This is one of the last Adjournment debates of the current Assembly. I thank the Business Committee and you, Mr Speaker, for agreeing to the debate this evening.
Bangor's three loading bays — one in Bridge Street and two in Main Street — were created as part of the public realm design. The project was delivered by the council in conjunction with the then Department for Social Development. The Department for Infrastructure, as custodian of the public highways, provided the necessary legislation to allow enforcement of the waiting and parking restrictions on the new streetscape, which, in truth, came into force only in October. An answer to an Assembly question claimed that 180 people had been fined over the last 12 months for parking in the loading bays, but the restrictions have not been in force for 12 months. They have been operational only for a four-month period, so the Department needs to give the facts and not distort them in trying to cover up the mess created by the three loading bays and the number of parking tickets that they have generated.
The loading bays outside Menarys were never wanted. Last year, I held a meeting of the council, Transport NI and local businesses, which were complaining that the one-hour waiting times needed to be reinstated because the restrictions were affecting business. They had objected to the loading bays and were held to ransom by Transport NI because of their objection. They were forced to withdraw their complaints about the loading bays in order to get the one-hour waiting time back. That was very unfortunate.
Since the loading bays have come into force, four things have happened: a further seven on-street car parking spaces have been lost, adding to the number lost because of the public realm design and resulting in a further loss of trade to the already struggling traders in Bridge Street and Main Street; it has led to mass confusion among shoppers and drivers, who do not understand why they cannot park in these areas; poor signage has led to further confusion; and the red coats have been queueing up with great zeal, ready to pounce on poor unsuspecting shoppers parking in the loading bays, where they always parked to shop.
In Bridge Street, all parking has been taken away because of the loading bays and the public realm work. All businesses are struggling, and one is considering closing because of the loading bay. It is unfortunate that the Minister could not be bothered to be in his place today to listen to these serious concerns.
So far, £16,000 of fines have been issued — a nice little earner for the Minister's Department. One wonders whether this is the reason why these bays were put in place. Let us look at the facts. Even when these loading bays are empty, lorries and vans are still not using them and are double-parking to deliver their parcels. I have pictures to prove it and I have witnessed it on many occasions. These bays do not even make sense because there are loading bays behind the vast majority of shops and properties on Main Street and Bridge Street. If the Minister were here, I would say, "Minister, this is damaging businesses in Bangor. I can prove it." At an Infrastructure Committee meeting held in Belfast City Hall, I said to the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce representative Mr McElroy:
"You raised the issue of loading bays, which is a big bugbear of mine at the moment. In Bangor, it is causing huge confusion for people who want to park in them. Are you finding that experience here and do you agree that it is affecting trade? I do not know by how much, but it is certainly affecting trade and people being able to get parked in the city centre".
Mr McElroy replied:
"I agree wholeheartedly on all points, as a resident of Bangor and as somebody who carries out business in Belfast ... Our offices are on Great Victoria Street, and we are now down to having two freely available car parking spaces outside a 10-storey building that houses in the region of 250 people carrying out their business and that is visited by clients. That is largely because of loading bays ... To concentrate specifically on loading bays, the issue is not only the loading bays themselves and the number of them but the times at which they are in force. They are frequently in force at times when there will be no loading to those stores."
If the Minister were here, I would say that I hope that, for once, he would listen because businesses from Main Street and Bridge Street have come together to sign a petition to remove those loading bays. I also understand that the council is now deeply concerned at the impact of those loading bays and that the issue is being raised at council. In response to a recent Assembly question for written answer, the Minister said:
"As with any new arrangement there is a settling in period and my officials will be reviewing all aspects of the Councils scheme over the next few months."
I was going to ask the Minister today for the loading bay fines to be suspended from today, for the loading bays to be reviewed immediately, and for a review to be undertaken with local businesses and the council as a matter of urgency, and for those loading bays to be removed before it is too late for businesses in Bridge Street. I have here the petition that I was going to give to the Minister afterwards but, obviously, the Minister for Infrastructure could not care less about the parking problems in Bangor. He obviously does not care about the businesses that are being affected in Bangor and he obviously does not care about the people of north Down. I have repeatedly asked the Minister to visit north Down to discuss these issues and he has refused. Unfortunately, tonight, we do not have a Minister here at what is a very important debate. He could not care less about trying to resolve these differences by working together with us.
