Westminster Council does a U-turn on parking but where’s the apology?

Tom Edwards the BBC’s Transport & Environment Correspondent broke the news last night that Westminster City Council were going to do something they said they would never do, that was to scrap plans to bring in Sunday and weekday evening parking charges.

The way that news came out last night is characteristic of the way Westminster City Council have handled what in time maybe seen as the largest council PR gaff since the Shirley Porter ‘home for votes’ scandal.

By 9pm last night Tom Edwards was able to state that Westminster Council had confirmed that the parking charges are to be scrapped. Meanwhile at 9:15pm the councils chief executive, Mike More, said he had been ‘instructed’ to prepare a report for the councils cabinet. It wasn’t until 9:20pm that the council chief of PR Alex Aiken was able to send out the following statement;

WESTMINSTER ANNOUNCES WEST END COMMISSION AND AN END TO LATE NIGHT AND WEEKEND PARKING CHARGES PROPOSALS

Cllr Colin Barrow, Leader of Westminster Council tonight asked the Chief Executive of Westminster Council to prepare a report to rescind the proposed evening and weekend parking charges.

Westminster’s Cabinet will also ask the Chief Executive to bring forward proposals to establish a Commission to consider the most effective way that the Council can support business, lessen congestion and improve the quality of life of residents living in the West End.

Cllr Barrow said tonight: “We have listened to Londoners in the interests of the wider economy and will scrap the charging plans.  We need to think long and hard about how we manage traffic in the West End to allow people to go about their business, but it’s clear that these specific proposals did not command public support. I also felt after reflecting on this issue, that it was right to act swiftly rather than wait for the election of a new Council Leader in order to provide clarity for the future.

Cllr Lee Rowley, Cabinet Member for Transportation and Parking added: “We will think radically about how we manage traffic in the West End in the future. Our Commission will consider all credible strategies for managing traffic and we’ll reset our parking policies to focus on common sense measures that are fair but encourage people to keep to the rules.”

“The report will rescind the proposed evening and weekend parking charges that were agreed in August. We will ask for further work to be done on actions that have public support such as the protection of resident parking bays and measures that are necessary for the successful delivery of the Olympic Games such as effective enforcement of the Olympic Route Network.”

Cllr Rowley concluded: “This decision marks the end of the charging proposals we agreed in 2011 and the start of a fresh approach to parking in Westminster. We will continue to manage traffic in the city and will develop operational policies to do that, building on successful initiatives like Pay by Phone

Colin Barrow

Colin Barrow

The outgoing leader of the council Colin Barrow was pushed in front of the news cameras to make the announcement in an exquisite act of public humiliation. Until that point the most Barrow had said about his despised parking tax was that only minor tweaks would ever be considered, but come what may Barrow’s nightlife parking tax was permanent.

This clearly shows us that with Barrow being forced to publically eat his words, someone higher up the political food chain is now not just pulling but yanking Barrow’s puppet strings with both hands. It’s not often you get to see an ex Wall Street Banker now hedge fund manger being forced to dance to his masters tune on television. The only things missing from this tableau was some village stocks and a plentiful supply of rotten vegetables to go with some pitchfork welding residents.

Alex Aiken’s press release is very sad and in many ways quite condescending.  The public are asked to believe that Barrow has been reflecting and was now prepared to listen to Londoners. Why would Barrow decide to listen after he has gone through his pantomime resignation? But what Aiken’s statement screams out for is the word ‘sorry’. If just for once the council could put out a genuine honest statement that acknowledges the many people who deserve a loud grovelling public apology, not the insult of tepid face saving council PR spin.

Even this morning the council are still persisting with their PR spin now pushing a claim that the majority of residents were in favour of the nightlife tax, and stating that they have conducted a survey of residents parking permit holders to back up these falsehoods. We know these are lies, as neither Nutsville nor anyone else that we know who is a permit holder in the affected zones has ever been surveyed by the council. Another dodgy council claim easily blown out of the water.

Peter Wetherell, Richard Caring and the other businessman who backed the High Court action against Westminster Council became the subject of grubby threats from the councils legal department attempting to seek compensation for any lost parking revenue if they dared to take legal action against the mighty Westminster Council.  Luckily for the public the council threats were dismissed and the case continued to the High Court which successfully blocked the councils plans. If they had not been successful Barrow’s desperate revenue raising cash grab would already be operating on the streets of Westminster.

If those businessmen agree to halt their legal challenge after the council have put right the miles of unnecessary double yellow lines that the council sneaked in the day before Christmas, Colin Barrow should waste no time and immediately make a grovelling public apology along with an offer to pay all of the campaigner’s legal expenses.

