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Parking (Westminster)

Volume 538: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2012

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in Parliament the issue of Westminster council’s parking controls, and particularly the most recent round of proposals, which have generated more controversy than almost any local government matter in recent years. Although I am conscious that much of what is proposed and under discussion relates to the west end—it is good to see the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) here today—I make no apology for introducing the debate. I have no wish to step on the hon. Gentleman’s toes, but Westminster council’s parking policies have an impact far wider than that specific local dimension.

There are two reasons for that: one—and this is one of the themes on which I look forward to the Minister’s response—is that the issue of parking income, and how it is generated and distributed, has a wider context in relation to the agenda of revenue-raising and local taxation. Therefore, everyone in the local authority of the London borough of Westminster has a legitimate interest in how that income is generated and used. Indeed, the wider issues of congestion, displacement and road management are for everyone in the community. Secondly, what happens to the economy of central London is a legitimate matter of concern for us all, since millions of Londoners are affected in their capacity as employees, workers, shoppers, business men and women, worshippers and people who enjoy the cultural and recreational opportunities that central London offers. It is in that context that the Westminster parking proposals have generated such an exceptional level of media interest, particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the Evening Standard. The Evening Standard has, I think, grasped what the majority party on Westminster council seems not to have grasped—that Westminster’s financial problems cannot be solved by any means to hand, without a proper recognition of the impact on the wider economy of London.

To put my cards on the table, I entirely accept that parking income is a legitimate source of revenue-raising for local government, particularly given the severe constraints on the raising of income by other means, and the critical importance of maintaining services for residents. However, the law is clear on the issue, and the law, common sense and political calculation all demand honesty and transparency in the process, as well as that the charges should be fair and proportionate. There has not been adequate honesty and transparency about Westminster council’s financial pressures, and councillors have been found out. They have not told it straight to local people, but instead have given the impression that they have discovered the philosopher’s stone—a way to provide comprehensive, quality services without an adequate tax base.

The hon. Lady recognises, I think, the fact that there were considerable legal constraints on the making of the proposed—now shelved—parking changes on the grounds of the finances that were required. There was a big campaign to make a case, which I think was legitimate, about congestion; but no one was fooled about an important element of the proposals being driven by the desire to raise more money in times of financial constraint. Would the hon. Lady prefer a much more transparent approach, not just in Westminster but across local government, which would allow an open debate about precisely those problems—the issue of going down the route of increased parking costs, which would affect everyone in the vicinity, or potential cuts in adult and child services, which are the sorts of things she and I know all too well affect many providers in the City of Westminster today?

There are several issues there, and I shall return to one or two of them, but, yes, we need a broader debate about the role of charging income, property taxation and other forms of income generation by local government. There is no question but that charging has a role to play; but, as the Minister will no doubt confirm, there are particular constraints on the way parking income can be used for revenue generation. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster has confirmed what the Secretary of State for Transport said earlier about the suspicion that the charges are being used for revenue generation, rather than parking and traffic management. That is not what parking revenue is supposed to be about.

I think that a perfectly legitimate case was made for traffic management, and concerns about congestion. However, had there not been the big financial constraints, there might not have been such a desire to proceed so quickly. The trouble was, the legislation is so prescriptive that to make the case on financial grounds would have killed it off at the outset. Therefore, much more emphasis was placed on the issue of congestion.

The hon. Gentleman is almost making my argument for me. We should have a debate about charging income, which could include the proper role of parking income in a local authority’s tax base. That would be fine; but within the present legal constraints we are where we are, and however we approach the matter we need a mature, transparent and honest debate about services and income. That has been spectacularly missing. As I have said, the political fallout from what has happened has been catastrophic for Westminster council. Whether or not the current leader has, as I believe, been the first victim of that miscalculation—it remains to be seen whether he will be the last—a great deal of collateral damage has none the less been done to the council.

To recap on the facts, Westminster council’s plans to ban free evening and Sunday parking on single yellow lines in the west end for more than 8,400 cars have provoked an unprecedented coalition of opposition. They have united the Churches and casinos and the trade unions and big business. They have brought together local residents, visitors to the west end, and those who earn their living there, and united all the major political parties. Indeed, Westminster council has achieved the near impossible—it has found the one thing that Boris Johnson, Brian Paddick and Ken Livingstone all agree on.