Thank you. The problem of car parking in Bangor and the issues around it have been compounded by the public realm work that has been undertaken in Bangor over the last couple of years.
Because of a reconfiguration of the various car parking spaces, the legislation covering them was set aside at that time and became obsolete. We actually had a period of about a year and a half when there was no legislation in relation to car parking in Main Street, Abbey Street or High Street in Bangor. That meant that you could park your car there. Although there were signs saying that you could park for only one hour and could not come back within an hour, that was not actually the case. People cottoned on very quickly. In fact, disappointingly, some of the people who cottoned on to it were those who were designated as traders. Some of their staff also cottoned on that they could park all day and not get a ticket. I know that this caused tremendous strain on businesses, particularly in Abbey Street and High Street, where the shopkeepers and retailers really did depend on a turnaround to maintain their footfall. They lost that. You could see cars and vans that carry deliveries for some of the businesses in that area parked all day. That was an extremely disappointing situation.
The Department and the Minister had to be hounded to push that legislation through. I sat on the council when the committee that dealt with it pleaded with him to bring the legislation forward. It was about a year after that before he brought it forward. There was a lot of dragging of heels. When they spoke to the council prior to the public realm work, they told us that we would only lose a handful of car parking spaces. I went out in good faith and sold that to people. People were saying, "We will lose a lot of car parking". I said, "No, we will only lose a handful. The Minister and the Department have told us that". The reality was that the town lost 28 car parking spaces. It went down from 162 to 134. Thankfully, the disabled parking spaces remained constant. There were 10, and they retained 10.
One of the things that they did was to introduce these loading bays. I am a motorist who uses Bangor, and I do a lot of business in Bangor daily. One of the infuriating things — all the motorists who use Main Street and High Street in Bangor will identify with this — was the double-parking of lorries. The redcoats totally ignore that and have always ignored it. If you say anything, they tell you that it is not a parking offence but an obstruction offence and that it is a matter for the PSNI. They will not interfere. That causes issues with traffic progression in the town and causes tailbacks of half a mile. The effects of a lorry being double-parked are felt half a mile away in the town, and they do it with impunity.
I have some sympathy with the Minister deciding that these loading bays might be a good idea and introducing them. The reality is that they have been a disaster. They are not being used. In reply to a question from me, he said that they have eliminated six spaces when, in fact, it is seven spaces, not that that is a huge difference. They are not performing the function for which they were placed there. Mr Easton is correct. I have seen it as well. I also have photographs of lorries double-parked adjacent to the loading bay. They are completely ignoring the fact that the loading bays are there. The problem remains that, if we take these loading bays away, we will have to come up with some other method of traffic restriction to remove the scourge of the lorries double-parking in the town. The tragedy is that a lot of these businesses have back entrances and loading bays round the back, and there is no reason why the lorries cannot go round there. It might help if some legislation was brought in so that the redcoats could intervene when lorries double-park and it might help if the lorry drivers started to get parking tickets, although I am sure that they would be the next to ask us to raise a petition if that were to happen.
I know that it is easy to stand up here tonight and say that the Minister should cancel this and take it away from today. The reality is that legislation and laws were passed and put in place and, as we have seen over the last couple of days, you cannot just click your fingers and change the law.
The legislation that is in place in relation to these loading bays went out to public consultation.
One of the questions that I wanted to ask the Minister — I share my colleague's disappointment that the Minister is not here, although he has been pretty good at Adjournment debates in the past — was whether any of the businesses objected prior to the loading bays going in. I am not sure that there were any objections. There was the planning process as well, and I am not sure that any objections against the bays went through the planning process. Maybe people did not realise the impact or thought that they were a good idea. I am sure that the Minister thought that they were a good idea, but the reality is that they have proved to be a very bad idea.
I asked the Minister whether he had introduced the loading bays with the full approval of the council. It worked in very close partnership with the Infrastructure Department on the public realm work. I think that there was a bit of playing around with words. The Minister said that the council had carried out all statutory consultations, with the caveat that it was through the planning process and that the council had more or less approved it. I think that the Minister was saying that the council had approved the planning application, as is its statutory duty, as it went through. No doubt the planning committee would have had no reason to turn it down, but the Minister is clutching at that as proof that the council supports the loading bays, and I do not think that that is the reality. If the council was asked the direct question, it would tell you that it was not party to agreeing to the loading bays.
