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Car Parks and Common Land (… or how a simple increase in car parking charges ends up in the realm of political philosophy)

December 6, 2011

In the last week I’ve come across two things which have made me change the focus of my interest in local government and communities.

Both of them are about car parking – more specifically the preservation or affordability thereof – which tends to put you on the moral back foot these days. When we drive we all turn into these other people who are destroying the planet and arejust too feckless or anti-social to use public transport.

But actually I’m looking at this from the point of view of people who depend on their car in order to maintain an independent life – doing their own shopping by parking within trolley range of a supermarket. In the end, my line of thought arrived at a set of questions about common land, local government ownership of assets, and a claustrophobic future in which the only place we have an absolute right to be is in our own house and garden. The change of focus? From the transparency and accountability of local authorities (and more generally government – in the way that open data and “e-government” enthusiasts tend to obsess) to the transparency and accountability of private companies who have come to have rights over what may well have previously been “common land”.

The more recent incident was the discovery that the Sainsburys surface car park next to Dartford’s Priory Centre had hiked its prices from 50p to £1.50 with no obvious notice,  consultation or explanation. The image of a elderly lady repeatedly inserting a 50p coin and saying “it must be broken”, summed this up for me.

By turns I initiated, followed, or connected twitter conversations about the change – which followed this trajectory… “Sainsburys… why did they do that? Why WOULD they do that? It’s counter-productive, they haven’t introduced a ‘refund for bona fide customers’ scheme (which would have suggested the ‘problem’ was people parking there to go elsewhere), so maybe
it was some dumb HQ decision universally applied, or a piece of ill-considered outsourcing”. Then “Sainsburys don’t own/operate the car park. It must be the Borough Council, which would make sense given the history of the site. Perhaps they’re trying to squeeze revenue out of all their assets to cope with the cuts – and screwing up local people’s use of the town in the meantime”. Then, finally, “It’s neither – the site is owned, or at least run, by APCOA… and Sainsbuys are as unhappy about the rise as anybody else.”

Once you get into that latter territory, there are two really striking things. Firstly – it takes a lot of googling to figure out [not ‘who runs the car park’ but] who actually owns and controls the land, as opposed to leasing, having a parking franchise etc, etc – so this is the transparency point. Secondly – it makes you realise that these sorts of relationships appear to result in amorphous private entities having carte blanche to set prices… and ultimately that means control or restrict access to large expanses of land in our town centres. So this is the accountability point. [I found the website of one company – having googled “ownership of dartford priory centre” and when I clicked on ‘About Us’ to see what sort of company they were, discovered that their business was “Creating value for clients”… that’s cleared that up then.]

That brings me nicely to the earlier incident – which had already sensitised me to these issues. I read in a local free paper that a small local car park, adjacent to a block of shops, takeaways, cafe and the Co-Op, is about to be sold off. It’s only a small car park, maybe 20 cars if people park in a considerate way, but it’s where many people make a short stop, on the way home for example, to buy a paper, fish and chips, or a midweek shop. The site is “owned” by Kent County Council and ‘operated’ as a free car park by Dartford Borough Council. Sale of the site will raise up to £200,000 for KCC and, we are told, it could be operated privately as a Pay and Display car park or [subject to all necessary permissions being granted] used for a residential development.

What particularly annoyed me was that this article, probably triggered by some PR from the firm of auctioneers, was the first I knew about it and the the fact that the Borough Council has said it “won’t be using the land” after Christmas Eve.

So, before the opaque Sainsburys example came up, I was already dwelling on these points:

  1. It’s not the Borough Council that ‘uses’ that car park – it’s us!
  2. There’s something wrong with the historical process via which it’s now normal to see the County Council as just another organisation that owns and disposes of assets when, again, they are assets for the local community – including the businesses around that car park – and the Council just owns them on our behalf.
  3. The fact that selling the land puts it into a domain where there is no future community say in how it is used… including what charges are levied for parking,and what sanctions such as clamping and towing can reasonably be applied.