The council said that the new charges and the single yellow line parking ban are designed to increase the turnover of cars parking in the area, and to make it easier for those driving into the heart of London to find a parking space; but everyone knows that the real reason is to raise the expected £7 million a year that the charges will raise for a council whose cash reserves have fallen by £60 million in the past two years, as Government cuts have bitten and reduced its room for manoeuvre. As Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has said:

“It’s completely mad what Westminster are doing. It will be damaging to business. I’m afraid, as far as I understand the matter, there is a financial issue here for Westminster. In other words, they need the revenue.”

As I have mentioned, the Secretary of State for Transport has said—and I should be interested to have the Minister’s clarification of this—

“I’m sure when Westminster thought about what they were going to do with those parking charges they had a sense they might be able to put some extra money in their coffers that they could probably use on public services”.

As I understand that quotation, the Transport Secretary clearly accepts that the local authority was acting at least at the borders, and possibly beyond the borders, of legality. Does the Minister agree with the Mayor of London and the Transport Secretary about Westminster’s true motives, and, in view of that, what is the Department’s line on how to respond, and on what constraints there should be on the proper use of parking revenue?

I confess I look forward to the fulsome praise that the hon. Lady will give to the words of the Mayor of London in the next 107 days, in the run-up to the mayoral election. I do not think there is any suggestion of illegality. Surely the primary purpose of the changes was related to traffic management and congestion, but the hon. Lady and the Transport Secretary are right to suggest that there was also a secondary purpose. That would not make the proposals illegal or illegitimate, but the public at large were not going to be fooled, and they felt that the wool was being pulled over their eyes when the latter priority was denied entirely.

I will let that pass; those are the hon. Gentleman’s views.

In addition to the question about the proper role of parking income as a source of revenue, the issue that has probably generated the greatest controversy is the risk that the parking charges would present to the central London economy. The independent City forecaster, the Centre for Economics and Business Research, has estimated that the parking charges would cost the west end £800 million a year and threaten more than 5,000 jobs. It is suggested that 9% of the £9.2 billion central London night-time and Sunday economy could disappear as customers and workers are put off by the new charges. The research found that the biggest losses of turnover would be felt by restaurants, bars, pubs and cafes at £330 million, followed by theatres, cinemas, casinos and other places of entertainment at £314 million, and then retailers at £145 million. Recent research by the Society of London Theatre revealed that 16% of London theatregoers used cars to visit the theatre. For those over 55, it was more than 20%, with the reasons being more about access and security than the availability of public transport. Some 90% of London’s theatre ticket revenue was generated within the borough of Westminster. Westminster’s proposals would still, although delayed, continue to put at risk some 14.5% of total theatre income, or approximately £72 million a year.

Baroness Valentine, the chief executive of the business group London First, said:

“At a time when the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors are all suffering from the protracted slowdown and reduced consumer confidence and spending, introducing measures that will further discourage customers from coming into central London seems perverse. Westminster’s businesses should not be the unwilling guinea pigs in an experiment of which the outcome could be highly damaging to their viability.”

Mary Portas, appointed by the Government as a high street adviser, as well as being a local resident, said:

“Parking is just one of the issues that comes up time and time again. It’s one of the biggest things that stops flow, and for retailers and restaurants it stops their trade. This is just sheer madness”.

Does the Minister agree with the Prime Minister’s high street adviser?

There are of course a great many individuals, too, who are low-income employees working in the night-time economy and who have raised concerns about the impact on them at a time when night transport is by no means always available. That raises real concerns about safety, particularly for women travelling at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.

In addition to the impact on business, the Minister will know that some 15,000 people attend churches of all denominations on a Sunday in Westminster, many of whose families used to live in the west end. They see it as part of the family tradition to worship in a west end church. Major Ray Brown of the Salvation Army in Oxford street made the case in clear and unambiguous terms. He said that

“Westminster Council have taken a very short-sighted decision to seriously damage hundreds of years of church community action and spiritual activity for the sake of a quick financial gain. For some members and volunteers at The Salvation Army, this means having to face the terrible decision of having to leave the church they have been involved in all their lives”.

