There a chill in the air in Ludlow and it is not just the winter weather. Parking enforcement officers seem to be in town most days and some evenings.
Window cleaners, couriers, deliveries to pubs, local businesses delivering beds, craftsmen working on buildings. All are fair game to Shropshire Council as it clamps down harder than before on technical parking offences. Parking officers are giving no leeway. They are chilling our town’s atmosphere.
I have never had so many complaints about what most people still call traffic wardens as I have had in recent days. I have passed some complaints onto senior managers with no result. Before I turn to that, I think it would be helpful to explain who the current parking enforcement work for and their duties.
Long ago, parking enforcement was the responsibility of the police, who also directed traffic. Most councils now use civil enforcement officers (by one name or another). These officers have no power to direct traffic or ease congestion. If the town clogs up due to incident or lost HGV, it’s down to local people or the police to get it sorted out.
According to a response to a question I asked Shropshire Council in December, civil enforcement officers can only impose PCNs and empty parking machines and meters. They can report other incidents like Blue Badge fraud to the police. They can report littering offences and dog poo to another department of Shropshire Council. Their main job is to issue 14,000 penalty charge notices a year, 1,700 of them in Ludlow. That’s five a day in our town.
Shropshire Council’s civil enforcement officers raised an income of around £440,000 in 2017/18, rather less than the £590,000 cost of running the enforcement service. That service has been told to cut its costs, or raise income, by £100,000 in the year from April. The service will face a quarter of a million-pound shortfall from this April. The new parking regime is predicting to raise just £400,000 extra this year against an earlier prediction of £2.5 million.
Many areas in Shropshire Council are facing cutbacks. Many are cutting staff. Some departments are raising extra revenue. This is the context for the current clampdown.
In the last few weeks, we have seen a zero tolerance approach to parking infringements in Ludlow. Window cleaners, couriers, deliveries to pubs, local businesses delivering beds, craftsmen working on buildings, business owners popping into their premises for under thirty seconds. All have fallen victim to civil enforcement officers’ yellow tickets in the last few weeks.
I have complained to directors at the council that this level of enforcement is damaging Ludlow’s economy. This is January for goodness sake. Traders need every penny they can get at this time of the year. And once visitors are pounced upon by yellow jacketed officers slapping yellow tickets on their windscreens, they are unlikely to want to come to Ludlow again.
Shropshire Council leader Peter Nutting never stops talking about boosting the county’s economy. He is right to make this a priority. But we are chilling the economy of the smaller market towns by an intolerant parking regime. In a historic town like ours with its awkward street layout and limitations on parking spaces there needs to be a bit of give and take. Does Shropshire Council really expect window cleaners to carry their ladders from a car park?
Part of the problem we face is the odd way that Shropshire Council is organised. Highways and parking come under the Director of Place. But parking enforcement come under the Director of Public Health. That means the council can’t join up the dots. The Director of Place oversees the economy. But the Director of Public Health is far more concerned with getting smokers to quit and reducing obesity. It is the most bizarre organisational arrangement I have met over my many years with the public service.
But it seems to be too much to expect Shropshire Council to act in a joined-up way either internally or across local government with the towns its policies damage. It is too much to expect that it could have a parking regime that was understanding and helpful, not obsessed by penalties.
Ludlow is a tolerant place. Shropshire is a tolerant county. The growing intolerant attitude of Shropshire Council risks changing the character of Shropshire.
We are in a dangerous time for the economy of market towns. We are in a particularly dangerous time for Ludlow town centre with the final planning application for retail units at Rocks Green expected any day. We have a hard working Chamber of Commerce and lots of independent traders working flat out to keep the town centre going. But with the growth of the internet and increasing economic uncertainty, the town must row upstream every day.
Towns like Ludlow would be better supported if we had a civil enforcement regime that was helpful and considerate. A regime that advised and guided people. People committing clear offences should be penalised. But what we have seen from Shropshire Council’s parking enforcement officers in recent weeks is the equivalent of fining people for driving 31mph in a 30mph limit.
If this zero tolerance parking regime has a future, market towns like ours may have no future.