Saturday, August 06, 2011

Pickles on town centre parking: ignoring the evidence, playing to the gallery

Anyone who has been involved in local politics or community and residents' groups will recognise the following: the person who knows for certain the solution to all an area's parking, traffic and transport problems, who is completely confident that his solutions are the only possible way forward and that only idiot councillors and officials could fail to support everything he proposes. He dismisses all counter-arguments as 'rubbish' and is unable to conceive of alternative points of view, let alone how many of his neighbours see things differently.

For the most part, the job of elected representatives is to listen to all viewpoints, consider the nuances of any policy issue and try to find the best way forward. Sadly, today we have Mr 'I Know Best About Everything' as secretary of state for communities and local government, and his latest pronouncement is that 'fairer' (i.e. more) parking in urban development will help to boost high streets and town centres. Although couched partly in terms of giving councils more freedom, the logic of Mr Pickles' rhetoric is that councils ought to end 'anti-car restrictions' and encourage more parking. This is all part of 'ending Labour's war on the motorist'.

In fact, while Labour's policy was dirigiste in the extreme, they merely continued and strengthened the approach taken by John Gummer in the previous Conservative government. Whether because of genuine support for the sustainability agenda, or because Conservative voters were angry at increasing greenfield development, high streets being destroyed by out-of-town shopping centres etc., the Major government began to re-think planning policy. Whereas since the 1960s the planning system had encouraged low-density development, which militated in favour of building on greenfield, out- and edge-of-town sites, the government now tried to encourage urban renewal, particularly by ending restrictions that meant town centre development had to have suburban levels of parking, amenity space and the like, which had made regeneration more difficult.

So trying to limit parking in urban development was not simply a perverse attack on motorists, but a rational response to planning and transport issues that was broadly shared across the political spectrum (even if Labour were unnecessarily control freakish about it).

Living Streets has posted a brief but pointed critique of Pickles (hat-tip Jonathan Calder). But Pickles would probably regard Living Streets as exactly the sort of tree hugging organisation that wages war on the motorist. So let's look at the practical, straightforward problems with increasing town centre parking that someone only slightly more open-minded than Mr Pickles might sympathise with.

In the first place, many town and city centres suffer from traffic congestion, which can be very frustrating to motorists. Providing more and cheaper car parking to encourage people to drive into town, rather than use other transport methods, will only add to motorists' frustration without doing much to improve town centre economies. Unless of course the government funds a massive road-building programme to enable people to drive to the new car parks. But even those not worried about the unsustainability of such an approach might recognise that large-scale urban road building has hardly been a panacea for town and city centres.

Secondly, parking space provides less economic benefit than business floorspace or housing (it certainly attracts lower business rates) so more parking really doesn't offer good value for money or make urban development more viable. Given the space constraints that often affect urban sites, developers forced to reduce the number of homes, offices or shops in a scheme in order to provide more parking may well seek to develop out-of-town instead, where there is plenty of room for everything. Which will kind of undermine the notion of improving the economic health of the high street.

Lastly, on Pickles' criticism of 'parking fines, soaring parking charges and a lack of parking spaces'. These are things that can and do contribute towards making town centres work effectively. Without parking charges and regulation, spaces would be used by commuters that are needed by shoppers on whose custom town centres depend. Parking controls, pedestrianisation and the like can also help to create reasonably pleasant town centre environments that people want to visit: i.e. that are safe for children, aren't full of car fumes, and either traffic jams or fast-moving traffic. While Pickles claims to want to 'assist mums struggling with their family shop' his policies would make things worse for them: added congestion during their journey, supposedly free car parking spaces already taken up for the day by town centre workers and a feeling that this isn't a safe or environment to bring your children to.

I am not sure which is worse: the thought that Pickles can't and won't understand such arguments, or that he understands them perfectly well, knows his policies will make little practical difference, but is just playing to the gallery to give the impression that there are simple solutions to problems that are in fact rather complex.

(Later): I see my dear wife is advising me not to get wound up by Mr Pickles.

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