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Lynn Hawthorne questions proposals to scrap free parking in Sandwell.

At this time of stress and worry about the financial future and its impact on the family and our towns and cities, what does Sandwell Council do in response? Yes, it resurrects its ‘proposal’ to bring in parking charges on all public car parks in the borough. Merry Christmas, bah humbug!

And when exactly did it resurrect this proposal? At a secret meeting, closed to the public, of course!

Charges have already been agreed by council officials for Oldbury and Blackheath, despite fierce opposition from local residents, and now the same pay-and-display system is being considered for a further 24 car parks in Wednesbury, Cradley Heath, Old Hill, Great Bridge and Smethwick.

Set-up costs are estimated to be £145,000 and will not show profit for over a year, even though the Council claims that the income generated will be spent maintaining the car parks. Currently, this takes place ‘mainly in the Winter’, according to one council officer I spoke to, which is odd considering that bushes and trees which constitute ‘landscaping’ grow much more vigorously at other times of the year.

Sandwell towns have suffered enough from poor investment, maintenance and support from local government for years and traders have battled against the odds to keep the customers they have.

Every year, traders dig deep into their own pockets and encourage shoppers to do likewise to decorate the high streets for Christmas and do fabulous work for local charities all year round.

Is charging the customers to come and shop really the best way to repay their efforts? What effect will car park charges have on trade? Are we to increase our carbon footprint in search of places where we can shop freely? “It’s going to go one way or the other,” was the comment I received to those questions.

It is well-known that wages in retail are relatively low. Charges of £1 per day to park to come to work will effectively bring down those wages even further at a time when household bills are rising rapidly. It equates to another form of tax, penalising those who are in work.

And it’s not just shop workers and customers who use these car parks. They’re often close to churches and other religious buildings. Are those people attending worship, or ceremonies of birth, marriage or death, or community events, to be punished on a regular basis, too?

Many of Sandwell’s car parks are close to both town centres and highly populated areas, so the proposal to introduce charges is also of concern to residents. The Council’s response to this concern is that there is no legal right for you to park in the street in which you live. This may be so according to the letter of the law, but in these times of high car ownership, it’s hardly fair to discount the views of council taxpayers and forge ahead regardless.

The nature of places like Sandwell is that much of the housing is terraced, with narrow frontages and no drives, so parking is tight to begin with, leading to more than one fracas over who-parks-where in my street already.

If shoppers are forced to pay to park, they will decline to do so and leave their vehicles in residential roads instead, resulting in residents finding alternative parking places, either outside someone else’s house or in someone else’s street.

Worse still, residents could end up paying to park while usurpers get away scot free. The alternative is, apparently, a resident’s permit scheme, which the Council can provide for £20 per year. Charming! Can you imagine the dust-ups over that one?

And what happens if the usage of these car parks falls dramatically once charging is bought in? Will the Council claim that the spaces are no longer needed and thus sell off the land for ‘redevelopment’ as lucrative building plots?

As usual, Sandwell Council has seen only the pound signs before the eyes and made a blanket decision across the borough. It has failed to consider the implications of each individual site and will fail to genuinely listen to and consider the objections bought forward by local residents. There are not many perks to living in Sandwell, making free parking something of value to hang on to.

'Consultation' is a lip-service process before the Council goes ahead and does what it likes anyway, like a recalcitrant teenager. Surely the national furore over The Public has shown that people are entitled to a voice because they talk sense and proportion and need to be listened to? Will the powers-that-be actually take any notice about what residents say and feel? Probably not.

So, residents of Sandwell: be warned. Notices on public car parks informing you of the proposal to charge to park are imminent. You will have only 3 weeks to object and individual objections carry far more weight than petitions.

Once charges are introduced, they are unlikely to ever be withdrawn and will only increase. This is your opportunity to show the officers of the Council how strongly you feel about this issue, so get cracking and good luck!



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