The Bill seeks to make provision for the procedure to be followed by local authorities when varying the charges to be paid for off-street parking and parking on designated highways. It amends provisions within the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. In order to consider the merits of the Bill, it is initially necessary to consider the existing powers that local authorities have with regard to parking, and how they differ from the existing regulation. Sections 41 and 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1991 awarded new powers to local authorities to vary car parking charges at designated on-street parking places and in off-street car parks. The discussions on the provisions that would become the 1991 Act were fairly limited, and the only debate came on Report in the Lords, when the then Government introduced a new clause on off-street car parks. The then Transport Minister, Lord Brabazon of Tara, said that the provision
“applies to variation of charges at off-street parking places. Local authorities making orders prescribing charges at off-street parking places will, in future, be able to vary those charges subsequently by the simpler public notice procedure—to be prescribed by 978 regulations made by the Secretary of State and subject to the negative resolution procedure—instead of having to make a new parking places order.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 529, c. 977.]
The powers that were provided through the 1991 Act are contained in sections 35C and 46A of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, as amended. The current procedures regarding the ability of local authorities to amend parking charges are stipulated also through regulation 25 of the Local Authorities Traffic Orders (Procedures) (England and Wales) Regulations 1996—specifically, SI 1996/2489. When seeking either to increase or decrease charges, these regulations require local authorities to do following. First, they have to publish a notice of variation at least once in a newspaper that circulates within the area where the charges are to be altered at least 21 days before the proposed changes are due to come into effect. The relevant notice must also specify the date when it is due to come into force. It must stipulate which parking places the notice relates to, and outline the alterations to the charges that will take effect for each parking place. Finally, the local authority must take steps to ensure that copies of the notice are displayed in the affected areas and that these remain in a legible condition until the date when the changes come into effect.
Through amending the existing powers of the Secretary of State at sections 35C and 46A of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, the Bill revisits the current regulations and seeks to reduce the bureaucratic burden placed on local authorities that are seeking to reduce their parking charges. Furthermore, the Bill allows for a new condition that means that local authorities will need to consult if they are looking to increase their parking charges under an existing traffic order. The intention behind the Bill is fairly clear. It seeks to give councils more flexibility to innovate with regard to the parking strategies and to make it easier for them to reduce car parking charges in order to react to particular circumstances or events, many of which we have already heard about today.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth rightly pointed out, parking policies have the potential to enhance the economic viability of our high streets, and the benefits to town centres and communities who strike the correct balance with regard to parking charges can be considerable. Before entering this House, I worked in the retail industry for 30 years, during which time I witnessed at first hand the impact that parking strategies can have on the high street. The independent retailers, traders and small businesses that are the lifeblood of our town centres rely on a balanced parking policy that promotes the regular turnover of parking spaces, manages traffic flow successfully, and ensures that the level of charges is reasonable and proportionate in relation to the retail offer that is available to consumers. My own local authority, Calderdale, has sought to introduce a range of additional charges over recent years, and has miserably failed to strike such a balance—a point I will return to shortly.
Before I do so, it is worth exploring the link between town centre prosperity and car parking provision in more detail. Of course, a plethora of different factors influences the comparative success of a town centre. It is therefore incredibly difficult to evidence a clear link between parking policies and the success of town centres. In 2013, a number of organisations, including the Association of Town and City Management, the British Parking Association, Springboard Research Ltd and Parking Data and Research International collaboratively produced a report entitled, “Re-Think! Parking on the High Street: Guidance on Parking Provision in Town and City Centres.” The report explored what evidence could be collated and what could be learned about the relationship between car parking provision and town centre success. Through analysing a range of data using a representative sample of town centres and considering primary indicators—that is, the factors that are judged to have the largest impact on the health of a town centre—the report provides some preliminary evidence that suggests important trends and provides a solid foundation for more comprehensive research.
Due to the wide range of variable factors at play, the report was tightly drawn to focus on a number of specific influences. For example, instead of considering all durations of parking, the report expressly focuses on the first two hours. It was felt that by doing so, it would cover those who had parked to go shopping and eliminate other parking habits—such as commuter parking—from the data. The variables considered included the cost of parking and the quality of spaces. Of the many indicators of town centre performance, the report measured the two key statistics of footfall and spend. Finally, the towns included were carefully selected to provide a representative sample of the town centre landscape across the UK. The report included towns in each region, spanning the entire retail hierarchy from major city to district centre level.
