attitudes and values that come with them, you can choose a different councillor next time.

So what was the meeting all about?

Well, ostensibly it was about the decision to impose charges on the North Beach car park. (The one near the Sand Yacht centre)

Readers will remember that this was one of the sites the Commissar said he could dispose of in 'The Great January Sale' to fund the new town hall.

Then - apparently after public pressure - he agreed to remove it from the 'For Sale' list . (We had our doubts about his altruism here. We figured someone probably said they couldn't build on it because of the flooding risk. We've no evidence for that view, but the Commissar was never a man to turn money down if he could avoid it).

It was in that vein that he decided to implement charging on it.

To anyone with half a brain cell, it's a daft idea to charge.

When Booths in the square closed recently, they cited parking as one of the main reasons for their demise. Fylde's implementation of charging for parking has undoubtedly produced income for the Council, but it has reduced the number of people that are attracted here - well according to Booths at least.

Parking is, and should be, a facility to attract visitors to the area, especially for the tourist car parks.

Offering visitors parking without charge is a really good way of bringing money earned outside Fylde into the area improving our local 'balance of payments'.

It actually grows the money in our economy instead of re-circulating resident's money that's already here.

The car parks were all free fifteen years ago, (when a council that understood its tourism role ran the show). Now the ticket issuing equipment is more like a milking machine.

But we are where we are.

The Cabinet of 28th April had resolved "that charges should be levied on North Beach Car Park" and that "the Portfolio Holder would consider any representations received as part of the consultation before agreeing the final outcome"

And on 4th August, the Portfolio Holder published a decision in which he "agreed to introduce the parking charges"

Within the timescale allowed, Cllr John Davies sought and won the support of nine colleagues to recover the decision and bring it before a Scrutiny Committee for further debate. So that's how we got here.

The call in was interesting.

It was Cllr Davies' first call-in, and it shows that the 2007 intake of Councillors are finding their feet in the complicated administrative processes used by the Council. Although at the end of the day he didn't win the argument, we thought he made a better job that he appeared to think he had done.

The chairman of the meeting was Cllr Fabian Craig Wilson. She gave us the impression she was more concerned about procedure than getting at the truth, but perhaps our expectation of what a Scrutiny Committee should be (and do) differs from hers.

There was quite a lot of substitution: Cllr Ken Hopwood for Cllr Liz Oades, Cllr Kath Harper for Cllr Elaine Silverwood, Saint Barbara Pagett for Cllr Heather Speak.

Before the meeting got going, Cllr Davies questioned the Chairman's statement that Cllr Pounder (The Portfolio Holder) has made the decision. He argued the Cabinet had made the Decision on 28 April and Cllr Pounder had only agreed the decision after the consultation. The Chairman didn't agree. (Actually she didn't seem to give it much consideration at all, but maybe it had been thought about prior to the meeting and she had already formulated a view on it). Anyway, she pressed on regardless.

This 'who decided' matter is relevant because it affects who can stay in the room whilst the debate takes place. If the Cabinet made the decision none of them should remain. In theory at least, this means those present can speak more freely. However, in the Chairman's view, only Cllr Pounder would have to leave.

Then the meeting had a public speaking section where a local chap said he was worried about the plan. Another resident said he was glad that it was not being built on but he and some other residents had met with Cllr Small and Eaves and expressed concerns about increased damage to the dunes from cars parking along Clifton Drive North and people tramping across them to access the beach, thus damaging the wildlife in the dune areas. (Some of the most important plants are to be found on the stretch between Pontins and the Sand Yacht area). He said a group of residents would be prepared to form a Community Interest Company to manage the car park at less cost for the council. But that idea didn't seem to get much consideration either.

Then the formal process began. Cllr Davies outlined his case. He said the financial case for charging was flawed. The figures had been based on 250 cars and it would only hold 150 unless it was lined, and lining would be costly. The blowing sand would get into the paying machine and damage it. He thought cars would simply leave the area and park on the road to the detriment of residents and safety. He wasn't impressed with the proposed £50 a year permits to let dog walkers park 'affordably' and he worried about enforcement and admin costs and two car families sharing a permit. He thought the Committee would be acting irresponsibly if they didn't call it in.

Cllr Pounder was next up. He argued for the charges to be imposed. He said the car park had a capacity of 249.9 cars but to achieve that it would need it to be lined, and they didn't want to do that because the windblown sand would cover the lines and the cost of routinely clearing it would be prohibitive.

