Sunday 30 December 2012

Heaven hath no rage to show

like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury like a [frustrated motorist] (with apologies to Edmund Spenser).
“Fury at new parking restrictions” proclaimed the front-page headline in the “Haslemere Herald” in one of its November issues.  They do Fury in Haslemere, a pleasant market town tucked away in the far south west corner of Surrey, like they do Disgust in Tunbridge Wells.  And a short-term suspension of a handful of on-street parking bays makes the top of the front page in the local newspaper – aren’t we lucky to have nothing else to fret about, eh?
The back-story is that one of the through roads passing through the town, the B2131, Lower Street (at bottom of the map extract below) had been closed for several weeks in the summer while Centrica replaced gas mains underneath.    

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For the duration of the works, traffic passing through the town on an east-west axis was diverted along Bridge Street and West Street, slightly to the north.  Both these streets have significant amounts of on-street parking and this was suspended to ensure that traffic could flow freely and – most importantly – that emergency service vehicles, including fire appliances from the Fire Station located just at the corner of Popes Mead, would not be impeded on their call-outs. 
Some felt that the diversion of traffic away from the town centre, and the loss of these parking spaces, had a detrimental effect on trade for small shopkeepers in the town.
A private developer, building an apartment block and associated retail space on Lower Street, was supposed to co-ordinate with Centrica on  its own need to impinge on road space at a certain phase of construction, but it failed to do so, and consequently sought a traffic order later to close the road in one direction so that they could erect scaffolding and hoardings and get their work done.  For this period, which was applied for until February but in fact finished shortly before Christmas, West Street again became part of the through-route, this time in one direction only but, again to facilitate movements of fire appliances and buses, the parking bays were suspended.  Hence the fury.
Haslemere has a significant parking problem, primarily with rail commuters, who come to the town’s railway station, which has fast services to Waterloo which must rank among the fastest, in miles per hour, of all Home Counties commuter journeys.  This makes the surrounding area very popular for more affluent commuters to jobs in the City and West End, and residential development over the last decade or so has reflected that.  Further, residents of neighbouring communities such as Liphook, which have their own stations on the line, often prefer to drive to Haslemere rather than walk to the local station because the choice of services is better.

