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Car Park Charging (Richmond Park)

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

I look forward to giving my speech under your august chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara, and I would like to thank the Minister in advance for the time that she will take to respond to the concerns that I raise on behalf of my constituents.

Let me run through the background to today’s debate. Currently, there is no charge for parking a car in Richmond park. The park is next door to my constituency and used by thousands of my constituents, and by probably hundreds of thousands of Londoners and others who live outside London. For my local residents—and for me, as somebody who lives locally—it is a fantastic community facility enjoyed by many thousands of people. Many people live in Putney and Roehampton because of their proximity to wonderful parks such as Richmond park and also to Wimbledon common. When the Royal Parks Agency launched its consultation, which includes the proposals to introduce car park charging in Richmond park, many of my constituents contacted me because they were concerned about how such proposals would affect their ability to continue enjoying the park.

Let me now outline what is in the consultation document and what is being consulted on at the moment. The proposals include a car park charge of £1 an hour up to a maximum of £3 for a stay of three hours or more, and a six-hour limit on cars staying in the park or in a car park. I tabled some parliamentary questions to find out how much revenue such proposals would raise—in other words, how much people would have to fork out over the year. It was difficult to get any concrete answers from the Minister. I will table more parliamentary questions to try to get a better idea of how much the proposals might cost local residents who use the park most. I estimate that the figure could be about £500,000 of car park charging revenue.

Let us look at the basic charge referred to in the consultation document—£2 for a two-hour stay. If somebody walked their dog in the park every other day, they would have to pay a cost of £400 annually for using the park. For many of my constituents, that is unaffordable.

Aside from the fact that one of the Royal Parks Agency’s objectives is to increase income—it said that it achieved that last year—the reason why such a proposal has been made is to encourage people to get out of their cars. Everybody supports such an aim. In fact, many of my constituents cycle to the park. None the less, we have to ask ourselves whether transport options and alternatives are available for local people.

My hon. Friend started off by saying that not only the residents of Richmond and of my constituency have made representations on the matter, and her point about access to the park is extremely important. There is a perception that the ability to enjoy the park of people from a slightly wider area will be stifled while local people, who may be walking from a much closer area, will not be affected. The park is an amenity for people from a much wider area than the immediate locality.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There are issues for people who live locally. One of the knock-on effects about which my constituents in Roehampton are concerned is that many people will try to avoid the charges by parking outside the park.

We are concerned that places such as Putney and Roehampton do not have the transport alternatives for people to get to the park, so they have to get in their car. I am delighted that the Royal Parks Agency has agreed to two pedestrian entrances from Roehampton. One will be from the Alton estate, which will be a fantastic facility for local people and everyone is pleased about it. However, it is not there yet, so people from Roehampton have to get in their cars or find a bus, although there is not much bus access from Roehampton to the park.

The second gate will be the Chohole gate. Again, people are delighted that that will be there, but it is not there yet. We may have to wait yet another one, two or even three years before those gates are in place. Therefore, at the moment, people find it hard to walk to the park from my local area.

The other key point is that public transport and bus alternatives to get to the park from places such as Putney and Roehampton are not good. Moreover, there are no buses in the park. If someone wanted to get from the perimeter of the park—say from Roehampton gate—to the heart of the park, which has a lot of facilities, they would have a good 15 to 20-minute walk. There is no bus that feeds people from Roehampton gate into the centre of the park.

I recognise that the consultation document has some exemptions, including the one for blue badge holders, but many people are elderly, less mobile and less able to use public transport, even if it is there. They need their car to get around and may not be eligible for a blue badge. I am sure that we all have constituents who write to us for a blue badge but do not get it. I am concerned about the impact of car park charges on those people. Even if we get good public transport, which we do not yet have, such people will still find it hard to use it.

Let me ask the Minister about the impact assessment that was pulled together to go alongside the consultation document. I then want to come on to the broader impact on my constituents if this proposal goes through. I cannot understand why some of the figures in the impact assessment are there. For example, the impact assessment has a one-off transition cost of £2.9 million, which it says will include investing in car parks, including pay and display machines and signage, yet the average annual cost is zero.

