Parking legal challenge across Wiltshire backed by Marlborough traders

Written by Gerald Isaaman.

Marlborough Chamber of Commerce decided last night (Weds) to join the growing storm over rising parking charges in Wiltshire’s market towns and give its support to a legal challenge now being mounted.

The Chamber backed a plea from the Wessex Association of Chambers of Commerce to test the council’s control over parking following mounting protests of trade being seriously hit by increased parking fees.

And the insistence that Wiltshire now wants to introduce a retailer refund scheme across the county, which many traders regard as unhelpful to them in tough economic times.

Paul Shimell (pictured), president of the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce, told Marlborough News Online: “This is a vital initiative that the Wessex Chamber, which represents no fewer than 18 separate Chambers of Commerce in the county, has taken up – and one we totally support.”

“We all know how Marlborough was very much used as a guinea pig by Wiltshire Council to raise parking levels to the highest in the county.  Now those levels have been introduced in other towns with the result that businesses have been seriously affected by a drop in trade.”

“Now is the time for us to use our combined strength as business rate payers to call a halt to this parking madness, which is really a stealth tax hidden under the camouflage that the money is used to pay for other forms of transport.”

And he added: “That is a claim that needs to be challenged legally across the county.  We need to tell Wiltshire that we refuse to be used as a scapegoat for their funding difficulties.  We have our own problems to deal with – and encouraging customers by cutting parking charges, even allowing two hours’ free parking, is essential if we are going to beat the economic downturn.”

Rob Perks, president of Chippenham Chamber of Commerce, has laid out the Wessex challenge in a letter to fellow chamber presidents in Wiltshire.

“I have taken some time to research the council's rights and obligations in raising money from car parking.  The most recent guidance to local authorities is contained within the Department for Transport's Operational Guidance on Parking Policy and Enforcement  which is updated guidance on the provisions contained within the Road Traffic Act 1984.”

“A few key points contained within these provisions should be carefully noted.”

1. That all local authorities are under an obligation to maintain clear accounts of the revenue raised and the costs in maintaining car parking provision -- Wiltshire Council consistently maintain that they have no details of the cost of running car parks.

2. That the Department for Transport's Operational Guidance on Parking Policy and Enforcement means that "charges should not be used to raise revenue or as a local tax and an authority is likely to be acting unlawfully if it were to do so".

3. In launching the new guidance in January, the Secretaries for Local Government and for Transport issued a joint statement --  "The government is calling off Whitehall's war on the motorist by scrapping the national policy restricting residential parking spaces and instructing councils to push up charges.  We expect councils to follow suit.  From now on communities have the freedom to set competitive local charges that bring shoppers to the high street, proportionate enforcement and the right number of spaces for new development.  We're getting out of the way and it's up to councils to set the right parking policy for their area."

4. Section 14.7 states " When setting charges, authorities should consider the following factors:

1. Parking charges can help to curb unnecessary car use where there is adequate public transport or walking or cycling are realistic alternatives, for example, in town centres;

 2. Charges can reflect the value of kerb-space, encouraging all but short-term parking to take place in nearby off-street car parks where available.  This implies a hierarchy of charges within a local authority area, so that charges at a prime parking space in a busy town centre would normally be higher than those either at nearby off-street car parks or at designated places in more distant residential areas.  Such hierarchies should be as simple as practicable and applied consistently so that charge levels are readily understandable and acceptable to both regular and occasional users;

3. Charges should be set at levels that encourage compliance with parking restrictions.  If charges are set too high they could encourage drivers to risk non-compliance or to park in unsuitable areas, possibly in contravention of parking restrictions.  In certain cases they could encourage motorists to park in a neighbouring local authority area which may not have the capacity to handle the extra vehicles.  In commercial districts this may have a negative impact on business in the area.

4. If on-street charges are set too low, they could attract higher levels of traffic than are desirable.  They could discourage the use of off-street car parks and cause the demand for parking spaces to exceed supply, so that drivers have to spend longer finding a vacant space."

Mr Perks adds: “Councillor Dick Tonge, on behalf of the council, made clear when these charges were introduced that the additional revenue from the increase in charges was required in order to maintain bus services.”

“I'm not a lawyer but this would seem to me a revenue raising exercise rather than a use of surplus revenue generated for traffic management reasons and is thus potentially unlawful.”

“The council project that they will have a revenue shortfall against budget for car parking of £500,000.  My guess is that it will be more as they still continue to believe that the reduction in visitors is temporary.”

Marlborough town council will also be asked to support the Wessex challenge.

“We need to get behind it,” Councillor Richard Pitts told Marlborough News Online.  “I shall table a motion for the council to support the action of the Wessex chambers and any legal challenge.”

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