Does the Minister believe that curtailing the Church’s community action is in line with the Prime Minister’s big society vision?

These new charges were originally due to be introduced in early December 2011, just weeks before Christmas, but thanks to pressure from west end retailers and Labour councillors, Westminster reluctantly agreed to postpone implementation until January. Meanwhile, west end restaurateurs, retailers, residents and Churches came together to fund legal action against the council. On 14 December, the High Court ordered Westminster council to halt plans to introduce west end parking charges until the judicial review application is heard in March. In a scathing decision, Mr Justice Collins highlighted

“substantial damage to businesses and churches”

and “far too limited” consultation as reasons why the council should not be allowed to introduce the new charges until the judicial review has been heard.

Sensing it was losing the argument, Westminster council leader Colin Barrow promised to listen more in the future and to delay implementation of the new charges until after the 2012 Olympics and the diamond jubilee celebrations. However, just nine days later, at 3.30 pm on 23 December, Councillor Barrow stopped listening and the council announced that it would be axing 1,200 single yellow line parking spaces under the guise of helping the elderly and the disabled cross the road more easily. Of course, everybody supports double yellow lines at dropped kerbs in order to make crossing the road safer for the disabled, the elderly and parents, but Westminster council’s proposals go way beyond just protecting dropped kerbs from parked cars. They were used as an excuse to remove 5 miles of safe evening parking from the west end, and were a deliberate attempt to get round the High Court ban on implementing plans to remove more than 8,400 free parking spaces on single yellow lines.

Then, just last week, Westminster council dropped another bombshell when it became clear that figures on the number of parking spaces that would be lost through the council’s plans were not accurate. Originally we were given to understand that 1,700 yellow line parking spaces would be lost through the council’s proposals, when the real figure was actually more than 8,400. That is a 500% difference. The significance of this monumental blunder is fundamental. The council had no idea how many parking spaces would be lost when it took the decision in August 2011 to ban parking on single yellow lines in the evening and on Sundays. Nor did the council have the correct figures when it consulted residents and businesses before and after the decision.

The leader of the Westminster Labour group, Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, has written to the council’s director of legal services to point out the obvious implications of this admission. He said:

“At the time the Cabinet agreed the proposals in August 2011 Members were not provided with any information on the number of single yellow line parking spaces that would be lost. Cabinet members were therefore unable to give proper consideration to all the material facts. Members were not informed of a figure for lost parking spaces until nearly 2 months later…The Council’s further public consultation that ran up until early December 2011 did not provide any figures on the number of single yellow line parking places to be lost and the only figure in the public domain during the consultation period was the incorrect figure of 1,700 provided by the Council”.

Whatever happens next—it is hard to see how the proposed charges can survive the leadership contest that Councillor Barrow has unleashed—Westminster’s problems are not over. Either the highest profile charging row in recent memory will lead to reinstatement, or a financial crisis looms, to be dealt with by a council weakened in trust and credibility. I look forward to the Minister’s response, but I believe that the policy disaster that has befallen Westminster has much wider ramifications for local government finance, and those need to be addressed too.

We all believe that parking and car use in inner cities has to be controlled and managed, but any changes with impacts and ramifications such as these need to be handled on the basis of accurate data, and with effective consultation. The changes need to take with them public trust and confidence. I am sorry to say that Westminster council has lost that trust and confidence, with major implications for the wider economy, and is in danger of undermining this Government’s and future Governments’ more thoughtful approaches to traffic management and parking. If the council will not act effectively to get itself out of the hole it has dug, I look to the Minister to assure us that the Government will step in.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Howarth. I apologise that the Minister responsible for local government is not here. I am stepping in on his behalf. He is in Newcastle, although I know that he would have liked to have been at this debate. Some of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) may need to be dealt with by letter.

As the hon. Lady knows as a former Under-Secretary of State for Transport, it would be wrong and improper for me to get drawn into the decisions of the judicial review. I stress that some of the comments she made seemed to pre-empt what the judges at the judicial review will look into. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) in his place.

