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Notes from Big Ben …

Goodbye, Summer

By Peter Guest

It’s the end of another summer, and we in the UK have reached the time when all the produce in the garden is ripening and autumn is just ‘round the corner. Nothing much happens in August, and come September, people pack up their beach towels and start getting back to work. (I know you’re reading this in October, but I’m writing this at the end of August when very little is happening.)
I suppose the big story is that the city of Westminster is getting out of car parking, at least in car parks. I wrote a blog on this a few weeks ago, but it really is a big deal. The city runs its on- and off-street parking, and that makes it the biggest municipal parking operation in Europe, by some way.
Earlier in the year, Westminster renewed its street parking contract in an exercise that degenerated into a farce and then got worse. It took two go’s and two trips to court before the deal was finally done, and a few people in City Hall probably would like to forget the last few months.
The city has followed this up with a decision to divest itself of its entire off-street car park portfolio in a multimillion-pound lease deal. There are 14 car parks with a total of just over 4,000 spaces. Most are offered on a 25-year lease, although a couple, built on Crown Land, are rather shorter term.
The reality is that the car parks are overdue for a refurbishment, and income is in decline, so the city is looking for someone who can throw some money at the buildings and take initiatives that would help income recover.
Rather than follow the Chicago route and take a bucket of money and run away for 25 years, Westminster is being a bit cannier. They are looking for a lease deal based on a share of the revenue with a minimum sum guarantee.
I have spent a large proportion of the last two months working as part of a bid team for a client, so I can’t say too much about the details of the bids, but there have been a great deal of interest and a number of serious offers. (By now I know that my client has made it through the first cut. By the time you read this, the deal will be done. Wish me luck.)
Safer Parking? Not Quite
Some time ago, we in the UK had a major problem: Too many cars were being stolen or broken into in car parks, often in buildings that were poorly designed and poorly looked after and simply acted as a crime magnet.
The police and the government launched a Safer Parking initiative to promote car parks designed to inhibit crime and criminal behavior, better lighting, no dark corners and so on. The police initiative, called “Secured by Design,” was basically a design template for a safe car park.
The intention was good, but the scheme had a fatal flaw. No matter how little crime there was in a car park, if it didn’t comply with the design template, it couldn’t join the scheme. The entry level was too high, and not surprisingly, numbers in the scheme were small.
Some time ago, the British Parking Association (BPA) took over the running of this scheme and decided, with the police’s agreement, to redesign it. The old prescriptive design-led assessment was replaced with a new evaluation based on risk assessment. If there was no crime and nothing that suggested a risk of crime, then the car park could get an award. Regular re-assessments ensured that if circumstances changed, then the status of the facility could be reconsidered.
This addressed the issues surrounding car crime, but over the last few years, it has become increasingly obvious that this is not the only crime in car parks.
Car parks have started to fall down, and although none has been in the Safer Parking scheme, it seems increasingly irrational to award a car park the Safer Parking appellation when customers and their cars could be at risk from crumbling structures, leaking water or inadequate fire protection.
A recent check in a city that shall remain nameless showed missing test records for safety equipment, no fire evacuation plans and crumbling asbestos in public areas. In some of the car parks, the leaks were so bad that areas were cordoned off and cars had lime-scale deposits from leaking water. All of the car parks had Safer Parking awards, and yet in a real sense, none of them was safe and some of the shortcomings could result in criminal prosecutions.
The scheme is in urgent need of a re-think, and I hope that the BPA will understand the problem before it’s too late.
Homes Fit for Heroes
Lance Corporal Johno Lee, 27, who lost a leg fighting the Taliban, was told he didn’t qualify for a disabled parking badge because he might “get better.”
Despite the fact that he still suffers from the after-effects of his injuries and sometimes has to use a wheelchair, his application was turned down three times by Nottinghamshire council officials, the Telegraph reported.
And he was forced to hand over £800 in parking fines when a council bailiff arrived at his home threatening to take his belongings if he failed to pay. This was because he had parked in disabled spaces without a permit.
The first time Lee applied for the “blue badge,” the County Council told him he was “young and may get better.” Presumably, the officials assumed that his leg would re-grow if he waited long enough.
The council’s Service Director, Paul McKay, is quoted as saying: “We are promptly looking into the matter and have arranged for a member of staff to meet Mr. Lee to review the situation. We will urgently assess whether Mr. Lee meets the eligibility criteria for a disabled parking badge as laid down by the Department of Transport. We will progress this matter as quickly as possible.”
Perhaps they should have done that first?
I understand that L/Cpl Lee has now got his disabled badge, but not an apology nor his £800. I can’t use the words that I want to describe the behavior of the Council officers concerned; you can probably fill then in yourself.
Peter Guest is Parking Today’s correspondent for all things British and European. He can be reached at peterguestparking@hotmail.co.uk.

Article Abstract from October, 2010




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