The impact assessment says:

“We estimate no net average annual cost and that the scheme would be self-financing.”

That has to be wrong. In fact, when I had an earlier meeting with the Royal Parks Agency, which I was pleased to get, it said that it probably was not correct. If it is correct, it is the ultimate double whammy. The taxpayer has to pay for a scheme to improve the car parks, which most people think is a good thing, but that scheme will do nothing other than pay for a load of parking wardens to patrol and enforce parking charges that people are not interested in or able to pay. That would seem to be the ultimate self-defeating approach.

Will the Minister take a clear look at the impact assessment and check whether the annual costs and benefits are correct? At the moment, the scheme has an average annual benefit of zero, which surely cannot be right.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the consultation, I wonder whether she is concerned about its legality. The consultation is potentially open to judicial review. I raise that because there was a proposal to put parking charges on a road across Wimbledon common. There was an absolute onus—as it was cited in a legal precedent, which I have failed to bring with me today—on the people undertaking the consultation to ensure that the consultation was not just of local people, but of a representative sample of wider users. The whole point about the loci of consultation is extremely important. If this consultation has gone only to local residents in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in Richmond, it will certainly be open to contest. I hope the Minister will address that issue.

My hon. Friend raises another excellent point. In fact, the consultation document has not been distributed at all to residents of my constituency. Information has been communicated through the Royal Parks Agency website and by contacting local Members of Parliament such as me, although my hon. Friend was not on the contact list, and other stakeholders.

It has been left to me, for example, to leaflet my local area to let residents know what is happening. When I was out leafleting in Roehampton a couple of weekends ago, I bumped into a local resident and explained what we were doing. She was unaware of the proposals under consultation. Is it right to do a consultation when the people who will be most affected by the car parking charges have not been contacted personally by the Royal Parks Agency? The communication process has been left to other people and local authorities. That does not seem to be a good way to ensure a broad-based response to a consultation.

I am concerned about two impacts. First, people will be affected—in particular, a lot of my constituents—because there is no good public transport to the park from Roehampton and Putney and because we do not have as many pedestrian entrances as other sides of the park. The plans will be unaffordable for frequent users. Ironically, the people who care most about the park will be the ones who have to pay the most for it. Dog walkers will be particularly hard hit, as will low-income families. At a time when families might be looking for free and affordable leisure options, they will find that the one option right on their doorstep, which we should be reaching out to encourage them to use, has suddenly become unaffordable.

The proposals will discourage families from using the park. Many families, especially young families, simply cannot all get on bikes and cycle there. I am sure that the Minister understands that travelling by car is often something that people do not want to do but must do to enjoy a family outing together. As I have said, the proposals will also hit the elderly and less mobile, many of whom do not qualify for a blue badge, but are not as fully mobile as the rest of us, who can simply get on a bike and cycle there.

My concern is that if we are not careful, Richmond park, the wonderful park on our doorstep, will end up being the preserve of the rich and the middle classes, and lower-income families and the elderly will simply be priced out. That is surely wrong. Surely, for the next generation, we must reduce the barriers to using fantastic parks such as Richmond park. Many of my constituents in Roehampton, including children, live in flats. They do not have gardens. The park is their outside space. There is a danger that if we introduce car park charging, they will get the message, “You can look, but you can’t touch. You can’t experience the park.”

One reason why I was so pleased to secure agreement to a pedestrian gate into the park from the Alton estate is that we should be doing everything we can for such communities to remove barriers to using the park. The more we can reach out to encourage all parts of our community to use the park, the better. Car park charging in Richmond park can go only in the reverse direction. I cannot see how that stacks up with the Government’s approach to museums, for example. They have been proactive in saying that we should remove charges that might prevent people from using museums because they cannot afford to do so.

Surely, in these days of caring about the environment, wanting people to understand how to care for it and trying to drive up recycling rates, ensuring that people can use the environment right there on their doorstep and encouraging them to do so has never been more important. I wait with interest to hear the Minister’s response. I know that I am not the only Member concerned about the issue. We all appreciate taking care of the parks environment, but clearly we need to find a balance, and I am concerned that that balance is not being struck.

