Saturday, August 16, 2008

A bit of politics

I couldn't help but reflect on how different the town centre would be now, had the Tories won the Council elections in 1991 and thereafter.

Yesterday the Market Place was full of noise - from the Alpha 103.2 performance area to the funfair rides and the various food stalls. Well patronised cafes spilled out onto the pavement. Yet had the Tories had their way, the Market Place would still be an oily car park - a sad backwater and a ghost of its previous self.

It was the same as I wandered along West Row in front of the Indoor Market. Instead of happy sightseers, buses would have jostled for position. High Row would have remained a jumble of cars and planters, whilst shoppers would have had to dodge traffic as they negotiated the Bondgate/Prospect Place junction.

In short, we would have had a town centre frozen in the 1980's rather than fit for the twenty-first century. For nearly 20 years the Tories have played politics with the town centre rather than embrace change. Whilst some of that change was painful, it was essential if Darlington is to remain competitive with other towns in the area.

It was fantastic watching the children skipping in and out of the water feature. Without the Market Place and Pedestrian Heart schemes, this weekend's festival simply couldn't have taken place.


Paul Cain, New York said...

Councillor Wallis: Fair dos, it looks like a good time was had by all, something that was much needed in the aftermath of the King's Head fire.
Unfortunately, it can't hide the fact that Darlington town centre now has a disproportionately high number of charity shops and everything-for-a-quid emporia.
When the former Dressers store becomes a cheap-item outlet, as it was the last time I was in the town centre, then you know the raw economy of the town is in deep trouble.
Increasingly, and I do not like having to say this, business-wise, Darlington looks like a town in decline.
Naturally, there are many reasons for this, some of them outside of your control.
But some of your policies, especially on parking and traffic systems, must have played a part in what is a distinct apparent decline since 1991.
(It would be an interesting exercise to analyse the business mix of the town centre 17 years ago, and compare it with the modern version.)
I avoid Darlington town centre, on those occasions when I am back in the country because, compared to nearby centres, parking is difficult to find, expensive (in the case of the multi storey and venues such as Garden Street) and access is increasingly difficult, thanks to a multitude of traffic flow changes and 'traffic calming' measures on the town centre access routes.
The bus lane leading from Stonegate and along St Cuthbert's Way is a case in point, and the regular snarl ups at the Northgate roundabout, are another: a nuclear-powered pain in the backside for the shopper using a car.
I go elsewhere where parking is cheap, or free, and where the local council doesn't seem to have such a n idealogically-driven determination to make the use of private cars a thing of the past, as appears to be the case in Darlington.

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks for that Paul. There are a lot of issues in your comment, and I'd reply as follows;

(1) In general terms, most town centres have been adversely affected by the growth of multiples and out-of-town shopping since the late 1980's. Darlington does have quite a few charity shops, but I'm not aware of any figures which show that this is disproportionately the case here. The health of the town centre has traditionally been assessed on the basis of occupancy/vacancy figures, and the last time I saw those, the town was managing well.

Of course, 'Pound' shops have their part to play in the vitality of a shopping centre. The Poundland shop on the High Row on the old Dressers site (which a few opposition colleagues were quite sniffy about) always seems very busy to me.

(2) It's fair to say that the level of parking charges has been a political hot potato between Labour and the Tories since the early 1990's. It's important to remember when we came into office in 1991 that the town's car parks were scruffy, with no lighting or CCTV. You may remember that if you left your car in a car park overnight then, you were asking for trouble.

Labour did increase car parking charges, but simultaneously invested heavily in all the off-street car parks. Most if not all now are accredited under the national safety scheme, have very good lighting and state-of-the-art CCTV, and crimes take place rarely if at all (we went for several years with no reported crime in any off-street car park).

It was also the fact before 1991 that car parking charges were so low, that they became clogged by commuters, and consequently shoppers looking for a space couldn't find one. It's no good having a car park as convenient as Abbots Yard if most of the spaces are occupied by town centre workers.