Westminster Labour Councillors say that the Council has run up a £1 million bill, including £300,000 for the cost of hundreds of new street signs which were ordered in August 2011 following the Council’s original decision to introduce the new £4.80p an hour parking charges and scrap 8,400 free single yellow line parking spaces. In addition, the Council has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on its botched consultation exercise, including the employment of traffic and research consultants, and on the legal costs of defending the Judicial Review brought by Peter Wetherell and Richard Caring. On top of this, the Council has spent tens of thousands of pounds on laying down double yellow lines on 5 miles of West End roads over the past two weeks in defiance of the High Court order.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group, said;

“This parking charge U-turn is great news for West End residents, businesses, churches and people working in the West End’s night time economy. It is unbelievable that the Council took so long to listen to the overwhelming opposition to the charges and admit that they got it so very badly wrong. The Council’s arrogance and belief that it could do just as it pleases has finally been exposed and defeated. There needs to be a full enquiry in to why the Council ignored everybody until today and why it acted in such a high-handed and irresponsible way. This whole fiasco has cost Westminster Council Tax payers at least £1 million at a time when huge cuts are being made to front line services to children, the elderly. Colin Barrow has already resigned as Leader and now Parking chief Councillor Lee Rowley must admit his part in this sorry affair and resign, too. “

Lee Rowley

Lee Rowley

As for Lee Rowley Cabinet member for spin, illusion, misdirection and all other parking related headaches who was the other half of Westminster Councils Laurel and Hardy act, his position is considered untenable, and he needs to admit to himself that he threw his morals out the window to back the wrong horse. The legacy he alone created for himself must mean he is dead in the political sea, and ironically the ‘game’ for him is over.  We doubt Rowley has the backbone to do the right thing even now and perhaps his puppet strings will need a firm yank from  above.

The Westminster nightlife parking tax story is not over yet, and campaigners’ are cautiously welcoming the news, but are now aware of the underhand tactics the council have used in the lead up to last nights decision.

Nickie Aiken

Nickie Aiken

Further apologies are due especially to the Churches who after all were the instigators of the whole campaign. Members of the Salvation Army deserve a special public apology from Councillor Nickie Aiken who responded angrily to Church members when questioned about how parking charges might affect third sector services in the West End.

She chose not to launch her tirade until almost everyone had left the room, having ducked the question when asked openly durning the fringe meeting.

She accused churches of failing to respond having been consulted, and coldly told Church members they would just have to walk further.

Attitudes like Aiken’s highlight the council’s unwillingness to understand the roll of the Churches in the West End community or how much of an effect the council’s extortion of the motoring public would have had on the Churches.  Major Ray Brown of the Salvation Army said today that the parking charges would have been devastating for the Church and would have impacted on their voluntary work effecting the vulnerable.

Michael Beckett, Church Warden of St George’s Church Hanover Square although welcoming the decision to scrap the parking tax said “It’s a shame this sensible decision was not taken when we started the campaign against these charges last June.  The open meeting in St George’s on the 9th July 2011 attended by Cllr Lee Rowley provided all the evidence then to indicate that the proposals “did not command public support”: the position that Cllr Colin Barrow finally admitted in his statement last night.”

“A lot of time, money and effort have been expended by churches, businesses and residents over the six months, and the Evening Standard’s campaign has finally got Westminster Council to listen and see sense. It’s disappointing that our locally elected representatives seem to have got so out of touch with their local communities.” 

The July 2011 unanimous public vote at St George’s Church Hanover Square in front of Lee Rowley showing the opposition to his parking tax.

The July 2011 unanimous public vote at St George’s Church Hanover Square in front of Lee Rowley showing the opposition to his parking tax.

Should we be surprised by the council’s deaf ears and arrogant stance when they were willing to encourage lone women to walk miles back to their cars or face dubious under staffed car parks in the small hours of the morning?

Thanks to all the people who got behind this, two very special female croupiers for their stupendous efforts, Church members musicians, theatre staff, chefs, PR professionals, celebrities, local Labour politicians’ one Conservative Councillor, residents, shopkeepers, business people, top flight legal teams and a stunning effort from the Evening Standard journalists who were all proved right in the end.

 

LBC Nick Ferrari talks to Cllr Lee Rowley and the editor of the Evening Standard Geordie Greig 19-Jan-2012 (MP3 download) (LBC website)

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2 Comments

Mark SaundersJanuary 19th, 2012 at 4:34 pm

As predicted, Rowley is manoeuvring to push Barrow under a bus. Hopefully he’s too close, and Barrow will grab hold and drag him under too.

PeterJanuary 19th, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Looks like a long list of councillors will have to hand in the free parking permits come the next election, this has been a spectacular cock-up of epic proportions at WCC. It’ll be another night of the long knives, quite deservedly so too!

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