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Car Parking Charges: Stevenage

Volume 617: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2016

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered car parking charges and Stevenage town centre.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am grateful that the Minister is present to respond to this debate, which is important both for my constituents in Stevenage and nationally. It is clear that excessive parking charges have been a major factor in the destruction of many high streets and town centres. They have forced local shoppers away from their much loved local areas towards out-of-town retail parks and supermarkets offering free parking.

The Minister will be aware of the negative impact a poor local authority can have on standards of living. Such an authority can have a chokehold on economic growth, as it holds small local businesses back. Sadly, Stevenage Borough Council is such an authority and has been holding Stevenage back for years. But we are breaking free from the council’s restrictive grip. Stevenage has become the economic engine of Hertfordshire, and Hertfordshire has taken a leading role in the economic recovery.

Stevenage was the first new town in the country. It was established by the Stevenage Development Corporation 70 years ago. It is home to some of the biggest companies in the world and employs nearly 10,000 scientists and technicians. We have more than 4,000 small businesses. Since 2010, unemployment has fallen from 5.8% to 1.6%. I have launched a variety of apprenticeship campaigns. Before 2010, just under 200 apprentices were starting work every year, which was not bad, but not great either. We now have more than 800 apprentices starting real jobs every year in Stevenage, and we are on course for 1,000. That is an absolutely fantastic achievement that is giving young people a real chance at a start in life.

People say, “It’s not rocket science,” but I actually have apprentice rocket scientists, and I have apprentice accountants, too—you name it, we have them. That is because local employers are working with me and the local community to make a difference. We have amazing transport links, as Stevenage is situated on the A1(M) and the east coast main line. In fact, we are only 19 minutes from King’s Cross on the fast trains.

Since 2010, I have secured from the Government more than £300 million of investment in infrastructure. Such massive investment has transformed public services in the area. More than £150 million of that investment has been spent on rebuilding the Lister hospital, which, although it has its challenges, is fast becoming a centre of clinical excellence. We have had a variety of other new NHS investments, including in GP surgeries. Some of our secondary schools have been rebuilt, while others are being modernised. Some primary schools have been rebuilt, and others have been expanded. In total we have 42 primary and nursery schools in Stevenage, and 40 of them are rated as good or outstanding, with the other two closing the gap quickly.

I have secured the money for the widening of the A1(M) between junctions 6 and 8, which was not easy at £8 million a mile. The technical works have started and the Government will deliver on a campaign that has been running for more than 30 years, because we understand how critical great infrastructure is to releasing economic growth.

Hertfordshire is one of the safest places in the country to live, and a third of Stevenage is parks and open spaces. With such great public services, transport connections, new homes being built and more than 400,000 square feet of office space being converted into residential flats because of permitted development rights—all within 15 minutes of the railway station—it is clear why so many people are moving to my constituency. In fact, many Londoners relocate to Stevenage, because they can get to work faster living in Hertfordshire than when they lived in London.

The Minister can see that Stevenage is taking off. We are breaking the grip of Stevenage Borough Council, which is trying to hold us back, and we are moving forward, but we have a huge problem right in the centre of our town. I love Stevenage, but its town centre is not fit for purpose. It needs regenerating and bringing forward into the 21st century, and it needs to reflect the growing aspirations of the people who live there, but do not shop there.

Stevenage Borough Council is addicted to car parking charges and has a monopoly on off-street car parks in the town centre and at the railway station. Let me put that into context: the council takes more than £3.5 million a year in car parking charges, and just over £4 million a year as its share of the council tax. It is a tiny lower tier local authority that provides services for 60,000 electors, making it the smallest local authority in Hertfordshire and one of the smallest in the country.

A third of the council’s budget effectively comes from car parking charges. In Stevenage, we have to pay almost as much in car parking charges as we do in council tax. That is totally unacceptable. I am sure the Minister will agree that councils should not have monopolies on car parks. Stevenage Borough Council should consider divesting itself of such assets, and it should certainly not use excessive parking charges to make up a shortfall in its budget.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and to be able to speak in this debate with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who is my neighbour in Leicestershire. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) has many parallels with mine. We have the MIRA business park and we have very low unemployment. I support what he is trying to do with this debate. On Friday, my private Member’s Bill should receive its Second Reading. It has the twin purpose of allowing councils to reduce parking charges without 21 days’ notice, and introducing a proviso that should councils want to increase parking charges, they will have to consult.

