FENLAND: Freedom of Information request finally releases car park report at the fourth attempt

THE report that dared not speak its name- the controversial £25,000 study into car park charges in Fenland- has finally been released after a four year campaign by this newspaper using the Freedom of Information Act. Three previous requests to release the

THE report that dared not speak its name- the controversial £25,000 study into car park charges in Fenland- has finally been released after a four year campaign by this newspaper using the Freedom of Information Act.

Three previous requests to release the 2004 report were refused on the grounds that it was still under consideration but this week, and following a fourth request, the council relented and issue the report.

And its contentious findings, previously only hinted at but now confirmed, reveal that consultants had recommended charging motorists to park in Wisbech and March but to maintain free parking in Chatteris and Whittlesey.

Editor JOHN ELWORTHY discovers, for the first time, how Fenland Council ducked out of introducing pay parking.

COLIN Buchanan and Partners, the report's authors, concluded that even at 20p per hour to park in both towns, the council could have released an annual surplus of £163,000 to invest in the upkeep of car parks, improve safety and revitalise public transport.

The report also recommended the council should sell off two underused car parks in Wisbech, Coalwharf Road and Church Lane, and the under used northern section of Furrowfields in Chatteris. At 2004 prices the sales could have netted over £300,000.

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The study was commissioned by former council leader Alan Melton and formed part of his 'Vision for Fenland' outlined during his first major speech as leader but his later suspension from the council following a Standards Board inquiry and the promotion to leader of Geoffrey Harper, his former deputy, effectively scuppered its chances of success.

Charging has also been opposed by Councillor Peter Skoulding, the portfolio holder for finance, and now the council has admitted the proposal is dead in the water.

"The report was produced as part of a previously, now superseded, scope for parking issues in Fenland," a council spokesman said this week.

"The council is now revisiting parking in the context of the wider 'shaping Fenland' corporate objective."

Now only an expensive, but historical, footnote in the council's history, the Buchanan report offered a blueprint for the district that would, they claim, have shored up funding to make massive improvements to car parks locally.

And they claim nearly two thirds of motorists would have had no problem with the 20p charge, with some workers saying it would probably tempt them onto public transport- one of the principal objectives of the county council.

Buchanan noted that "the county council stated that a strong link should be made between parking charges and the introduction of improved public transport in Fenland"

They concluded: "Car parking provides a service and helps to sustain the financial viability of an area. In the absence of charging that service can be detrimentally affected by insufficient funding.

"Further it is more difficult to control or manage how the car parks are used and give priority to short stay users where appropriate."

Buchanan even had an option ready which it said could be introduced quickly, a simple to run pay and display system which, although requiring an initial capital outlay, regular emptying and on going maintenance, was the most efficient for both towns.

"They are easy to use, do not require constant attention and are well suited to cost effective collection of receipts in smaller car parks," said the report.

The report said they drew the "rationale for the study" from Cllr Melton's Vision for Fenland which he presented in May 2003.

"This re-iterates the importance of promoting the economic vitality of the Fenland towns, whilst safeguarding the environment," said Buchanan.

The report discloses the results of commuter and shopper surveys, price analysis and comparisons with other towns but above all makes the pitch than insufficient funding of car parking can have a detrimental effect on towns'.

"A lack of control over usage can result in short stay spaces being used for long stay parking, which generally negates the advantages envisaged when provision was originally planned," says Buchanan.

"The function and environment of car parks will deteriorate if inadequate funding results in dilapidation. Charging for parking provision and enforcement of time limits, helps to control these adverse impacts. "

And the report concluded: "It is apparent that the full costs of operating car parking free of charge represents a significant burden on the funds available to the authority. It also represents a significant subsidy to car owners at the expense of non car owning, or using, residents."

The surplus from charging could help refurbish existing car parks and help the council achieve 'secured car park status' for all key sites.

To this day only a handful of Fenland's 40 councillors have seen the report, or bothered to ask for a copy to read.

However even four years ago the county council was pushing for the district council to press ahead with charges.

The report contains a letter from Matthew Lugg, the county council's assistant director of highways, urging Fenland to opt for charging which had been, ironically enough, agreed by the district council in their support of the Cambridgeshire Local Transport Plan.

Mr Lugg acknowledged the case for excluding Chatteris and Whittlesey but said charging in both towns should be kept under review as public transport improves.

But despite the county's best efforts, Fenland is unlikely to return soon to the vexed issue of pay parking, even though Cllr Melton remains an advocate.

He pointed out that the hundreds of thousands of pounds needed to be spent on car parks could come only from introducing pay parking.

"There is no money at the moment for upgrading, no money for maintenance, so nothing gets done," he said.

0926: Whittlesey would have stayed free under the Buchanan proposals

1757: Holes like this in St Peter's car park, Wisbech, could have been funded by charging

9381: Charging could have encouraged commuters onto public transport, says the report.

9429: Furrowfields, Chatteris, part of which could have been sold off