Additionally, there is a surprisingly large number of residents who drive to the station even though they live within an easy walking or cycling distance of the station.
As a consequence, the provision of station parking off-street is woefully inadequate to the demand, and many hundreds of commuters park on the surrounding streets.  Even if there were sufficient station parking, many of those would probably continue to park on the street as long as no charge is made – I already observe on my way to the station that the streets fill a lot faster than the official car parks.
Naturally this upsets residents of those streets.  Often their upset is simply annoyance that someone should have the temerity to park in their road, but sometimes it causes real inconvenience.  In some of the closer streets which have houses with no, or only one, off-street parking space, the result is that residents cannot park their own cars near their own homes.  In other cases, commuters park so tightly either side of a resident’s driveway that they cannot manoeuvre to access their own home.
Overlay on this the economics of parking and parking enforcement.   The County Council is now responsible for street parking enforcement since the responsibility was taken off the police, and typically subcontracts to manage the borough’s off-street parking enforcement.  Parking enforcement is clearly vital to keep roads clear and ensure passage of vital services such as buses or ambulances, however it has a considerable financial cost, and like many counties, Surrey currently operates parking at a deficit.  Consequently, Surrey proposed a programme of parking restrictions and charges, mainly aimed at all-day parking, pending the rail operator funding and building additional station parking, after which the on-street parking could be simply prohibited.
The proposals also took in a network of streets in the town centre, where commuter parking is not the main issue, but parking congestion and the same problems for residents arise for other reasons.
It should be noted that in almost all, if not all, of these streets residents have long campaigned to the County to do something about the problems they face.
As soon as the proposals were published, enter stage left the “Haslemere Action Group”, a small but noisy group of individuals who proceeded to stridently oppose the plans.  They have a website, which I am not going to link to but you can find it at haslemereparkingdotcom.  Have a look, if you have no worries about your blood pressure.  (Its self-description as an "open, sensible and democratic forum" brings to mind Voltaire's observation about the Holy Roman Empire:  certainly they seem to be blocking my contributions now, even going to the length of removing a post effectively accusing local councillors of corruption, when I pointed out some factual howlers, rather than publishing my comments.)
They opposed both the restrictions and the proposed charges across the board.  They attended local committee meetings of the County and Borough councillors and heckled and barracked them. They ranted and grandstanded, all with the aim of killing the proposals stone-dead.  They succeeded, insofar as the County retreated to reconsider its proposals and ensure that its consultation processes were legally watertight before relaunching in modified form this summer.
But the consultation process, scrupulously observing the legal requirements, was not good enough for the HAG.  They complained that the response rate was low (30-35%) and overlooked the fact that responses in favour outnumbered those against by two to one.  They ignored previous representations by residents’ groups  which in some cases had almost unanimous support.  Against this they argued for their own petition, of 1,000 signatures (about 6% of the town’s population) collected on the street, which no doubt included many non-residents and no doubt also some who only signed to avoid making a scene on the High Street.
The moving forces behind the parking campaign appear to be a handful of local retailers, and a couple who live in a street which has no off-road and no on-road parking.  The latter I suspect bought their house in the knowledge that they could not park a car there, but the expectation that they could park it outside someone else’s home in another street, free and without hindrance, and were happy to save the house purchase price which personal parking would have implied.  The proposals would have meant - will mean - buying a season ticket for one of the borough car parks: at a discounted rate, but still a few hundred a year.
The former speak volubly and at length about the perceived damage to their business  which loss of on-street parking would cause.  This despite the fact that the availability of paid-for off-street parking is more than adequate, costing 50p-80p for the first hour, and even that is refunded against your bill if you shop in the local Waitrose.  They don’t mention the true existential threats to their businesses, represented by a commercial landlord notorious for its rapacity, the incursion of predatory chainstores – WH Smith being the latest arrival – and in my view the offputting nature of the car-dominated town centre.  They also don’t mention what I am sure is the real reason for their opposition – it is they who park, all day, for free, in surrounding residential streets, to the annoyance of the residents of those streets, and do not want to lose this privilege.
Meanwhile, Haslemere is no cyclists’ paradise.  While it is surrounded by breathtaking off-road riding on the commons and Surrey Weald, many of the highways into and through the town are deeply hostile to cycling, and cycle facilities are almost non-existent.  Probably about 60-70 commuters from the railway station arrive by bike, completely saturating the current cycle parking – and the local MP Jeremy Hunt is being helpful in pressing for additional parking capacity at the station – but this option would only appeal to the bolder, youngish male, cyclist .  In the town centre, you hardly ever see a bicycle at all, unless it is me, going shopping.  That can wait for another post.


  1. I work for a local authority in the traffic and parking field and this story is a familiar one. The notion of "free" parking is a very popular one, and it easier to turn the uninformed bystander with an emotive appeal to their libertarian senses than to garnish them with facts and figures. It boils down to whether politicians have the balls to stick it out and ignore the hysteria.

    1. Thanks for your comment Wanderlust. It will indeed be interesting to see if the councillors have the cojones to see this through, although they do have a genuine "silent majority" in place here which should help steel their resolve.

      It is lso interesting to note that not all local chamber of commerce types bang the free parking drum. It was recently reported in The Wokingham Times ( that its chairman of the chamber of commerce did not se free parking as the nbest way to attract shoppers, rather making the town an atractive place to shop. He notes that Reading has cars queing to enter its paid-for car-parks because people want to shop there.

      This is actually an attractive town with some attractive independent retail offerings and very little incursion by chainstores, building societies, mobile phone shops & charity shops etc. The chamber of trade is doing itself no favours shouting that they are so weak that a little thing like paying for parking stands between them and oblivion.