Because of the precise methodology and the fact that the variables chosen reflected only part of this wide and complex picture, we must naturally be cautious about the report’s findings. However, it does suggest some interesting trends. First, parking operators are making available parking provision that equates to the levels of footfall in the location. Secondly, there is no clear relationship between the car parking charges set by owners or operators and the quality of a location’s offer. Some mid-range and smaller town centres may be overcharging. Finally, the mid-range and smaller centres that charge more than the national average in relation to their offer suffered a higher-than-average decline in footfall in 2011, the year in which the data were collected.
Although we must acknowledge that the report does not constitute conclusive evidence that the cost of parking has a tangible influence on town centre prosperity, it opens up an avenue for further research and conforms to the anecdotal or common-sense opinion about the likelihood of such a link. Although the report’s suggestion that town centres with higher-than-average parking costs experienced an average decline in footfall in 2011 will hardly come as a surprise, further research is required before it can be categorically stated that any such link exists. Furthermore, the scale of the detrimental impact that higher costs may have on high streets and consumer habits is unknown and requires further investigation. Each town centre is unique and exposed to widely differing external factors, so something that is true in one context may not be true in another, but the initial trend suggested by the report should act as a wake-up call for local authorities.
That point leads me on to the record of my local authority, Calderdale Council, which has a rather chequered history when it comes to parking charges. On Second Reading a few months ago, I challenged the notion that local authorities do not use car parking charges to generate additional revenue. Although I cannot comment on the choices that other local authorities have made in the last few years, I can say a few words about Calderdale’s unflattering record in that regard.
In 2012, the cabinet of Calderdale Council approved a raft of additional car parking charges. The title of the cabinet committee paper was “The Parking Income Generation Study”. [Hon. Members: “Disgraceful!”] Indeed. The first line of the report made explicitly clear the council’s intention to
“generate additional revenue from parking.”
The proposals included a wide range of additional charges in areas in which parking had previously been free, with the aim of generating an additional £841,000 per annum. Although some of the measures outlined in the report were a genuine attempt to manage existing parking and traffic difficulties, including long-standing problems around Calderdale Royal hospital, many related to areas in which there were no identifiable problems with parking or traffic management. Such measures included the introduction of evening parking charges in previously free car parks in small market towns in my constituency, such as Brighouse, Todmorden, Ripponden and West Vale.
As Members know, local authorities are permitted to spend parking income only on certain things. The relevant legislation is section 55 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, which states:
“A local authority shall keep an account of their income and expenditure in respect of parking places for which they are the local authority”.
Subsections (4) and (5), which set out what a surplus may be spent on, are particularly relevant. If a council has used money from the general fund to plug a deficit in parking operations, a surplus may be used to pay back that money. It may be spent on meeting all or part of the cost of the provision and maintenance by the local authority of off-street parking accommodation.
If a local authority believes that the provision of further off-street parking accommodation is unnecessary or undesirable, a surplus may be used for the following purposes: to meet costs incurred, whether by the local authority or by some other person, in the provision of public transport services; for highway or road improvement projects in the area; to meet the costs incurred by a London authority in the maintenance of roads; for environmental improvement in the local authority area; or, in the case of such local authorities as may be prescribed, for any other purposes for which the authority may lawfully incur expenditure around parking.
Of course, some of the charges implemented by local authorities fit more comfortably than others within the remit of section 55 of the1984 Act. In the examples from my local authority that I gave few moments ago, it could be argued that although the measures to address parking problems around a busy hospital fall within both the letter and the spirit of the law, the proposals for cashing in on the lucrative market of evening parking charges in a busy town centre are more questionable and rather difficult to justify.
