The big election issue - car parking

Members of Huntingdonshire District Council are preparing for the May 3 elections, and the big issue of the day is car parking. IAN MacKELLAR takes a look behind the issues. CAR parking seems to be the biggest issue on the electoral stump this year, if H

Members of Huntingdonshire District Council are preparing for the May 3 elections, and the big issue of the day is car parking. IAN MacKELLAR takes a look behind the issues.

CAR parking seems to be the biggest issue on the electoral stump this year, if Huntingdonshire District Councillors are any bell-weather.

The council's last meeting before any election is usually a slightly nervous occasion for both the ruling Tories and the Liberal Democrat opposition, and last week's conclave was no exception.

The Lib Dems have lighted on the issue, particularly in the market towns, as a vote-winner. But the Tories have been either clever or cowardly on the issue, depending on where you stand politically.

Everyone knows car parking is an issue, particularly in Huntingdon town centre, but there are also problems in St Neots and, to a lesser extent, St Ives. There are occasional complaints from Ramsey, where the HDC car parks are free, but there is no plan to change that.

The council commissioned eminent transport consultants, Steer, Davies, Gleeve, last year to analyse the problem and recommend solutions. They suggested, among other things, charging for long-stay edge-of-town-centre parking - £1.50 to start with, rising in stages to £6 after 10 years - converting some long-stay spaces to short-stay and adding decks to provide additional space at others. SDG said the time was not yet right for park-and-ride schemes, which would not be supported.

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Last year also, HDC proposed to extend Huntingdon's riverside car park, prompting a backlash from a vocal handful of local residents. The proposal was withdrawn but has not gone away.

The Tories decided to duck the issue. Instead of cabinet agreement on a new strategy late last year or early this, they preferred to set up a cross-party working group to meet several times before making recommendations.

That has had two effects. First, it has kicked the issue into the long grass until after the May 3 elections. Secondly, it will enable them to blame the minority Lib Dem and Independent members if the people don't like what comes out of it.

St Neots councillors were quick to recognise that charging for long-stay parking in their riverside car park was political dynamite. Not just the Lib Dems but even the Tories oppose it on the grounds that it would damage commerce in the town centre.

Last week, council leader, Councillor Ian Bates, angrily insisted: "No decisions have been made. That is why we have a working party. They are considering many things, including parking for the disabled, park-and-ride, long-stay, short-stay."

His colleague, Councillor Peter Bucknell, said the group would be visiting all the car parks. No rush there, then.

It is not clear why they are so sensitive. They are elected to take decisions in the best interests of the district, even if some voters don't like them. But, even if they lost every seat they are defending next month - only 19 of the 52 seats are on offer - they would still have firm control of the authority, as they have since its creation 33 years ago.

And they can't duck the decision for ever. Huntingdon, in particular, needs more town centre parking to feed its rapidly expanding retail and commercial activities. The longer-term solution is a multi-storey car park when Chequers Court is redeveloped, but that is probably three years away and they cannot hide from the decision until then - including next year's elections.

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