That is an excellent intervention. I would be happy to support my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill.

Will the Minister clarify whether a local authority’s revenue surplus from off-street car parking may be used for general purposes, or is it restricted in the same manner as an on-street parking revenue surplus? Will he agree to review off-street parking revenues in areas such as Stevenage, where there is such a distorted market due to the council’s monopoly?

I know that the Department does not collect data on high parking charges centrally, and local authorities are responsible for setting local parking charges, taking account of local circumstances. Nevertheless, the Minister wants local authorities to adopt policies that support local town centres, and the Government have recently consulted on that idea, so will he start collecting the data and analysing the effect of high car parking charges on the viability of the economies of town centres such as Stevenage’s?

The Portas review clearly showed that car parking charges were the biggest barrier to the regeneration of our town centres. A couple of years ago, I launched a campaign to protect local people from Stevenage Borough Council’s car parking rip-off, and received the support of the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles). I believe that, by taking more than £3 million a year in car parking charges, Stevenage Borough Council is preventing the regeneration of Stevenage town centre.

My campaign calls on Stevenage Borough Council to apologise and move forward by introducing three hours’ free parking so that more local people can afford to shop locally. On-street parking is free for three hours in the Stevenage old town, and it is vibrant, with the Department recently commending it for coming in the top five high streets in the country.

There is free parking at the Roaring Meg retail park, where Debenhams is currently building a new store. The company has chosen to build there rather than the town centre. Although I welcome the fact that Debenhams is coming to Stevenage, I wish it would come to the town centre and act as an anchor store to kick-start the regeneration scheme. Local people are rightly concerned that many of the fashion shops in the town centre will relocate once the store opens.

I am campaigning for Stevenage Borough Council to match the three hours of free parking at Roaring Meg and stop killing our town centre by ripping off local people. I have spoken to developers, financiers, chief executives and chairmen of leading retailers, and they all tell me the exact same simple facts of regeneration. We have to increase customer footfall and the dwell time of shoppers before they will come, and the quickest way to do that is with an element of free parking. But Stevenage Borough Council cannot give up its addiction to the £3.5 million it receives in car parking charges, which blocks every regeneration attempt.

Thousands of local people have signed my campaign for three hours’ free parking, because we want to see the town centre regenerated. Stevenage Borough Council has launched several regeneration plans over the past 20 years, but they have all collapsed because of this addiction to car parking charges. To put it into context for the Minister, around 40% of my town centre is car parks.

The latest regeneration plan is painful to read. It is a billion-pound joke on local people. The ridiculous proposal involves moving the existing railway station, relied on by 35,000 commuters a day, and closing Lytton Way, which the council says is redundant, but is actually the busiest dual carriageway in Stevenage, going right through the heart of the town centre. One of the only two custody suites in the whole of Hertfordshire is located off the dual carriageway. The plan also involves demolishing the Gordon Craig theatre and building 1,600 flats on the leisure park to wipe out our community facilities, including the first Cineworld cinema in the UK, which is an 18-screen cinema, with IMAX 3D and 4D. None of this would actually take place in the area that we refer to as the town centre; it would all be adjacent to it.

Stevenage Borough Council has made Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership mislead the Government in its application to the local growth fund and it has also misled the Homes and Communities Agency. I shall explain: Stevenage Borough Council created what it calls a public-private partnership, named Stevenage First, in June 2015 to launch its latest ridiculous regeneration proposals. I opposed the proposals as they are not deliverable and will create massive economic uncertainty in our town and intense disruption for the seven years that the railway station move would take.

Consequently, the only organisations that make up the board of Stevenage First are Hertfordshire County Council, Hertfordshire LEP, Stevenage Borough Council and Hertfordshire chamber of commerce. No private companies will touch Stevenage First, so it is not even a public-private partnership. However, Stevenage Borough Council writes to companies and organisations, including the HCA, asking them to join the board and stating that I am a board member, even though I am not and I actually opposed the creation of Stevenage First. Stevenage Borough Council also states that Network Rail is a board member. I have met the chief executive of Network Rail who explained that Network Rail is not a board member, confirming that in writing to me and the council.