Car parks are public spaces – they aren’t glamorous or sentimentality persuasive – in the way that parks, playgrounds or natural habitats are. But if you can get past any uneasiness about “drivers” and traffic, they are at least as immediately important to the everyday lives of many people as those other spaces are.

Two things need to change.

Widespread consultation and notice should be as commonplace for these mundane changes as they are for more high profile projects. This should carry with it a re-assertion of the principle that local authorities are not enterprises which can simply sell assets on this one way journey out of public control.

Even more importantly, and we should keep sight of this when, as I say, we are obsessing about public sector transparency and accountability, it should be really really easy for someone like me to find out who actually owns a car park, to see the basis on which someone else leases or operates it and, in particular, to see whether and when it passed from public or community ownership into private control. One reason for this is that, at the time of disposal, the wheels are often oiled by applying conditions and covenants to the future use of the land, or some residual local authority or community say in this. It is these provisions which I suspect are oftenswept under the carpet… and which would be harder to treat this way if that information was easily accessed by ordinary people, with busy lives and little time for detective work.

My concern is that more and more common land becomes seen as ‘council land’ and that this in turn becomes ‘private land’… with our rights of access and use eroded in the process.

What starts out as a gripe about parking charges, probably fuelled by a sense of unfairness, ends up for me as an issue about the fundamentals of community ownership and accountability. Looking back – and I’m sorry I haven’t had time to write a more concise version of this post – it strikes me that I’m making a fairly well-aired point… but that I got there via a route that’s likely to resonate more with people than some of the grand political theory does.

For Dartford the long running saga of the big St James’/Tesco redevelopment of Lowfield Street also takes those issues and writes them even larger.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2011 6:28 am

    The parcels of land will only be “common land ” if registered as such. The law of common land is quite different from that of Sainsbury’s land or KCC’s land. If the lands in question were common land, it is likely that parking would not be permitted.

    • njbdartford permalink*
      December 7, 2011 7:38 am

      Thanks Geoff – that’s an absolutely valid point. I suppose I was intentionally collapsing a number of things, partly to avoid being too technical and partly because I was starting to think about when ‘local authority land’ might be a more modern equivalent. So those different things are:

      1. Common Land in the strict legal sense and where it should be made **very** easy to find out what such land there is in a given place.

      2. The ‘papering over’ of that previously strict common land. My grandfather, who was a coal miner but from a farming family who knew all about the Common Land in their area, made a study of instances where local land owners [this isn’t about Dartford BTW] stealthily appropriated such land and then later [guaranteed to make him apoplectic] ‘donated’ this land to the council and had amenities or roads named after them as a result!

      3. A broader sense of common land, to mean something that has been in regular public use – for example, a projection of the layout of the Priority Centre and surrounding roads suggests that before the centre, and the one way system roads which partly enclose it, were built – at least one public road would have run through the current car park.

      4. A speculative notion that, whatever the strict legal position, we should be thinking of Local Authority Land as a new species of common land for the purposes of involving local citizens in decisions about the use and disposal of that land… not least because the transfer into private ownership seems to be a one-way street as regards future control [which is what the Priory Centre car park example first sensitised me to]. If the legal position is that KCC land is, to all intents and purposes, private land owned by a public entity… then maybe we should look at changing that law, particularly if we want people to take more responsibility for their own communities. This should include shifting those Authorities’ culture wrt consultation – as opposed to strict legal duty.

      Is this something you know quite a bit about? I’m pretty much a novice on land law [apart from having grandad’s affronted DNA in my system] and I’m sure all sorts of statutes get passed when shopping centres, or even corner car parks, are created – which establish a legal status. I think these questions will become more important as the pattern of town centre land use, especially retail, will continue to change quite radically. I also think some detailed online maps, or open map data for 3rd parties to process, about the status of land would be a good start.

