Babergh car parking charging implementation could drag on due to Tory ditherers

  Posted: 14.10.21 at 07:12 by Jason Noble (local democracy reporter)

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Controversial plans to reduce free car park charging to just one hour across south Suffolk may not come into force in January, with plans being tabled for it to be postponed.

And a shake-up of the authority’s cabinet has also been made with the changes.

Babergh District Council’s Conservative/Independent/Liberal Democrat administration in February agreed to reduce free parking from three hours down to one at most car parks across the district, as current subsidising arrangements left the authority with a £185,000 annual deficit.

That generated ire from some councillors, as well as large swathes of residents and businesses who said that the free parking was needed more than ever to support businesses in the towns hit hard by Covid-19.

Those changes had been planned to begin from January 2022, but Conservative group councillors have formed proposals to postpone the changes, which will go before cabinet imminently for a decision.

It is not yet clear when that meeting will take place, and will require cabinet assent to do so, but the political balance of the council means the Conservatives can use leader John Ward’s casting vote to see it through if the party unites on the issue.

Babergh cabinet chamber

Conservative sources indicate the intention is for that to be postponed until at least May 2023 after the wider strategic parking review has been completed, but the long term goal is for it to be “kicked into the long grass” entirely.

However, the move is also prompting changes in the cabinet.

It is understood that question marks had been raised within the party over Conservative councillor Elisabeth Malvisi’s handling of the issue in her role as cabinet member, prompting her to quit the party whip.

While Cllr Malvisi remains as an Independent cabinet member for climate change and biodiversity, her role has effectively been split with Conservative Dr Sian Dawson taking on a cabinet position with responsibility for the waste, licensing, public realm and countryside elements.

Cllr Dr Sian Dawson has been vocal against the reduced free parking, and will now lead on the issue in her cabinet role.

She said: “I am very firmly against any knee-jerk reaction to introducing parking tariffs because of the Covid impact – it’s a ridiculous time to do it.

“It’s about our businesses and how it’s going to affect local residents in Sudbury and Hadleigh.

“Our job is to make sure the tariffs aren’t introduced in January. We are going to have to work out a way this [funding gap] can be financed.

“Free parking attracts people to come to our towns, and it is about looking at inventive ways about how we finance this.”

In addition, Conservative councillor Simon Barrett joins the cabinet with the finance portfolio – a role Cllr Ward had been carrying out alongside his responsibilities as leader of the council.

It means the 10-strong cabinet will comprise five Conservatives, four Independents and one Liberal Democrat, with those changes having come into effect immediately.

Cllr Ward recognised that there “had been some unhappiness” in the party but insisted that they were “all on the same page” now.

He said: “There has been an executive decision by cabinet, and we have postponed it twice now.

“It’s got to go back to cabinet but there has got to be a push for a further postponement until the right moment,” adding that it made the direction of travel clear for homes and businesses.

Derek Davis, deputy leader of the Independent group at the council who sits on the cabinet, said it was not a done decision until cabinet had taken its decision.

“We took a decision last February to implement it – we were the first cabinet to take that decision because it needs to be done.

“We need to look at the whole of the district.

“We have taken that decision as a cabinet, we have been strong, and if we flip flop again then the cabinet system is not fit for purpose.”

However, outstanding concerns remain over the handling of the problem.

Great Cornard Conservative councillor Peter Beer, who has campaigned for the reduced free parking proposals to be removed, said the planned changes had not been communicated to the backbenchers in the group.

“I am very disappointed,” he said.

“I have heard nothing official since last Wednesday [when the Conservative group met], I have heard rumours.

“He [Cllr Ward] was given the support of the group but I think he has fallen at the first hurdle.”

Cllr Malvisi said that councillors had the ability to challenge the original cabinet decision in February through the ‘call-in’ process, which could have generated changes or halted it, but no-one opted to do so.

She said that the Conservative group meeting last week had begun before she arrived.

“I was met by many members of the group whose facial expressions ranged from shock to disbelief of what had just occurred and who seemed to be genuinely sorry for what had taken place,” she said.

“But none more so than Mr Holdcroft, regional chairman of the Conservative Party, who expressed his shock by saying to me, ‘given all you have done for the association and party you have been treated despicably’.

“It was these words that made me appreciate what had actually taken place and on that basis I could no longer remain a member of the association since by remaining, especially as a member of the management committee, I was endorsing this behaviour. So I left.”

According to the opposition Green group, a cabinet position for climate change had originally been offered to one of its members, before a day later being told that would only be a deputy cabinet member role with no voting powers instead.

Robert Lindsay from the group said: “I find it extraordinary they are still excluding the Greens when we are the second largest political group, or third largest if the Independents are grouped together.

“To one day offer us a cabinet position and the next day offer a half-post is no way to run a council.”

The Greens have called for parking charges to be ring-fenced for funding sustainable transport measures.

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