The council and the LEP have stated in their application for Government funding to move our railway station and destroy Stevenage’s economy that Legal & General has committed £250 million of private funding. I have met the chief executive of Legal & General and he has confirmed to me and also put in writing that Legal & General has made no such offer of funding and has no desire to see the train station moved.

This disastrous scheme has also seen the new turnback facility for the Hertford Loop line, which we need at Stevenage station, being delayed, and it is now under threat. I secured the agreement for this facility in the last Parliament, because we need it to benefit from the increased range of services that will be available from 2018, when we will have direct services to Gatwick and Brighton from Stevenage after the new Thameslink works are completed.

I will not bore everyone with the details, but the result of the delay is that Govia, the train operating company, has suggested in its consultation for 2018 that a bus replacement service would be needed until the new station is built. That means that for up to seven years the 1,100 people a day in Stevenage who use the Hertford Loop line would have to get a bus if the disastrous station proposal got the go-ahead. That is totally unacceptable and would mean a reduction rather than an increase in capacity.

I spend my time campaigning for more seats and services on our line, and I have secured massive improvements. This ridiculous regeneration plan is putting them all at risk. If there is any money available for station investment, we should ensure that it is spent only on delivering a new platform five in time for the 2018 timetable.

It is time for radical action and for a new town centre in Stevenage, and the first step has to be introducing three hours of free parking, to help to increase customer footfall and dwell time. I have previously asked the Government to step in and take action. I asked them to establish a new Stevenage development corporation, to regenerate our town centre once and for all. If Stevenage Borough Council is frightened of being side-lined, then it should not have a development corporation. Let us have a development partnership, a super-business improvement district and a whole new model we can invent, which can act as a template for small town centre regeneration schemes. I do not mind—I will work with anyone to deliver for my town of Stevenage.

It is time for radical action and I urge the Minister to help me to create a modern, aspirational and 21st-century town centre in Stevenage. We have a real opportunity and we must take it.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing what has been an interesting and informative debate. It has been important to hear his views and how he wants the future of Stevenage to be shaped. It is also good to hear what a passionate and strong voice he is for his constituents.

This debate also gives me an important opportunity to set out the Government’s vision for the future of parking and town centres. Personally, I am passionate about town centres and the role that parking has to play. Town centres are important for our communities and local economies. However, the huge structural shift in retailing, with the rise of online shopping and out-of-town retailing, which my hon. Friend referred to, means that we are at a critical moment for our town centres. I am absolutely dedicated to giving local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local communities access to the tools they need to transform their local areas and bring their town centres into the 21st century.

High streets and town centres have the potential to aid job creation and nurture small businesses, and parking plays a major role in providing the gateway to them. To date, the Government have taken significant action to support town centres and drive growth. Since 2010, we have helped to create more than 360 town teams and given over £18 million to a number of different towns. That is on top of a range of other steps, including supporting the phenomenally successful Great British High Street awards, which my hon. Friend alluded to, and the Love Your Local Market campaign. We have also introduced a package of important financial reliefs for small businesses, such as the £1.4 billion package of support for small businesses, which ended this year. In addition, we are bringing forward a significant £6.7 billion package of business rate relief, which will start next April and which will benefit many businesses on our high streets and in our town centres.

The best retailers, the best high streets and the best town centres are already adapting to change. They are becoming places where people go for a day or night out, to do some shopping—but also to have something to eat or go to the cinema—and to enjoy their leisure time. Achieving such adaptation is not always easy in many places, as I am sure hon. Members will know. The Government are absolutely committed to helping communities to adapt, but we cannot and should not bail out or prop up ailing businesses. We believe that plans and ideas for town centres must come from local areas themselves. It is for councils, businesses and communities in local areas, with the input of excellent Members of Parliament, to decide what they want high streets and town centres to look like and what they want their vision for the future to be.

The Government must support local people, building skills and spreading best practice, while doing everything we can at a national level to support high street growth. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)—who has taken on the role of Minister with responsibility for high streets—is taking forward a strand of work through the Future High Streets Forum. He is working with many people from the industry on how the Government can make it easier for local areas, facilitating them in bringing our high streets up to the standard expected in the 21st century, and how a high street or town centre can be restructured to reflect that.