I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that she is happy to meet me after the consultation and before she takes any final decision. That is much appreciated. I will certainly take her up on that offer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on securing this debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) for his contributions. I understand the concern felt by the hon. Members and their constituents about the issue.

London’s eight royal parks are among the city’s most beautiful and most used assets, enjoyed by more than 37 million people a year. They are places of relaxation, recreation and retreat as well as important conservation areas and habitats for wildlife. Richmond park, which attracts more than 2.3 million visitors a year, is particularly unusual and valuable in being designated a site of special scientific interest, a national nature reserve, a special area of conservation and a grade I listed landscape.

Is the Minister aware of any other nature reserves where marauding parking attendants try to catch out car park users?

I am not, but I am sure there are some. If the hon. Lady wants me to, I will write to her about it.

Given all those attributes, it is understandable that managing the royal parks involves a careful balance between ecological and environmental responsibilities and the needs of different visitors: pedestrians, cyclists, dog walkers such as myself, horse riders such as my grandchildren, who ride in Richmond park, joggers and car drivers. Changes in how the royal parks are managed always elicit huge interest and comment. That is certainly the case in this instance. The Royal Parks Agency has received more than 800 responses to its consultation, and there are still six weeks to go.

I understand why the proposals have produced such a strong response. For the sake of clarity, it might be helpful if I set out exactly what is being proposed and why. I would like to make it clear that the parks themselves will still be free. To use the museum analogy, we keep museums and galleries free, but we cannot help people park in central London, as the cost would be prohibitive. However, we do provide many people with concessionary fares.

The consultation document, which was published on 30 January, seeks views on a range of changes to the regulations for royal parks, including the introduction of parking charges in Bushy and Richmond parks. The charges would be broadly similar to those levied in other parking areas in the locality and, most importantly, in three other royal parks: Greenwich park, Hyde park and Regent’s park. Parking charges were introduced in Greenwich and Hyde parks in 1994, and in Regent’s park in 2001. Broadly speaking, they are £2 a day during the week and £1.20 at the weekend, although Greenwich is cheaper.

The consultation is legal, because it has been widely advertised. There are signs in the park and advertisements in the local newspapers and in libraries, and it is on the website. We have contacted councillors, MPs and everyone we could think of.

I am listening to the Minister’s assurances about how wide the consultation has been. I accept, potentially, the difference between the laws relating to commons and to royal parks, but I would be grateful if she could explain, possibly in a letter, exactly who received the consultation document. As my hon. Friend the Member for Putney pointed out, I am a relatively close local stakeholder as a Member of Parliament, yet I received no document.

My apologies. I will explain it in a letter to both hon. Members. The Royal Parks Agency has made huge efforts. I have seen the list, although I do not have it here with me. As there is still some time to run before 1 May, I hope that hon. Members will do all that they can to encourage our constituents to respond.

I emphasise that those responses are important. I know that people sometimes wonder whether consultations are real—even I have felt like that at times—but I assure hon. Members that this consultation is real. When we have the responses, the Royal Parks Agency will carefully analyse them all before making recommendations to me. No decisions have been taken, nor will they be until officials and I have had a chance to consider the responses and weigh up the impact. I shall write to the hon. Lady about her points on the impact assessment, because I do not have a sufficiently detailed response here.

It would help if the Minister outlined the consultation process. Once it is finished and the range of feedback from constituents has gone to the Minister, will I, as a local MP, and other interested Members, have a chance to see that feedback before decisions are taken? One clear message that has come from my constituents is that many think it would be fairer to have a voluntary charge, and I think that the consultation will throw up a number of alternative proposals from residents on how to get a better balance. Will we have a chance to see the output of the consultation before the Minister takes her decision?

The Minister is being extraordinarily generous in giving way, and I am grateful for that. May I impress on her the importance of considering the geographical nature of responses, and seek her reassurance that she will do so? There is a need to assess what people from different areas are saying, and to balance that in the decision-making process.