Very unusually for me, I am going to read. I normally know my brief well enough not to need to do so.

The Government are fully aware of the strength of feeling surrounding the proposed changes by Westminster council. It is difficult not to be, given what is in the local press and on the local news. The strong views expressed, and the concerns raised by residents and businesses in Westminster, show just how important issues such as this are, not just for Westminster, but across the country as a whole. It is essential that local authorities do all they can to get the balance right and to develop and maintain an effective parking and traffic management strategy that serves the interests of all stakeholders in as fair and equitable a way as possible.

There will be a little repetition, for which I apologise, but it is important that the Government set out their position. Among other things, Westminster has to strive to understand the needs of industry, shops, restaurants, clubs, theatres and Churches, as the hon. Lady alluded to, as well as the needs of the employees, customers and residents in the area affected.

It is also worth stressing, and this point perhaps relates to something that the hon. Lady said, that the west end and the centre of London seem to belong to more than just one or two constituencies. It is fair to say that relatively few of my constituents—my residential constituents—wrote to me about this scheme and of those who did a number were in favour of it. However, it is also the case that a lot of businesses, particularly independent businesses, are implacably opposed to the scheme. There are specific issues in Westminster because of the nature of our local authority, which means that this scheme has become a higher-profile issue and aspects of it would not necessarily be transferrable to other local authorities throughout the country; I disagree with the hon. Lady that they would be transferrable.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The character of this part of town—a town in which I was born and brought up—is unique in the country. However, I will come on to the issues relating to parking and parking spaces, and revenues that are surplus to the cost of creating those parking spaces. They are important issues, and they were the issues that the hon. Lady was referring to.

Many people choose to travel by public transport, but many others usually use their car or van. Also, parking spaces are clearly limited, both on and off the street, and there is considerable demand for road space in one of the busiest areas not only in London but in the country. Without doubt, congestion—one of the areas covered in my portfolio—is a real problem. I can understand the competing concerns that the local authority in Westminster has to address. There are very difficult issues that need to be addressed when developing appropriate parking strategies in such circumstances.

The hon. Lady referred to the fact that Mary Portas produced a report for the Government on high streets, recommending that local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes in their town centres wherever possible. However, I am not certain that such a scheme would work brilliantly within Westminster, for obvious reasons.

The Portas review points out that the high street is in serious threat of decline. No matter where we look around the country we can see that, and Westminster is no exception. Town centre shopping is affected by the internet and out-of-town stores. The number of shops in the country as a whole has gone down by 25,000 during the past 10 years, so it is not something that has just suddenly happened, and Opposition parties cannot blame everything on the current Government; that decline has been going on for some considerable time. The case that Mary Portas makes in her report is that a range of measures—not just parking measures—should be used to encourage people to use secondary and main high streets, and it is an absolutely important case.

However, as the hon. Lady said, the report by Mary Portas indicates the crucial role of parking in making an area vibrant, and I think that that is the biggest point that we have heard today. The Government agree with the report by Mary Portas on that. I am not saying whether the Government fully agree with the comments that the hon. Lady said that Mary Portas had made, because I have not actually seen those comments, but I am sure that Mary Portas is more than capable of standing up for her own comments. So we are encouraging local authorities to look closely at how parking provision and charges work.

The Government understand that these issues have a massive effect. So, in January 2011, we amended the national planning guidance to remove Whitehall restrictions that imposed maximum numbers of parking places in new residential developments; to change a policy that inhibited competition between council areas, so that one parking charge would be imposed and another would not, which related to in and out of town centre developments; to introduce a policy that parking enforcement should be proportionate, and I stress proportionate; to remove the policy that encouraged councils to set car parking charges to discourage the use of cars; and to increase support for electric car power-charging infrastructure in parking areas.

The Government’s draft national planning policy framework follows through on those changes by removing the restrictions that impose maximum numbers of parking spaces in new non-residential developments. That will also relieve pressure on on-street parking.