I am sure that a lot of councillors have had their ears bent; certainly, mine have been bent, not by traders but by people who are getting tickets. Even people with blue badges are getting tickets. When they ring me, they are distraught about having to pay the fines. It is a money tree. When I drive down Main Street any day, I see cars parked in it. I say to myself, "Do people not see the signs?" They park, get tickets and do not like it. I do not think that there is an overnight solution, but we have to at least put a marker down — we are doing that tonight — that we do not like the bays. The people, the traders and public representatives do not like them.
I thank Mr Easton for securing the Adjournment debate. I declare at the outset that a close family member unfortunately received a penalty notice for parking in one of the bays.
Just to pick up on Mr Chambers's points, I do not think that this would have entered into public consciousness, even during the formal consultation process. At the best of times, it is difficult to get people to engage. People who are assumed to be most overtly affected tend to respond, but most of the motorists who fall into this category would not have been aware of this. They would have seen a location where they parked previously and assumed that they could continue to park there, without understanding the changes in the rules and regulations. While, technically, we can point to the Highway Code and legislation, I am not sure that average motorists, especially those who passed their test a long time ago, fully understand the subtle differences between one type of parking bay and another or between what is a loading bay and what is not. There is very little indication in the signage, for example, to warn people of the changed circumstances.
That said, I do not think that this is a massive Sinn Féin plot against Bangor or north Down. However, I certainly put on record my disappointment that the Minister is not here to listen to the debate. I am somewhat confused as to what Sinn Féin's position is vis-à-vis the Assembly at this stage. Its Ministers say that they are carrying on with their duties, but, at times, the evidence of that is patchy, to say the least.
This issue shows the difficulties that we have sometimes with large Departments understanding the very subtle circumstances that pertain on the ground in how decisions are implemented and operationalised and their lack of flexibility in acknowledging or responding when things are not perhaps working clearly. That is probably an argument for seeking to consolidate a lot of the very basic powers that exist at local government level, especially when we have the opportunity for joined-up thinking on the knock-on implications of a particular intervention — say, car parking — or other aspects of what is happening in the commercial life of a town. In that regard, I urge Mr Dunne and Mr Easton to encourage their colleague, the outgoing Minister for Communities, to rethink his position on regeneration powers, because the withholding of those from councils is an example of taking things in a direction that was not planned and it makes things more difficult down the line for that direction of travel.
Parking as a whole is at a premium in Bangor town centre, as is undoubtedly the case in many other locations. We have, in effect, a disproportionate impact of the creation of the loading bays, which are not being used for the purpose intended, not least when lorries continue to double-park. Even if they were to be used by lorries for loading, that would be for only a fraction of the day. Otherwise, you have empty space that is not being properly utilised to allow a free-flowing exchange of vehicles, which, in turn, would provide much needed custom for town-centre businesses. We have, in essence, a lack of flexibility and a lack of understanding of local circumstances.
The public realm process, of which that was part, was welcomed by local businesses and other stakeholders. However, I hear comments about it not having brought further regeneration benefits to the town because, for other reasons and factors, that regeneration has not moved to the next step. At the same time, throughout the residential parts of the town — I am sure that this is reflected in other parts of Northern Ireland — there is huge frustration at the state of the pavements, some of which are overgrown with weeds, where paving stones are still broken, and where there are health and safety hazards. There is frustration because we have had a lot of investment in the town in the look of the street infrastructure, but that has not been matched elsewhere. That has an impact on people's quality of life.
In closing, I encourage, at the very least, Departmental officials, who, hopefully, will read the transcript of today's debate, to reflect on Members' comments. If the decisions are, essentially, operational, perhaps they could action them without the direct input of a Minister. I hope that it is the case that they reflect on what is said. Perhaps they could have a more flexible approach or forgo enforcement, pending some wider discussions about better use, which should take place in conjunction with local representatives, including not just MLAs but the local council.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter. I commend my colleague Alex Easton for raising it this evening. I think that we are all very aware of the public realm work that has been completed, with £8 million of investment through DSD, which is now the Department for Communities, in partnership with Ards and North Down Borough Council. In the main, it has been a success. I know that there are some reservations about it, but it has certainly changed the environment of the town, which was tired and worn and in need of an uplift. The new public realm has made major changes to the town; it has uplifted the environment, which is now much brighter, cleaner and sharper. There are improved footpaths, new pedestrian crossings, new street furniture, and street lights throughout Abbey Street, Main Street, High Street and Bridge Street.
