Parking charges: Ten years on...

A parking machine in the Harborough Market car park, off Northampton Road
A parking machine in the Harborough Market car park, off Northampton Road

What gets people really riled up? What do people really care about?

It’s a conversation we often find ourselves having in our weekly news meeting while discussing the merits of that week’s potential stories.

And in the nearly 11 years since I’ve been with the Mail, parking charges has always been a subject guaranteed to get the blood boiling.

For community campaigns in the district over the past decade, more people got worked-up over parking charges than they did with other, arguably much more weightier issues.

A total of 10,000 people ended up signing petitions fighting the fees.

That’s about double the amount that supported the cinema campaign in 2007 and 7,000 more signatures than last year’s campaign to protect and preserve the war memorial portico at Harborough’s Cottage Hospital.

And it dwarfed a petition in 2005 to safeguard services at St Luke’s Hospital.

I can remember the vitriol against fees like it was yesterday.

So many people turned up to watch crunch council meetings on the issue back in 2004 that they had to make a second room available for the public.

One meeting nearly had to be cancelled because so many residents turned up. To. A. Council. Meeting.

These are normally the preserve of one man and his dog – unless it’s a planning meeting similar to the Tesco one last May but even then a second room was never required.

A former Mail editor ended up having a stand-up row with council chiefs and had to invoke obscure local government legislation to allow the public meeting to continue.

So why does the issue get so many people angry?

There’s a phrase that “an Englishman’s home is his castle”.

But maybe that should be extended to his car, too?

Don’t try to mess with his car...

Alex Blackwell

Ten years on, Malcolm Lever-Jones has no doubts about the parking charges in the Harborough district.

“The charges have become a simple cash cow for the council, as we always suspected they would be,” he told The Mail this week.

A forthright chairman of the Chamber of Trade a decade ago, Mr Lever-Jones, of Kibworth, is no less candid now.

Mr Lever-Jones, who stepped down from his Coventry Road business Expressions in 2013, said: “The council has done exactly what I said they would do ten years ago.

“That money was supposed to be spent on the car parks and be for the benefit of the towns.

“Now it’s for the benefit of the council – it just goes into the general pit of council money.

“And in many cases the car parks themselves are not even kept in good repair.”

The introduction of car parking charges in Harborough and Lutterworth, just over ten years ago, was the most controversial district council decision of the past decade.

“Yes, at the time it was very controversial,” recalls Liberal Democrat district councillor Simon Galton, who proposed the car parking charges motion at a tense council meeting in September 2004

“There were great concerns at the time over whether the charges would affect business competitiveness.

“But you can only say that Market Harborough seems to be thriving.”

In total, the car parks have raised a robust £5.7 million for Harborough District Council in charges – and a further £500,000 in fines.

It should be added that a refund has to be given each year to Sainsbury’s, for the large car park it controls.

Income from charges has risen gradually, and was £674,000 in 2013-14 compared with £583,000 in the first full year.

Interestingly, cash from fines in 2013-14 is a quarter of the peak year in 2006-07, backing up anecdotal evidence that car park attendants are now seen less frequently.

In proposing the charges motion ten years ago, Cllr Galton said: “The fact is we are spending £80,000 a year on the car parks and people have to understand there is no such thing as a free lunch.

“Without fees, we would have to fund the car parks through Council Tax, which would prove to be very difficult.”

Now Cllr Galton says the charges are “largely accepted” although he admits “when charges went up, it did re-ignite that debate”.

And he added: “Charges were just inevitable really. The evidence presented by council officers was that free parking wasn’t sustainable; they were a huge strain on the council budget.”

Equally controversial is the way revenue from car parking is spent.

At first, Harborough’s ruling Liberal Democrat council promised that the money would be re-invested in car parks and for the benefit of the town.

But the Conservatives, who took control of the district council in 2007, removed the “ring fence” around the car parking money about five years ago.

Cllr Galton said: “The money now just goes into the council’s general budget.”

We asked Mail readers this week for their views.

Sara Yirrell said: “It is rare to get free parking anywhere these days!

“But free Sunday parking is a great idea and very welcome as are refunds when shopping at certain places.

“Charges are not too bad at all, considering, I just hope they don’t keep rising to Northampton and Kettering levels.

“They are extortionate.

“I fear greed will prevail as it always does with councils.”

Hayley Briggs said: “ I live in Kibworth so I have no choice but to drive in.

“I try my best to find free spaces, even if it means walking further. I suppose the charges are reasonable but not if you work in the town centre or need to park regularly as it soon adds up.”

Erica Calvert said: “I don’t mind the charges now. It just seems the norm.

“It is cheaper than other places but would be nice if the machines gave change.

“It’s hard to go over to the shop for change to then have to walk back to the car in the rain with a baby/toddler!”

Julia Squire said: “I wish your ticket would cover all car parks instead of having to pay each time you change car park.”

And James Butler, on Twitter, said: “We walk into town.

“There is no excuse not to unless you live in one of the surrounding villages.

“It’s a 15 or 20-minute walk for most, at max.”

Cllr Phil King, the council’s current portfolio holder for finance, said:“Ten years on, most of the council-owned car-parks can still be used free-of-charge. In ones that do charge, there are 30-minute free slots, free parking on Sundays, discounts for long-stay, and the last two years we have had free parking on Saturdays in December.

“We recognise and understand that many people don’t like charges, but in the main car parks in Harborough, you can still get free parking up to two hours via the retailer rebate scheme subject to minimum purchases.”