Wiltshire Council parking consultation: call to declare it null & void - now changes threaten future of Marlborough's Christmas lights switch-on
In times of austerity, when is a consultation a proper consultation and when is it not fit for purpose?
In public question time before the meeting of Marlborough Town Council's Planning Committee (October 30), Mrs Val Compton went to the heart of the matter: she asked councillors to support her call to challenge the legality of the consultation.
She produced legal opinion following from a Supreme Court ruling in a case involving Harringey London Borough Council in 2014. In brief, this states that where there is a requirement for a consultation, a council should contact all those who are interested or likely to be affected by the subsequent policy. (See below for further details.)
Why, Mrs Compton asked, were there no notices about the consultation on all the town's parking ticket machines: "I feel they have made no effort to contact people. I believe it should be declared null and void and restarted."
Chair of the Committee, Councillor Kirk Wilson, called Mrs Compton's intervention "A very interesting and thought provoking observation."
Later, the Town Clerk pointed out that one of the changes spelled out in the online consultation would remove the Town Council's allocation of free parking spaces in November and December: "It would cost the Town Council £2,300 to buy the necessary spaces for the Christmas lights switch-on - making the event unaffordable." (This year's event is safe.)
As Councillor Kirk Wilson put it: "It'll put the mockers on the start of Christmas."
When councillors reached their general discussion of the consultation and how the town council should respond, there were many quite vociferous reactions and opinions.
Councillor Fogg: "It's a complete misunderstanding of the word. The consultation is completely inadequate." He thought it was based on Wiltshire Council's belief that 'We hope you see this - if not, bad luck.'
Councillor Kirk Wilson: "I'm pretty suspicious of this consultation business - very often it's a cover to throw over what you've decided to do anyway."
He called Wiltshire Council's current consultation on increases to parking charges 'borderline legal or illegal'. "Parking", he said, "is treated by Wiltshire as a cash cow - the money goes - at least in part - to other transport and the buses."
Councillor Dow - with support from several other councillors - wanted proof the money was in fact being spent on subsidising bus services when so many services had already been cut.
It was pointed out that the consultation website said that '...surplus revenue from parking charges supports other transport measures including essential local bus services.' Several councillors thought Wiltshire Council should make it absolutely clear precisely what 'other' services were being supported.
Councillors asked why charges in Marlborough were higher than many other towns in the county. Councillor Dow recalled that when charges were last raised, Wiltshire Council had said there would be no more increases to Marlborough's charges until the rest of the county had caught up.
Councillor Forbes offered a defence of Wiltshire Council on the grounds their grant from central government had been severely cut. In reply it was stated that the council had found many millions of pounds to invest in the development and building of campuses and hubs in many other towns - but not in Marlborough.
The lack of residents' parking and significant increases in parking permits raised many comments. It was asked why Wiltshire Council would not allocate the 37 spaces in Kennet Place for permit holders and residents only. It was noted that some permit costs in Salisbury were coming down.
The unannounced decision to allow the Post Office to buy spaces in the Hyde Lane parking was noted - and queried. Councillor Castle said he was 'dead against' the imposition of Sunday parking charges.
All these points will be put to Wiltshire Council - hoping for a response before the next committee meeting - which comes before the consultation closes on November 23. In addition, the Town Clerk will be contacting other town councils where feelings are running just as high, to see what coordinated lobbying might produce.
The Wiltshire Council consultation starts here.
The full article on the legal governance of consultations in times of austerity can be found here.
It includes this paragraph:
"So if a person is likely to lose something or be worse off, then they should be specifically identified and consulted. In Haringey all those affected were written to and the letters were hand delivered. This is considered to be sound practice. So if you know that an individual or household will be adversely affected an attempt must be made to contact them by preferably personal calling and hand delivered letters or by phone call and this be re-enforced by press releases and street and notice poster media. Twitter “tweets” or council web pages augmented with Survey Monkey are not good enough on their own."
And the author - a local authority solicitor - sums up the requirements for councils thus:
"To reiterate, the highest court in the land now expects where there is a requirement for consultation, local authorities will be expected to:
• contact all those who will be or are likely to be affected
• consult them before irreversible decisions are made with not only with information about proposals such as a draft scheme or policy, but also with an outline of the realistic alternatives, and an indication of the main reasons for the authority’s adoption of its preferred option
• give them adequate time to respond, for example six weeks to three months would be reasonable in most circumstances
• Following the response from the consultees’ active consideration must be given to the response."