      • December 7, 2011 9:43 am

        Back again. Don’t know enough to reply in detail about the numbered points you have made.
        No 1 It is very easy to find out what land is “real” common land – I believe that the KCC is the registration authority.
        No 2 It is no longer easy to enclose common land. People do “beat the bounds” walks and quickly spot these unlawful enclosures. (But do the relevant authoritiesd do anything? If not the Open Spaces Society might help.)
        No 3 It is only in the last few years that the public have had access to “real” common land.
        But the general use means that the lay person may become unknowing about the importance of real common land – the local use of which may have gone back to pre-history.
        No 4 You have no need to be speculative. Under the Localism Act 2011 (Royal Assent 15 November 2011) you might be able to think of such land as being a neighbourhood asset of “community value”.
        If the council add land to the neighbourhood’s list of land of “community value”. It may be acquirable under a local community group’s right to bid (allowed under the Act). Alas the regulations for the Localism Act’s operation are not yet law (as far as I know).

      • njbdartford permalink*
        December 7, 2011 9:49 am

        Great information! Many many thx for coming back on this. Personally I think the Borough Council should be my ‘local community group’ – but that’s my problem. :o)

  2. December 7, 2011 8:37 am

    Hi Nick, good post. Both these have affected us too, as having a very young family (one child 17 weeks, one child 3 years old) the ability to drive and park conveniently often makes the difference in whether we can go places or not.

    The car park near the Co-op you mention is particularly a worry for us, as that’s the only place to park within about 2 miles of Oakfield Children’s Centre, where we have to go for activities with our 3 year old, and our weigh ins and drop in for the baby. Although I am a working Mum and will be able to afford the car parking, I do wonder how this may affect other parents who may not be so lucky, and the cost of parking may stop them going, or even being able to afford to go.

    The Sainsburys car park raise seems completely over the top, and we’ve already stopped going there for our shopping – any savings made in the shop are wiped out from the car park! We never park there for more than 1 hour, so this rise means it’s more affordable for us to shop elsewhere now. Fingers crossed Sainsburys will make a deal with the car park owners, for their sake as well as their customers. This price rise will especially hit folks like us who tend to buy more fresh produce a few times a week. If only there were grocers in Dartford, I’d be happy to give them our business!

    For those reading this and thinking “Why don’t you walk?” Sainsburys is a 20 min walk from our (fairly central) house, so 20 mins there, 45 mins shopping, 20 mins home is just too much for a 3 year old. The pram is now in use for the 17 weeks old. Also, trying to push a trolly and carry home your goods with a pram and a 3 year old is nearly impossible. I used to walk and do shopping when the 3 year old was in the pram and the 17 weeks old wasn’t here yet, and it was meant shopping daily as I could only do a basket full at a time. Sadly due to now working, I don’t have the chance to do that now, plus attempting to time that with the feeds and naps of both kids would be a military feat in itself! 🙂 And the Oakfield Car park is a 35 min walk from our house. Again, too far for a 3 year old, and just adds too much time onto a short visit to the health visitor. It would make visiting much harder to schedule.

  3. December 7, 2011 9:54 am

    Thayer, We all jump up and down about parking. I never go to towns where I have to pay for parking – unless my arm is twisted. Orpington, Bromley are arm twisting places! Grvesend is better fro free parking. Lewisham has not seen me for about 10 years – had to go there and had to pay £6.00!
    If it is not too difficult to get to, Swanley Park is a great day out for children. Also, the shopping in Swanley, eg ASDA, Wilkinsons, etc, has excellent free parking.

  4. December 7, 2011 3:31 pm

    I suspect the reason for the price hike is the passing of the Lowfield Street Application. The 106 agreement commits Tesco (or is likely to commit them, I don’t if it has been signed yet) to providing unrestricted 3 hours free parking.

    Given there will be 3 hours free parking across the road, once the Tescos opens the Priory Centre’s income from the Car Park will presumably fall off a cliff (even if you want to shop in Sainsburys and the Priory Centre, parking will be free straight across the road). I expect the Priory Centre are trying to maximize their income over the next couple of years before it becomes untenable to charge.

    Thayer – My wife’s midwife appointments are at the same Children’s Centre and I didn’t know the Co-op car park even existed! I always manage to get parked on Oakfield Lane though (or in a worst case scenario, onstreet on Cedar Rd)

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