As we know, Westminster council has now postponed its plans until beyond the Olympics and the jubilee celebrations. The Government welcome that decision, but we will wait—I think everyone will wait—for the judicial review to reach its own conclusions. It is up to Westminster council—if we believe in localism, we must leave it to the council—to come forward and make its decisions, based on the guidance that it has.

We appreciate Westminster council keeping Department for Transport Ministers fully informed, and council representatives have had several meetings and conversations with Ministers; I myself had a phone conversation yesterday with Westminster’s chief whip, Mr Caplan, about this debate. I understand that Westminster council has agreed to use the intervening period to discuss its policy and to continue to listen to the concerns of residents, visitors and businesses, who I am sure also want to find solutions to the ongoing pressures that the hon. Lady alluded to in her speech. The key is achieving a sustainable economy for the residents and the businesses together, and that is something that we all want to achieve.

It would perhaps be useful if I provided some context and said where Westminster is in the legal framework; the hon. Lady referred to the legal framework. The Department issues operational guidance to local authorities on parking policy and enforcement. That guidance was revised in November 2010, and it supports and complements the statutory guidance published under section 87 of the Traffic Management Act 2004, to which local authorities must have regard—I stress the word “must”.

Local authorities have long been responsible for managing all on-street parking and some off-street parking, and their relevant powers were first laid out in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. Section 16 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 imposes an explicit duty on local authorities when they are carrying out these functions to manage their network so as to reduce congestion and disruption, and to appoint a traffic manager.

Following the provisions for authorities to manage parking that are laid out in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, the Road Traffic Act 1991 significantly changed the way that on-street parking restrictions are enforced. Before the 1991 Act, the police and traffic wardens were responsible for enforcement, and income from fixed penalty notices specifically went to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the police found that the impact of parking enforcement on the resources of a number of forces supported the idea that another agency should take responsibility for such enforcement.

The potential road safety and congestion implications of a lack of enforcement were unacceptable, so the 1991 Act made it mandatory for London boroughs and optional for other local authorities to take on the civil enforcement of non-endorsable parking contraventions; in other words, parking fines where a driver does not receive points on their licence. In London, boroughs were responsible for enforcement of such fines and some other authorities also enforced such fines. The legal framework for enforcement authorities is now contained in part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004.

Now you know, Mr Howarth, why I am reading it and not trying to do this from memory.

Correct, Mr Howarth. And noted.

The legislation clearly places the responsibility for managing and enforcing parking on local authorities, and it is a mandatory requirement in London, including in Westminster.

The Department for Transport supports local authorities by issuing both statutory and operational guidance on parking policy and enforcement. The guidance makes it clear that each local authority should have a clear idea of what its parking policy is and what it intends to achieve by having that policy. Then the local authority needs to make traffic regulation orders to put parking arrangements in place, displaying appropriate traffic signs to show the public what the restrictions mean.

The parking strategy needs to take account of planning policies and transport powers; the needs of the many and various road users, businesses and residents in the area; the appropriate scale and type of provision that it will undertake; the balance between short and long-term provision; and the level of charges, which must be formally addressed.

On the issue of charges, I should add that both the statutory and operational guidance make it clear that parking charges are a tool to manage the demand for parking and should not be used as a revenue-raising measure. I will return to that point in a few moments if I can. The Department also recommends that authorities should consult the public on parking policies as they formulate or appraise them, before coming to a decision.

What I think the hon. Member for Westminster North was asking about earlier, and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster alluded to it too, is what happens if a council tries to reduce congestion and address the parking issues—as set out in the guidance—and there is a surplus. In my constituency, there is a surplus. We have looked very carefully at how we fix the charges, and there were lots of discussions about whether there should be a charge of £1, £1.50 or £1.75, and there were all the arguments about the change and so on. The figure ended up being, say, £2, and then the surplus comes.

I do not think that there is any doubt that Westminster council knew—I think that it has been very open about it—that there would be a surplus and that that surplus would be used. However, it is quite specifically set out in the regulations and the guidance how that money—the surplus—should be used within the community. So I think what the Secretary of State for Transport was alluding to in her comments was that there was a knowledge that there would be a surplus, but the main reason Westminster council was introducing this scheme was to reduce congestion and to ensure that it is possible for the local community, businesses and people—