In the main, it has been a success and is something we all welcome. As a former councillor, like a number of Members here, I was involved in that. There was a steering group, which I served on, as did other councillors. On that steering group were trader representatives and community group representatives. TNI was represented, as were DSD and other bodies. Of course, there were consultants; there always have to be consultants getting their fee.
Many people raised the point about the loss of parking bays throughout the town. High Street was always a concern because of the need to park and to increase footfall. There was an argument about Bridge Street; in fact, at one time they were going to make it a one-way street and there was going to be one-way traffic through it. A number of us argued strongly against that because, as I believed, it would have been a disaster and affected the whole traffic flow in Bangor town centre. That, fortunately, did not happen, but there was always an argument about increasing the open space for the public so that we could have more of a communal feel. Yes, in theory, that sounds good, but, against that, we lost car parking spaces and a lot of the character of the town in relation to accessibility for vehicles.
People in Northern Ireland still like their cars and to drive in close. I am sure that my colleague down there in the corner, Mr Agnew, will agree totally with me that we still like our cars and to drive in as close as possible to our shops, our homes and wherever we are going. It is the culture. I know some will argue that we should change it, but, if we look at Belfast, we see that people do not go there any more. It is positive for towns like Ards and Bangor that people come there to shop. There is all this madness about bus lanes, but they have not worked. There is a balance, and I think the balance with parking bays here is wrong. The need is great for local access for cars and for getting right into town centres.
My colleague made the point that the traders are under pressure. They are, and we are all aware of that. They pay large amounts of rates, and they are in competition with online services and other businesses. Anything that deters people from coming into town is a negative, and this is a major factor. I support what my colleague Alec Easton said about the vehicle bays. The vehicle bays were argued against, but we, as elected representatives, were not listened to. We have a loss of approximately seven car parking spaces with the vehicle bays. They are in prime areas adjacent to the major shops, which are trying to survive and compete with other businesses.
I urge the Department, which is now Transport NI, to review the work that has been carried out. I think that is important, and I urge it to continue to carry out the important maintenance work throughout the North Down area. We have a lot of outstanding work on the A2; we debated that some months ago. We really get a poor maintenance service from Transport NI throughout the North Down area. We want to see future investment and see the area improving, making it one of the best parts of North Down for people to live, work and enjoy themselves in.
I will start by inviting Mr Dunne to acknowledge that, in North Down, we love our trains. We have an award-winning train station in Bangor, and, indeed, the train brings in much tourism — some of it unwanted, admittedly, at times. However, it is highly valued in North Down and our town centres.
I appreciate Alex Easton bringing forward the issue. As a resident who lives on the edge of the town centre, I know that double-parking by delivery lorries is the bane of any driver's existence when trying to get through the town centre. It is infuriating, but, as has been highlighted here today, the problem has not been alleviated by the loading bays.
We have a wider issue with parking in general in North Down. The loading bay issue is particularly frustrating for those who have fallen foul of the fines. Whether we have them or not, our parking problems in Bangor will not be completely alleviated either way. Six or seven extra spaces would undoubtedly help, but we need the wider issue resolved. It is worth making that point, because, as the Queen's Parade project continues, there is an opportunity to look at parking in general in the town centre and bring about a long-term solution. In the short term, it is certainly something that can be fixed more quickly than Queen's Parade — if, indeed, the Queen's Parade issue is ever resolved. I hope and believe that it will be. It is a question of "when" rather than "if".
We need to look at a strategic approach to parking in Bangor. We need to look at the transition to more low-carbon forms of transport. Our trains have been a great success, but there has been less success in getting people to shift on to buses where the train line does not run.
As I said, I appreciate the proposal this evening. It is regrettable that the Minister is not here to hear it, but I hope that his officials are listening on his behalf. It is something that needs to be relooked at. The introduction of loading bays was a well-intentioned move to assuage people like me who are frustrated by the double-parking, but it has not solved the issue, and we need a different solution.
Adjourned at 6.02 pm.