We got a bit confused in his explanation of the costings. He appeared to say that it could hold 250, but presently the maximum without lines was about 150. However, in general their surveys had shown that about 25 people a day used it. He went on to say they'd calculated on half "this" figure because of resistance to paying, so they were well within the estimated income projections.

We couldn't tell if that meant 250, 75, or just 12 (and a half?) cars buying tickets per day, and we thought perhaps the Chairman could have sought some clarity here, but we didn't hear it.

This matters because there will be additional costs to implement charges - and to be sensible, if you accept the aim is to generate income rather than provide a service, then the income ought to exceed the costs.

Sometimes you want to limit car park usage to get a turnaround of users - typically in shopping areas so there are new people arriving all the time. In such cases, its the throughput that's important, not the cost.

But in this case (and so far as we know it's the first time it has happened overtly at Fylde), the introduction of charges are all about making money for the Council, not about regulating traffic and parking.

Cllr Pounder continued that they had budget pressures which needed more income. He said the machine would be protected in a (bus type) shelter so it wouldn't have sand problems, and it would be lit (we guess that meant illuminated, not set on fire) to discourage vandalism and theft. He did admit that the income level they expected might not be achieved, and it was very weather dependent.

On the 'Dog Walker' permits, Cllr Pounder said the were being widened to any resident, not simply dog walkers. They would cost residents £50 a year to stay for up to an hour. A two hour stay would be £100 a year, both available between 9am and 6pm. We didn't hear him say whether it was per resident, per family, or per car, but it sounded like per car. He said the administrative costs could be met within existing resources.

This appears to mean it won't cost extra to do the work that this new work displaces in existing staff time. But that's not the case of course. Something has to give.

On the risk to the dunes he said if they needed boardwalks then boardwalks would have to be provided.

He said the car park cost £10,000 a year in rates and surface water disposal charges. This brought a concerned response from a member of the public who interjected that he had previously been advised under the Freedom of Information Act that the cost of running the car parks was £2,000 a year. Officers were asked to clarify the position but no one was willing or able to explain the dichotomy.

At the conclusion of the fixed presentations the Chairman said that when they came to debate and consider this, they could only consider "The manner in which the decision was taken, not the decision itself"

Now to us, that sounded like both mis-direction of the Committee, and bad chairing.

The point of a scrutiny committee is not to close down the options to establish accurate, truthful facts, it is to examine, dissect and analyse whether the decision that was taken was in the interests of Fylde taxpayers. It should be an examination of the substance of the decision, not process. So on this occasion, we believe the committee was mis-directed by the chairman, and it appeared to us the chairman was simply trying to minimise the chances of debate and get the Cabinet's (or Portfolio Holder's) decision to implement charges through as quickly as possible.

In the questions section, Saint Barbara Pagett worried about damage to the dunes and asked if the Dunes Officer had any concerns. She wanted to know what the financial implications of installing boardwalks would be. She also asked if English Nature had been consulted on the proposal. Cllr Pounder said the Dunes Officer was aware of the plans (which didn't actually answer the question), and so were English Nature, and they hadn't written to the Council (which didn't answer the question either).

Although an officer subsequently said no planning permission was required for the works, (presumably because the 'bus shelter' machine cover is within the size that councils are allowed to do on their own land), We suspect the engineering works to lay the electricity supply to it won't be, and English Nature may well have something to say about protecting the dunes with boardwalks if the charging scheme goes ahead.

Cllr Chedd asked about the reason why the car park was there at all. He wondered if it had been a requirement of the planning application when the houses were built and whether there were any restrictions or conditions on its use. Cllr Pounder said he didn't know and that had not been checked. Again, not a very satisfactory answer, and not followed up by the Chairman.

We can help here. It was provided in the very early days when developers were first being asked for what is now called 'Section 106 money' - that is money to fund community infrastructure. The developer at the time was most unhappy because the council of the day was asking him to build a car park for tourists under the guise of the properties needing somewhere to park as well. In the end, to get the permission, he agreed to provide the car park. The planners also required him to provide landscaping in the form of a 'shrub border' opposite the entrance. This was (as so often with planners) a triumph of hope over common sense. It rapidly filled with windblown sand which submerged the shrubs and has not been seen since. (And especially since the Council became responsible for maintaining the car park and its 'landscaping'). It has disappeared altogether in an enormous sandhill against the wall. But if you dig down, you will find a kerb or stone wall enclosing the original shrub bed.

Whether there were other conditions about keeping it open and free for access we don't know, but it ought to be possible to look up the planning permissions.