That is a very fair point, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for making it.

It is always difficult to ask people to pay for something that has previously been free, and we do not want to put up barriers to people visiting Richmond and Bushy parks. However, we do, as the hon. Lady has said, want to start encouraging people to travel to and from the parks on foot, by bicycle or by bus rather than by car. At present, more than 90 per cent. of Richmond park’s visitors come by car, which leads to several million vehicle movements a year in the park.

Surely, the first response to that issue is to consider why that is the case. If the Minister did that, she would see that it is because transport links to the park are inadequate for local people to get there other than by car. It is a huge park, so anyone who wants to go to the centre would have to take a car.

The hon. Lady is partly right, but I am sure that, in looking into bus provision in other parts of her constituency, she will have run across the same problem that I have—sadly, the way in which buses are organised nowadays is to respond to demand rather than to anticipate demand. One way of ensuring that there is more demand is probably to put in parking charges. We are also looking into having a bus service go through the park, because, as she rightly says, only going to the park’s perimeters makes things difficult for some people. As a mother of five, I completely understand that it is convenient to travel by car. Obviously, people who are disabled or are blue badge holders will get their parking free, as usual.

Those millions of car movements are affecting the atmosphere and ambience of the park and causing congestion. They are also leading to a degradation of road surfaces and costly repairs. Car parking charges in parks are not exceptional. Indeed, Richmond and Bushy parks are the exception and not the rule. Out of the eight royal parks, five have parking, three of which have been charging for parking for several years. Many local authorities, public bodies and private facilities in the area also charge for parking.

I understand the concern about the effect that charges could have on the surrounding area and on parking in residential streets around the park, but we have to encourage public transport provision and ensure that we get public transport through the park. I am very happy to help the hon. Lady and other hon. Members with that. Several buses stop within walking distance of the park, but, having looked at the map, I agree with the hon. Lady that they tend to be clustered down in one area, so they are not practical or convenient for everyone. I understand that a number of respondents have raised transport as an issue, and we will take that into our considerations on whether to impose a charging regime.

We need to work with local authorities to improve bus services and to get them running through the park. The hon. Lady is probably aware that the Royal Parks Agency, working with partner organisations, has invested in cycle infrastructure in Richmond park, including by improving the Tamsin trail, introducing new paths and providing more bike racks—a sometimes overlooked necessity. Those changes have proved highly popular, and I am very glad about that because of how they relate to other agendas. People like me, who are definitely carrying rather too much weight, should be encouraged to cycle in parks such as Richmond.

On congestion in the surrounding streets, if we were to bring in a charging regime, I would expect the agency to work with local boroughs to help to mitigate that impact, including by allowing sufficient time to introduce any relevant measures locally.

On that point, is the Minister aware that one of the worst-affected areas in my constituency would be Roehampton, where the Alton estate is located? People on that estate would find it very difficult to pay for controlled parking in any form because of their income levels. I make the point again that, if charges are introduced, the policy can be successful only if it prices people out of the park, because we do not have good transport infrastructure. Surely it would be better to spend time working on improving transport infrastructure and routes to the park before charging people for behaviour that, in many cases, they will probably not be able to change.

I hope that they will be able to change some of it, but no decision has been taken yet, and that is the main issue that we will consider. We want to ensure that access to the park is not compromised and that people on low incomes continue to use it and to get its benefits, as they do in Greenwich, where there are parking charges, but where there has not been a drop in the park’s usage. If charges are introduced, we will be able to put in new, green parking surfaces with petrol interceptor drainage. That will help, because, currently, pollutants from cars are entering the soil.

Some people have suggested that this measure is being forced on the Royal Parks Agency by cuts in grants and aid, and demands that it raises more of its own revenue. It is true that it has been very successful in raising its income from about £3 million in 1997-98 to nearly £11 million some 10 years later. That has reduced its dependency on the public purse, which is a good thing, and has allowed it to invest in some of the wonderful aspects of the parks. I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue and assure her that officials and I will take into account all the points that she has raised today.