We’ll protest with a picnic’

CAMPAIGNERS are urging the residents of Huntingdon to picnic in Riverside Park this weekend and protest against plans to turn part of the playing fields into a car park. But as the campaigners organised their mass picnic, Huntingdonshire District Council

CAMPAIGNERS are urging the residents of Huntingdon to picnic in Riverside Park this weekend and protest against plans to turn part of the playing fields into a car park.

But as the campaigners organised their mass picnic, Huntingdonshire District Council yesterday appeared to have pre-judged its planners' decision.

Council workmen have marked out just a single football pitch at Huntingdon's Riverside Park, raising concern the second pitch will get a concrete covering and become an extended car park.

The controversial plans, which could increase parking capacity by 105 spaces, would retain only one pitch if they are approved by councillors next month.

HDC told The Hunts Post it was more satisfactory to take bookings for just one pitch than to "get into a muddle" if the application gets the green light.

"If it's refused, it's easy to mark out the second pitch and take bookings for both," said a spokesman.

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This week, countryside campaigners continued their campaign to halt the expansion plan.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) acknowledges Huntingdon has a transport problem but believes the solution is not to be found in the loss of much-needed and well-used green space.

The group claims Huntingdon has much to learn from Cambridge and its park and ride system. It says there is simply not enough land in town centres for car parks.

"The existing Riverside car park is principally used by commuters and is full before any shops have opened," said Gareth Ridewood, Huntingdonshire chairman of CPRE, which has led campaigns to protect and support local shops, local producers and farmers' markets.

"Likewise, commuters rather than the local economy will be the beneficiaries of any extension."

CPRE says car parking provision should have been examined before new developments in Huntingdon were agreed and construction work started on the new Combined Justice Centre, Saxongate and Cambridgeshire County Council offices.

"We understand it is planned to reduce parking facilities at the new county and district council headquarters, yet at the same time the council wants to build a car park in the Riverside Park for commuters. This planning simply does not add up," Mr Ridewood added.

"We believe people should have viable alternatives to the car. Should extra parking be needed, we should consider park and ride facilities on the outskirts, as in Cambridge."

CPRE has called for a "proper long-term examination of transport issues" facing the town.

Campaigners in the Hartford Road area of the town were due to meet last night (Tuesday) in the Sun pub to plan their next moves against the proposals.

The unnamed group, which is organised by Debra Cossey-Mowle of Hartford Road, is urging protesters to lobby councillors and MP Jonathan Djanogly and is collecting signatures on a petition.

They also want as many people as possible to join in a mass picnic on Sunday afternoon and to arrange leisure activities on the site throughout the summer.

There were few objections when proposals to alter the car park were given wide public consultation two years ago as part of a wider scheme to open up the riverside for additional leisure activities.

Mrs Cossey-Mowle said expanding the car park, however, was not part of the 2004 consultation.

Documents considered by the council's cabinet later that year included reconfiguring the car park along Hartford Road - and significantly encroaching on the present playing fields.

The document states while the car park would be reconfigured, aligned alongside Hartford Road, the exisitng capacity would be retained.

It says this would provide "a buffer between the park and road junction and frees up space to create a continuous green park setting along the river edge".

It also adds: "A parking management system is proposed, introduced to provide dedicated short-stay spaces for park users. Currently most of the spaces are taken up with long-stay parking for commuters and office workers."

Mrs Cossey-Mowle blames Huntingdonshire Housing Partnership employees for taking over the existing car park, which is close to parent group Luminus's headquarters across the ring road at Brook House.

She also believes HDC should develop park-and-ride schemes at the edges of the town. "There are many possible sites for these, including the railway station (mostly only used at weekends), the council depot site at Godmanchester, or the site of Stukeley Road bus garage," she told The Hunts Post.

But such schemes take years to develop - one was mooted as part of the guided bus link that is due to open late next year. Rail commuters would not agree that the station car park, where spaces can he hard to find since on-street parking was banned nearby, is used only at weekends.

The council depot is earmarked for use by displaced HDC staff during re-development of the Pathfinder House headquarters site, and the bus garage site is for affordable housing.

Another suggestion was to use brownfield sites, such as the former Standard Products and Brookside School sites, and putting a stop to infilling new homes in the town centre. But the school site is destined for further housing and there are plans for wholesale re-development of the west of the town centre, including shops, homes, offices and a new link road between Ermine Street and Brampton Road.

HDC has limited options. Its Conservative councillors have called for a moratorium on the scheme while the wider issue of town centre parking is debated.

Last week, business leaders strongly backed the plan, arguing that the additional parking was needed urgently to sustain the town centre's prosperity until a multi-storey car park, planned for a re-developed Chequers Court, is built in two or three years' time.