Let me now turn to car parking. This Government have introduced reforms to make car parking easier, allowing high streets to adapt to the needs of their communities. The previous Conservative-led coalition Government introduced reforms to make it mandatory for local authorities to give 10-minute grace periods for all on-street parking bays and all off-street car parks. This gives town centre customers greater flexibility and allows them to complete their business in the town centre without having to worry about whether they are running over their parking time by a few minutes.

The Government have also been concerned about how councils have used CCTV camera cars, which were being used purely as revenue-generating tools. That is why, in addition to grace periods, we banned local authorities from sending car parking tickets through the post. That means that individuals have a degree of certainty, because if they get a ticket now, they know that it will be there when they get back to their car. They will not receive it through the post a number of weeks later, when they may not recall that particular journey, but can instead corroborate the information given by a parking ticket.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage that we are now looking at further reforms to the local government transparency code, which picks up on his point about how car parking revenue is used. Following the recent consultation, we intend to amend the code so that motorists can see at first hand a complete breakdown of the parking charges their councils impose and how much money the charges raise. Since 2014, councils have been required to be more transparent about how much money they raise through parking charges and penalties. Our proposals therefore go even further, enabling drivers to see far more information about the levels of fines imposed, how many were paid and how many were cancelled.

Let me take this opportunity to commend the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick). The Parking Places (Variation of Charges) Bill offers an excellent opportunity for a small but sensible reform to local authority car parks. The Bill would give the Government powers to scrap the bureaucratic requirements on local authorities if they wish to lower their car parking charges. That is extremely important, because it offers a real opportunity for councils to be at the forefront, supporting their high streets. For example, they can respond to the opportunity of a town centre festival or event by quickly and flexibly reducing car parking charges. Where areas can do that for specific events, it makes a huge difference. It often attracts a lot of people into the town centre who may live in the area but who do not necessarily visit that town. They can get a feel for the town centre, and often it reminds them what is there and what they can do while they visit. That is extremely important. It would certainly make it easier for Stevenage Borough Council to implement the policy that my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage sensibly advocates.

The Bill would also provide for a consultation requirement if councils wished to increase the charges. Councils often get to the budget-setting process in the year and decide that they want to fill a hole in the revenue budget. Car parking charges are often seen as an easy fix. It is important for councils to have to engage with their local populations and consult to ensure that they are doing the right thing in taking that approach. Charging levels are often a significant concern to town centre businesses, and we think it is fit and proper that councils listen to those businesses before they set their charges. The Bill is on Second Reading on Friday, and I look forward to colleagues in the House supporting it wholeheartedly.

Turning to other matters, I note that my hon. Friend has been an active supporter and campaigner for three hours of free parking in Stevenage. I take this opportunity to say that I fully support his campaign. Many areas across the country have taken that approach, and it has made a significant and positive difference to the number of people coming into those areas. For example, North Lincolnshire Council has taken the commendable step of offering free parking to visitors to Brigg, Ashby and Scunthorpe to encourage more use of those town centres. The scheme offers one free ticket a day for each vehicle per visit, per site. In Northumberland, the council offers a disk-based scheme. It is good to see my hon. Friend from Northumberland, the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan). She will know that that scheme allows motorists to park at a range of towns across Northumberland.

I encourage other councils to take up that good practice. Where councils do not think about parking charges, it has negative consequences. In my constituency, Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council regrettably took the step of increasing car parking charges in April, and it has already found that that has reduced the car park income to the council by £200,000. That shows what a negative approach that is and the damaging effect that putting up car parking charges can have on a town centre.

In conclusion, the Government are committed to helping our high streets to adapt to the changing needs of communities and making them fit for the 21st century, but we need to be clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every town is different, but parking has a key role to play in encouraging people to use our town centres. Everyone needs to play their part, with local economic partnerships, local authorities, businesses, communities and local Members of Parliament coming together. It was good to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage make that wide offer to his local area—to say, “Let’s work together to make things happen in Stevenage.” That is absolutely right. Local areas must come together to work on behalf of local businesses, bring local people into our town centres and deliver a package that they can be proud of. As we are seeing, many people are indeed proud of their town centres, because across the country more than 400,000 people have voted for their favourite high street in our Great British high street competition.

Question put and agreed to.