I felt physically ill when I sat down at Shropshire Council’s Performance Management Scrutiny Committee last Wednesday. We were there to yet again to argue against a damaging rise in parking charges in Ludlow from next September. It was the second time the matter had come to scrutiny. The last meeting looked like a stitch up. I knew the moment that I walked in at this meeting we were due a repeat. And it proved to be so. We are get charges until 8pm on the streets in the town centre and they will be set at £1.80 an hour, the highest outside Shrewsbury. There is no justification for this.
I am the first to say that I had not thought through the politics of this meeting. But it proved to be a simple matter of symmetry. The issue had previously been considered by the Place Overview Committee. At that committee, Councillor Claire Wild, who represents Severn Valley, proposed that the scheme be nodded through as proposed by officers. Gwilym Butler chaired the committee. He admonished Councillor Wild for coming in early with that recommendation. (It didn’t look a bit like there was a prior agreement that Wild would make the recommendation.) After going back and forth, Councillor Wild put her motion again and Councillor Butler welcomed it, saying “we have had a good discussion.” The recommendation to increase charges in Ludlow town centre was voted through by the Conservative and Labour members of the scrutiny panel, with opposition from the Lib Dems.
This was not a scrutiny process. It was a bland discussion by councillors who hadn’t take any time to come to Ludlow to examine the concerns and hadn’t been given a detailed briefing. At one point, the meeting had to be halted to allow papers they should have received to be printed and distributed. After a quick skim read, councillors then thought they knew all about Ludlow parking charges.
This was not scrutiny. It wasn’t the sort of interrogation you get in other councils – and I have been quite a few over the years. It was about getting the topic off the agenda. After all, no one on the committee had a brief for Ludlow. I came out disgusted but not surprised.
That brings us to last Wednesday. My heart sank when it clicked in my head that Councillor Wild, who had proposed that higher charges were accepted at the previous scrutiny, was chairing this second scrutiny. Sitting in pole position, was Councillor Butler. I wrote on Facebook at the beginning of the meeting:
Never give up hope?
And sure enough, just like night follows day, Councillor Butler proposed that the committee accepted the proposals to hike charges on Ludlow’s town centre streets and to extend them to 8pm. He had the support of the chair, Councillor Wild and councillors voted it through. This didn’t look a bit stitched up.
I am heartily fed up with councillors who rarely come to Ludlow, if at all, deciding what is best for out town. I am fed up with scrutiny of cabinet decisions being a “good discussion”. Scrutiny is about challenge. That rarely happens in Shropshire Council.
I have lost all patience with Shropshire Council, which has consistently shown that it is concerned with its own finances first and the economy of the county second. There has been no economic assessment of the impact of the impact of higher and longer parking charges on Ludlow’s economy, especially the night time economy. Repeated requests for information on how much the new charges will raise for Shropshire Council have been ignored.
As for scrutiny, why does anyone turn up? The chairs get £23,000 a year and a position on the political ladder. Rock the boat too much and they will become backbenchers at half the rate. But I can’t see what the scrutiny process does for making Shropshire Council an effective body in all too tough times.