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The DCLG is again casting aspersions on local government's motives

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The Department for Communities & Local Government’s consultation on street parking enforcement has just closed. This is the latest step in a series of announcements and comments over the past two years on this issue.

I am very concerned by these comments and the wider danger for us all in dealing with the next four years of cuts.

Sir Bob Kerslake said in his valedictory speech that the next five years of cuts would be harder than the last, so goodness knows what awaits us as Sir Bob must know what the cuts are starting to look like.

Many councils are already talking to communities about next year’s budget. I am sure suggestions such as “we need to raise more income” are being made everywhere.

None of us want to pay more for our services, we all want them to improve, and we want our cost of living to reduce but savings have to be found somewhere. Something big has to give to balance the £25bn reductions in public spending the chancellor has spoken of. We may all have to accept that we will pay more in different ways than we do now and get less service for our money.

That’s why reading the DCLG’s parking comments deeply concerned me. The literature on parking includes phrases such as: “a war on motorists”, “trigger-happy parking wardens”, “spy cars”, “over-zealous, arbitrary, unfair behaviour”, “a cash cow for town hall officers”, “profit”, “raising money for council coffers” and “a shopping tax”.

All this is from DCLG press releases citing two independent reports backing them up. One referred to a Confused.com survey about car parking charges, which on closer inspection quotes privately run NCP car park costs, the other used an RAC survey that claims 41% of people don’t know where car parking income goes. There is no comment on the costs that motorists pay to Whitehall.

The DCLG wants to introduce a 50-signature petition residents can use to challenge parking enforcement and wants councils to publish annual car parking reports. Both will cost money to implement. A quick online search will show that many councils, such as Ealing LBC, publish this information already.

Charging is a complex issue. Just this week eight outdoor car parking spaces went on sale for £2.25m: that’s £281,000 each, higher than the average price of a house. Managing the supply and demand economics for street space and ensuring accessibility and minimising congestion is very tough.

Undoubtedly, some councils have approached the subject of car parking charges too narrowly; they don’t take sufficient account of the impact of small marginal changes to car parking charges on the economy of high streets, or indeed on visitor movements in residential areas, where families and carers need to make regular visits to elderly or disabled people.

Sadly however, neither the good practice nor the tough challenges are the mood music DCLG wants to sing. If some parts of local government have got their approach to car parking charges wrong then let’s tackle that but the DCLG shouldn’t pretend profiteers are charging up and down the nation’s avenues and cul-de-sacs.

The DCLG’s narrative suggests councillors and officers are out to make a profit from car parking charges for some other nefarious use. The truth is that any surplus is directed by law into specific activity under the 1984 Road Traffic Regulation Act.

Transparency is vital. Local government is ahead of the rest of the public sector when it comes to this and certainly streets ahead of Whitehall. To get transparency right, we have to provide not just the data sets but the context, so our communities trust the data we share with them and can understand what it means for the whole of the council’s activities and budget. If we don’t, we will incur costs publishing data that won’t build a confident, informed view, but a sceptical and cynical one.

We must face austerity by driving economic growth and building the public’s trust in our services. If the DCLG continues to impugn our motives, my heart sinks at the thought of what might lie in store for us.

The prime minster says we are all in this together. That has to include the DCLG and how it works with local government.

Katherine Kerswell was director general of civil service reform at the Cabinet Office until July 2014

 

 

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