Cllr Ken Hopwood said he had been down and measured the area (He's a very thorough man) and he didn't believe it could accommodate 250 vehicles. Then he noted that the Cabinet report gave the income and said that income would be subject to VAT, and that hadn't been taken account of. (so in theory at least, the income would be around 17.5% down before you started). Cllr Pounder said well, whatever they could get, it would help to offset the cost.

Again the chairman failed to get clarity on this point. Did or didn't the income figure include VAT. What was the proper projected income figure and what were the true costs going to be? These were skirted over.

Cllr Kath Harper said it seemed a very complicated scheme and she wanted to know why they simply couldn't give the first hour free (as they do at Lowther Gardens). Cllr Pounder said he didn't know if that would reduce the costs or not.

The Vice Chairman, Cllr Mulholland, asked Cllr Davies if he accepted the principle of car parking charges. Cllr Davies replied that he did not support them if the aim was to generate revenue, but he did support charging to restrict use (We think he meant such as overnight or all day stays). They then had a similar exchange about boardwalks which was developing into an argument when the chairman ruled (wrongly in our view) that boardwalks had absolutely no relevance to this matter.

We think they do have relevance because they will be costly to install and maintain, and if they are needed (because people no longer access the beach through the gap in the car park wall, but park along Clifton Drive North and trample across the dunes), then the boardwalks will be needed as a direct result of the implementation of parking charges and as such, ought to be taken into account when the income and cost of implementing the car parking charge is considered. How else can the benefit (or disbenefits) to the residents of Fylde be established?

Cllr Davies himself asked whether he could ask a question of Cllr Pounder and the Chairman agreed. He wanted to know if charging would mean additional supervision resources (parking warden). Cllr Pounder said yes. But once again, the chairman failed to have the cost quantified for her committee.

Cllr Ackers asked if the permit was for a maximum of 2 hours. Cllr Pounder said yes it was. She asked if they could then come back for another two hours. Cllr Pounder said no. She also wanted to know how much extra it would cost to install a 'pay on exit' system and was told it would be "a lot more"

Finally, Cllr Hopwood lobbed a lovely little grenade into the meeting. He asked how much of the Council's car parking strategy Clrl Pounder intended to implement with regard to the car park. Clearly at a loss to know what the car park strategy was, let alone how much of it was being met by this car park proposal, Cllr Pounder tried to bluff his way out of the question by saying he was sure it would be taken into account. Cllr Hopwood then said he simply wanted to know which of the facilities the Councils own car park strategy said were needed at all car parks, were going to be supplied at this one, (such as public loos, information signs, lighting, litter bins, seating, and so on).

Answer came there none.

At this point, there being no further questions to Cllr Pounder, he left the room as he is required to do whilst the Committee debate the matter. Interestingly, Cllr Eaves, the Leader also left at this point. This might have been because he had somewhere else to be, of course.

But he had been part of the Cabinet that made the decision on 28th, (the situation that Cllr Davies challenged right at the beginning of the meeting. The Chairman (dubiously in our view ) had ruled that Cabinet members could stay in if they wished, but Cllr Eaves slipped out quietly. We thought that was commendable and astute of him if he did it intentionally.

As the debate opened, the Vice Chairman, Cllr Mulholland said he wouldn't be able to vote for the 'call-in', at which point Cllr Davies asked how he could come to such a decision before he had heard the debate on it.

"Touché" as they say.

It was shadow-boxing of course, but it did illustrate the fixed minds that were at work on both 'sides'.

The debate went on - sometimes a bit niggly, but mostly civilised. Then the time for the vote came.

It was predictable. A classic Blue Peter decision (Here's one I made earlier).

The ruling group voted to a man not to call it in and councillors from the non-ruling groups voted to a man to call it in.

But because by law, there must be a majority for the ruling group on this (and most) committees of the Council, this result was never really in doubt.

That said, the new intake demonstrated that they were finding their feet. Cllr Davis acquitted himself well - better than might have been expected for a first time performance.

But the sadness of the evening for us was yet another chairman who doesn't appear to understand what role a scrutiny committee ought to play. (We say 'yet another' after the awful performance of the Chairman of the Streetscene inquiry who demonstrated no idea of what his scrutiny role should have been).

This Chairman seemed to see her role and being to keep order and implement the rules, not using the committee to question witnesses to derive the best information on which to base a decision.

But it was only about charging on a car park - and Using Dim Tim's former words when he cost us a reported £700,000 on Streetscene - at the end of the day, nobody died.

We're not altogether sure this is the end of the story though, and Cllr Davies (and others) stand to be vindicated if the costs exceed the income.

Dated:  6 September 2010


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