Tonight’s meeting of Surrey Heath Exec. showed just why local politics can be so eccentric.
First up, we had a very important decision to make in committing a large amount of money towards consultant and legal fees for our town centre redevelopment plans. There is no doubt that Camberley needs future vision and therefore I was pleased to speak in support of moving this forward towards getting a development agreement in place with other partners. Some of the details will need more investigation but it’s clear that the majority of residents are keen to see long term plans being discussed.
Next up was some community projects where funding was being requested. So money rightly went to Frimley Cricket Club, a child bereavement service, Camberley CAB, Windle Valley Youth Project and a helpline for local LGBT people.
However, in this time of national austerity, Council cutbacks, huge energy bills and increased Council Tax, is it really acceptable for the Borough Council to spend £2000 tonight on …a statue of a camel?
Now granted, it could be argued that it is a very nice looking camel and sat upon it is a bloke by the name of General Gordon. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with camel statues and this particular camel has proudly stood in Gordons School since 1959 where people can inspect it by appointment or at an annual historic day. It’s good that there is a community group wanting to renovate the statue and trying to fundraise through any source they can.
But however the Council want to dress this up, it is still a statue of a camel. If the Council does have £2000 lying around of OUR money, is this really the best use for it? Or is this in fact an example of what Eric Pickles has in mind when he talks about waste in local councils and the need for a freeze in Council Tax? (which Surrey Heath ignored)
More importantly, my ward of Old Dean is one of the poorest in the whole County of Surrey. There are real issues of deprivation and life expectancy is lower here than elsewhere in the borough. I have spent part of today working on a case of a constituent who owes £75 in Council Tax due to the benefit changes earlier this year and he claims that he just cannot afford to pay. I simply can’t justify to my community why we should spend £2000 of their Council money on a camel statue when we have this degree of local need and many living in serious poverty.
However, whilst the camel got support from the Conservative Executive, the same couldn’t be said for a petition of 473 people plus 572 letters concerning increased parking charges in the town centre. This campaign has been extremely well led by Ian McDonald of McDonalds Gifts who spoke passionately and clearly about the subject for the allotted 5 minutes pointing out the complete failure over many years to provide a Council parking strategy.
Disappointingly, only Executive members were allowed to speak and it was clear that their minds had already been made up with the rest of us having to shake our heads whilst listening.
Yet again, we heard a number of completely irrelevant comparisons with other town centres such as Aldershot, Guildford, Woking, Farnborough, Bracknell and even North Camp got a mention. It still seems that some Cllrs falsely believe that these are our competitors when at course the reality is out of town shopping developments like The Meadows and Farnborough Gate. Apart from those in Chobham and nearby, if local people decide to drive to Woking, it is not the parking costs they consider but the wider experience of entertainment, size and type of shops, market and ambience with parking being a very minor issue.
So whilst it’s great to see some improvements in Camberley with more to come, the situation is what do potential shoppers/commuters think now and why would they choose Camberley and then why/where do they park. Unfortunately because no-one has bothered to do a parking strategy to date, we simply don’t know any of this and therefore any Council proposal is simply guesswork which has already proved to be wrong over many years.
One current Council initiative is to offer free parking on Thursday nights at Christmas but this is actually the reverse of what we should do. Parking like business is a simple case of supply & demand so if the costs are too high, people won’t use it and instead use alternatives.
Our two main Camberley car parks have very low occupancy according to figures tonight. It was claimed that Main Square has only 55% occupancy and Knoll Road an appalling 35%. This means that on average two out of every 3 spaces are not being used in Knoll Road and we need to understand why. Shoving the costs up even more will not help here and nor in the short-term will investment in the car parks although this will benefit everyone over time.
The fact is that the Camberley offer for parking is simply wrong. We have quite a few free spaces in prime locations and then very expensive 2 hr parking or longer with little in-between. There is no parking strategy which has properly examined customer behaviour or looked at their needs. There appears to have been no thought about staff or business parking and why people park in residential roads rather than in Knoll Road where we would wish and get their fees.
For many years, I have tried (but failed) to encourage a serious look at flexible pricing for parking using a similar model to that used by trains or planes. This means that prices are very low when demand is low and higher when demand is high. So for example, early, weekday and seasonal parking should be low whereas Saturday and Christmas/sales parking should be higher at times when customer spend is also higher.
Now no-one likes paying for parking but we also need to be far more explicit as to what parking money is actually spent on and not be afraid to advertise that within the car parks.
The current approach is just too vague and the public think that their money just goes into a big Council pot called waste or based on tonight, a pot marked camel.