That being said, the Council is not 'anti-car' as the Tories would try and paint us. So in response to calls from town centre businesses, we lowered the rate in the main off-street town centre car parks for three hours - now you pay 80p for one hour, £1.60 for two and three hours. Businesses said it was exactly this kind of shopper - the browser who stays perhaps to have a coffee and maybe goes to buy something else - that the town needed and we responded.

I often hear that people are leaving in their droves for other shopping areas - this has been said since the first car park charge increases in 1991. I often wonder where? Stockton, though a fine place I'm sure, isn't really a rival and people I know from Stockton are always moaning about their town centre. In Middlesbrough, the car parking charges are similar to Darlington (and you have to pay to stay there on a Sunday whilst it's free in Darlington). Similarly Durham, where a congestion charge is being proposed, and Newcastle, where again their is a lot of criticism of the Council for its high car parking charges and bus priority measures.

Of course, shoppers may on occasions have trips to these places for a change or a particular item - that doesn't mean necessarily that we lose lots of people all the time to these places.

Interestingly, some of the towns to the south - Northallerton and the like, which were always held up as a comparison of good practice to Labour's policies in Darlington - are in the throes now of introducing car parking charges themselves. Needless to say, I followed that debate in the dear old D&S Times with a lot of interest!

Of course, we can never compete with out-of-town shopping centres like Teesside Park or the Metro Centre on the basis of price. These malls were set up to provide free car parking. But town's like Darlington can and do provide so much more in terms of thriving independents, and ambience.

So I feel we've got the balance about right in Darlington at the moment - interestingly, at the last local elections, car parking prices were one of the 'dogs that didn't bark' - the first time that this has been the case since I've been involved in local politics here. I think a lot of people recognise that car parking charges are a fact of life and accept them - as long as they are kept at a reasonable level - and recognise that they help keep the Council Tax down by contributing towards vital services.

(3) As far as highway measures are concerned - the Council has tried to keep the flow of traffic moving, albeit sometimes that means moving slowly in congested areas. Promoting alternatives to the car makes sense, whether via bus or cycle lanes, or measures to promote walking over the ring-road. Drivers might get frustrated sometimes, but it's better to be waiting behind a full bus than an empty one and thirty cars driven by its previous passengers.

There's certainly no "ideological" aversion to cars from the Council either - schemes such as the Bondagte/Portland Place junction were designed to improve matters for all road users including cars.

There is however an acknowledgement that unless we address the steep increase in car use which has been recorded country-wide for the past 40 years, we will end up in gridlock. Darlington still has its basic Georgian/Victorian compact streetscape, and is all the better for it. In their different ways, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Durham and Newcastle made far greater sacrifices to the car between the 60's and 80's, and now are the poorer for it, in my opinion. But because, with the exception of the never-completed inner ringroad, we didn't demolish swathes of shops and houses for dual carriageways, we have a more complex legacy to work with.

That's why the Local Motion scheme, and being a Cycle Demonstration Town, have been so important to Darlington. Measures under those schemes have seen a 12% drop in car trips, with big increases in walking and cycling, and an arrest in the decline in bus use. These are startling results (the total number of trips didn't change, by the way) and mean that we have bucked a nationwide trend, and our success has attracted a lot of interest.

The work will go on, but there is no easy fix out of congestion problems, and I believe that we're on the right track.

Ian White said...

Nick a little puzzled by the following...
"It was also the fact before 1991 that car parking charges were so low, that they became clogged by commuters, and consequently shoppers looking for a space couldn't find one."
What does it matter as long as those using it pay the required amount? It does after all say car park not shopping park.

I understand your point but without the workers opening the shops there would be no reason to come to Darlington in the first place and lets be honest the council is realy in it mostly for the money, what did DBC make last year in parking charges?

I know many people now who go to either Aycliffe or Northallerton as Darlington is to expensive and awkward to get parked due to traffic problems, its just too much hassle.

Dont forget to post those parking revenue figures for all the readers...;)

Chris Close said...

You will get no reply from Councillor Shiftless, Ian.

You are not from abroad...............

He will not answer about the terrible state of care in the town so why should he reply about 'car parking'???????????????

Darlington Councillor said...