Local authorities such as Calderdale, will, I suspect, continue to try to defend their parking charge increases, however tenuous the link with the legislative guidelines and any genuine desire to improve the traffic management and parking situation in their area. The judgement in 2013 in the case of Attfield v. London Borough of Barnet, which Andy Slaughter has mentioned, clarified the position of local authorities that seek to use their powers to charge local residents for parking explicitly to raise surplus revenue for other transport purposes funded by the general fund. Mrs Justice Lang said that a council could not set out with the objective of raising parking charges in order to generate a surplus to fund other transport schemes.
David Attfield, who brought the case against Barnet, admitted that he was able to win the case because the council was open about the fact that it was increasing charges to provide additional revenue. Calderdale Council’s cabinet committee paper, to which I alluded earlier, was equally explicit about the overt intention to raise charges to provide additional revenue. I suspect that had the proposal been formally challenged in the courts, an outcome similar to the verdict in Attfield v. Barnet would have been reached. Residents and community groups, not to mention opposition councillors on local authorities across the country, may wish to pay particular attention to the ways in which local authorities attempt to justify such increases in the future, because I am sure that Barnet Council is not unique in seeking to use motorists as cash cows.
In the absence of further legal challenges to local authority practices, it is up to residents and councillors to hold local politicians to account. The additional charges approved in Calderdale in 2012 formally took effect in 2014. Within months, the discontent of local residents and businesses adversely affected by the charges prompted opposition councillors to trigger a vote of no confidence in the ruling Labour council administration. The vote was carried, and within weeks of the new parking meters being installed, they were removed again on the orders of the new Conservative-led administration; that was just one example of local democracy in action. However, such is the finely balanced political landscape of Calderdale Council that, just a few years later, the same Labour cabinet is again in control and seeking to reimpose many of the same additional parking charges.
The latest proposals for additional charges hit several towns in my constituency, including Brighouse, where the local business group, the Brighouse Business Initiative, has worked incredibly hard to reinvigorate the town centre and to increase footfall. The efforts of Brighouse traders have seen the town centre flourish, and several farmers markets are run every year that bring people in from across the country.
To the dismay of traders, residents and local councillors, the council seek to impose on-street parking charges in the town centre, despite wide acknowledgement that there are currently no problems with the flow of traffic, nor with the turnover of parking spaces for consumers. Saying that the local business community is furious would be an understatement. Traders are rightly concerned about the damaging effect that the proposals could have on their businesses and livelihoods. Despite making their feelings known to the council, local Labour politicians seem content to proceed with their plans regardless of the scale of any opposition.
The Bill provides for local authorities to consult interested parties if they are seeking to increase the cost of parking charges to ensure that the impacts on towns are fully considered. That can only be a positive step forward. Local businesses, residents and councillors understand their town centres and communities. They are able to recognise which measures will work and how their local high-street economy can be properly managed. It is only right that they are consulted on any potential increases in charges and that detailed consideration is given to the impacts of such proposals on their town centres.
I appreciate that many local authorities already engage in thorough consultation with their communities on such issues, and I applaud them for doing so. However, I assure Members that that does not happen everywhere, so I wholeheartedly welcome the provisions in the Bill to ensure that local communities are involved in the decision-making process. I am sure that local communities such as Brighouse will strongly welcome the measure and the opportunities that it presents to them to ensure that their views are considered.
On Second Reading, the Opposition spokesman, Jim McMahon, raised questions about how the consultation process might work. He was entirely correct to say that further detail on the consultation process is required, and I trust that the Minister will elaborate on that point later.
As well as making provision for consulting local communities, the Bill seeks to make it quicker and easier for local authorities to lower their parking charges to promote the economic viability of town centres. Specifically, it provides for a reduction in charges without the need for the current 21 days’ notice. That reform will provide local authorities with the flexibility to react more quickly to changes and with the ability to innovate in providing additional support to town centres.
Many market towns in my constituency, such as Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Elland, are still getting back on their feet following the devastating floods on Boxing day in 2015. I note that despite the flooding, Hebden Bridge won the small market town category of the Great British High Street awards last year, so well done to the town. However, many businesses the towns struggled in the months immediately after the floods when footfall on the high street was significantly reduced. The proposals would have allowed the local authority the flexibility of deciding quickly how car-parking charges in those towns could have been used as a tool to support local businesses. That could have involved free parking on certain days or a limited reduction in charges.