Car parking charges presented a tough decision, but one we have to make

The Imperial Road car park in Exmouth

The Imperial Road car park in Exmouth - Credit: Google

A view from East Devon Council leader Paul Arnott

East Devon District Council leader, Councilor Paul Arnott. Picture: Paul Arnott

East Devon District Council leader, Councilor Paul Arnott. Picture: Paul Arnott - Credit: Archant

In the end, the political obituaries of many local councillors come down to car park charges. It’s the single most divisive financial issue at East Devon District Council too, and the favourite bandwagon for any political opportunist.

For many years, the Conservative administrations at EDDC courted popularity by a) leaving council tax rises pegged at zero for half a decade b) leaving parking charge increases pegged at zero for a whole decade.

They congratulated themselves on this, and boasted about it in their leaflets come election times. But like so many here today, gone tomorrow politicians, they didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining. Belatedly, they realised the consequences, although those responsible had been removed from the bridge.

One of the most significant consequences, in my view, is that EDDC was denuded of key management and other staff year after year, and despite the amazing efforts of our officers, risked being unable to fully deliver some mandatory services.

Recently, I asked for an audit to be brought forward on one such mandatory service – S106 schemes. S106 funds are those paid by a developer as mitigation for a new development, and are often a crucial part of any planning decision. The money raised then goes back to communities for local projects.

The urgent audit showed that these had not been well-administered for many years. I already knew this, because people from parishes and towns had been telling me this for a long time. The audit showed that in large part this was due to understaffing.

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So yes, this was one way to keep the general wage bill low, but artificially so, at the cost of a service which then did not command the confidence of the electorate. The answer, which we voted on the other day, is to appoint a new officer to speed it back into good order. It would have been good to hear a few words of regret from the former administration that in their work with senior officers this known problem had not been dealt with, but they took the fifth.

Which brings me back to car park charges. In a feast of hypocrisy last week, those same Conservatives, and fellow travellers hitching onto their wagon, had their fun in a council debate about whether the charges they had suppressed for more than a decade should now go up.

To be frank, as Leader I just sat back and watched them tear themselves apart. On the one hand, they said, any increase in charges now would depress the post-pandemic high street (we had already been saying that for months) b) on the other hand, the administration would be reckless not to increase them as the budget (which they had under-resourced for years by not dealing with these charges, or with council tax) would suffer a shortfall without it.

In the end, it was like watching the hull of an aging spaceship implode under the stress of two gravitational forces in an old episode of Dr Who. Their votes went flying in different directions..

As an administration we just did what we had to do – of course we can’t raise the charges this year when we want our high streets to have the best chance of a revival. But equally not the decade of putting charges up could not last forever. We voted to make the rise in April 2022, giving everyone time to adapt.

We also debated the really serious financial shortfall caused by the pandemic, in particular the £1 million loss we are having to cover for LED. As a result, the EDDC component of your council tax bill

will have to go up by 3.41% (on average £5 a year). Unlike the Conservatives year after year, we have had to face that and implement it to fulfil our legal obligation to set a balance budget.

Tough times, but with this administration, no ducked decisions.

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