Awww, Chris - you dismiss my posts as self-serving drivel, and yet you keep coming back for more! Bless you!!

Anyway, Ian, the Council's net revenue on car parking is around £1.8 million. Most urban councils use charges to regulate their car parking because it is the most effective mechanism. It also of course brings in much-needed revenue to support other council services (as far as off-street car parking is concerned). I'm not aware of either of the other political parties in Darlington saying that they would change the status quo, although they could always come on here and prove me wrong....

It does matter which cars are filling car parking spaces. If they are taken predominantly by office or shop workers all day, it leaves little space for shoppers, and so trade is adversely affected. Remember, shoppers stay for two to three hours on average, so a single space might be used by 4 shoppers in one day rather than one communter. Of course there are long-stay car parks for those workers (like Kendrew Street or Archer Street), but also we encourage them to use alternatives to the car too.

You mention people going to Newton Aycliffe for their shopping. I've spent quite a bit of time there over the last two years canvassing and talking to residents - as you may be aware the state of their town centre is a huge issue. I'm slightly ashamed to say that as a Darlington Labour politician, it gave me a bit of a buzz to hear repeated complaints about how wonderful Darlington's town centre is compared to Newton Aycliffe (and also questions why Sedgefield's Council Tax is so much higher than in Darlington).

I'm pleased to say that Phil Wilson MP is working hard with traders and the council to address the problem of the state of the town centre, but I think you'll find there's a net influx to Darlington for shopping from Newton Aycliffe rather than the other way around.

And as for Northallerton - well, it simply doesn't have the range of shops that we have in Darlington, and now of course they're introducing off-street car parking charges too. I go there very occasionally for a change, but Darlington has a far superior shopping centre.

miketually said...

We went to Middlesbrough recently to visit MIMA with the kids and I studied there for a year while doing my Masters. The shopping centre always feels very 'patchy' to me, with so many different indoor centres and the long stretched out pedestrianised main street. I much prefer Darlington for shopping.

Most friends and colleagues much prefer the town now that the PH works have been carried out. Work is close enough that we often walk down to buy lunch, and it's a much more pleasant experience than it used to be.

I've also never heard anyone complaining that the car parking is too expensive. I've only heard one student and Cllr Frietag complain that parking is difficult to come by.

My only complaint at the moment is the cost of getting to town on the bus, now that me eldest has turned five. £1.25 for each adult and then 65p for my daughter (each way!) adds up to more than £6 for a family trip to town. As we could park in a long stay car park for £4 for a full day, what's the incentive to get the bus?

The market was indeed a great event. We look forward to the next one.

ian h said...

Mike, as far as bus fares are concerned, count yourself lucky!

From the Otter and Fish in Hurworth to town, £2.50 single, £4.30 return.
Apparently I could ride busses in town all day long for less than that.
Given that I am sure many "in-town" trips must take at least as long as that getting to Hurworth, I do feel somewhat aggrieved.
My Tuesday evening drink in town with friends gets off to an expensive start.

And dont get me started on the positioning of the bus stop outside the Nags Head............

miketually said...

Double the distance for double the money...

ian h said...

It may be double the distance but the time taken will be comparable. In terms of fuel used I would suspect little differnce either due to the stop-start nature of busses within the town compared to largeley uninterrupted run out to the villages.

For a family of four to get to town and back it will cost in the region of £15. Hardly an incentive to leave the car at home.

Darlington Councillor said...

I entirely take the point both of you are making about the cost of bus travel around Darlington. The cost of a family of four travelling into town by bus against the cost of a parking in the town centre is one of the factors which is considered - having said that, it is a complex 'equation' balancing up a myriad of factors which also include (for example) the cost of parking in nearby towns (competition); the number of vacant spaces on a given day; and the views of local businesses.

Arriva I guess would blame the cost of oil and staffing, but their recent commercial decisions, which have broken many routes which used to go cross-town, such that people now have to pay 2 bus fares, have hardly helped. This is very frustrating when the Council has done what it can to promote bus travel through the Local Motion scheme, and by installing bus lanes to speed bus journeys.