Tom Conti says Westminster council is “criminally irresponsible”. Jenny Seagrove laments its latest attack on motorists as “another nail in the coffin of ever decreasing theatre attendance”, and a threat to single women who will be forced on to night buses in the early hours.
Major Ray Brown of Salvation Army’s Regent Hall, who this week finds himself in unholy alliance with the casino operators of Mayfair, says of Conservative councillors: “They are squeezing us out, and hollowing out our activities.”
Richard Caring, owner of most of the expensive restaurants you will have heard of, has complained it will cause havoc for his staff who finish at 3am.
Business owners, most of whom wish to keep their heads down for fear of picking a fight with Westminster, are discreetly chipping in to bankroll an application for judicial review that is expected to be filed at the High Court any day. There are rumours that the Church of England has quietly added £5,000 to the legal fund.
With all businesses facing the strongest economic headwinds in memory, Westminster council has chosen this moment to introduce a new £7 million-a-year disincentive for motorists coming to spend their money in the West End.
Parking permits, sky-rocketing meter rates, the congestion charge, and the 850 predatory, incentivised traffic wardens who roam the streets every day across the borough, have raised the cost of London driving in recent years. But free night-time parking after 6.30 pm and on Sundays – on single yellow lines or metres – has been sacrosanct. Until now.
From January 9, 8,600 metres of single lines – with space for some 1,719 cars according to figures compiled by Westminster’s Labour grouping – will no longer be used for parking between 6.30 pm and midnight on Mondays to Saturdays and from 1pm – 6pm on Sundays. The same change to hours will apply to pay and display.
A multi-millionaire member of Annabel’s tells the Standard privately of his fears for the valet parkers who will no longer take £20 at the door to put his Aston Martin on a single yellow line, though he concedes he is himself not first in line for symapathy.
By far the biggest blow will be felt by the nocturnal battalions of the West End – the casino croupiers, bar workers, the actors and theatre staff not grand enough to merit a paid minicab home, the musicians on £18,000 a year who cannot lug their cellos home on the tube, even if the trains are still running when they finish their performance.
Hayley Spong, of the Garrick Theatre says 16 per cent of London theatregoers use their car, accounting for 2.26 million theatre seats a year. She predicts many of these regular theatre goers will now forgo their trips into the West End.
“Sad that a London borough bearing such an illustrious name should contemplate such a crassly Philistine policy,” says the imperious Dame Janet Suzman. “Or is greedy the word?”
Westminster won’t hear of any suggestion this is about money. “We have a legal obligation to make sure the traffic flows,” says Councillor Lee Rowley, head of parking matters, noting that in the heart of the West End the traffic can be heavier at 10pm than at 10am. “This is about traffic management, not about revenue raising.”
For sure, some residents’ groups have voiced concern about traffic late at night, but few people outside the ruling Conservative group believe him for a minute. Actually, Mr Rowley could not publicly say it was about raising revenue even if he knew it were true, because that would be illegal. (Parking revenues are supposed to be ringfenced and spent on roads and ever more extravagant ‘calming’ systems, not to plug general holes in the budget or compensate for loss of Whitehall grant aid.)
The borough has, after Wandsworth, the lowest council tax in the country. This means that a house in Mayfair that might sell for £10 million currently attracts a council tax bill of just £1,200 a year, roughly half of what was paid when the old rating system was still in force.
Bargain basement council tax rates in the affluent residential streets of Mayfair, Soho and Marylebone have been a Tory shibboleth since the days of the late Simon Milton, but to sustain them, Westminster has picked the pockets of motorists who drive into the centre of town.
Westminster was expecting to earn £29 million this year from parking tickets, but a £6 million pound black hole has opened in the budget, forcing urgent action.
Heaven forbid that anyone would suggest this black hole is related to Mr Rowley’s actions in imposing new charges, but he does concede the new Sunday and evening regime will coincidentally raise between £4 million and £7 million a year.
“A lot of people are making a lot of noise about this,” says Mr Rowley, “but we expected that.” When asked to say which business or theatre or restaurant groups are demanding a reduction in parking spaces in the West End at night, he answers, without missing a beat, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association – the biggest beneficiaries of the new regulations.
Meanwhile, West End churches are in despair over the changes, and all denominations are anxious about what this means for their congregations and their community work. Regent Hall, “the only church in Oxford Street”, is the closest the Salvation Army has to its own cathedral and for decades band members have driven in from the suburbs on a Sunday with their vast brass instruments for all-day activities. Some of them are the third generation of church members to have been involved in the wider mission, which includes volunteering to bring in food and supplies.
“Our people care very deeply that we should have a presence in Westminster in the heart of the city,” says Major Brown. But he says he cannot expect volunteers to pay up to £4.40 an hour to park their car at night or on a Sunday, and worries the church’s mission is now under threat.
“This has nothing to do with government cuts, this is entirely a made-in-Westminster disaster,” says Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Labour leader in Westminster. “The Conservatives thought the huge parking surpluses would go on forever, and now they are in a mess.”
As for the Conservatives’ claim it’s not about revenue raising, Mr Dimoldenberg laughs. “No-one believes that for a minute.”
The Conservative grouping seems to be in some disarray. Only one of their 48 councillors – Glenys Roberts who represents the West End ward – has opposed the measure, though some now seem to have cold feet as the January deadline looms. “I just cannot see the logic of effectively cordoning off the West End from motorists in these deeply straitened times,” says Ms Roberts.
Peter Wetherell, who has run his eponymous Mayfair estate agency for 30 years, is speechless that at a time when hotel groups are pumping £500 million of new investment into central London, the council is threatening this by squeezing £7 million in new parking fees.
He predicts Tory councillors could be targeted by independents at the next council elections, and says there has been a “deafening silence” from Boris Johnson so far.
Contacted yesterday, the mayor declined to criticise Westminster directly beyond saying he was generally opposed to parking rules that hurt trade.
Mr Wetherell scoffs at the notion of a West End evening traffic ‘problem’, and puts his faith in those pressing for a judicial review.
“Westminster says heavy traffic in the West End in the evening is a problem. What nonsense, it’s a measure of London’s success.”
PARKING BY NUMBERS IN WESTMINSTER
Parking wardens patrolling Westminster
Top cost of Penalty Charge Notices
metres of single yellow lines, parking on which will be illegal at night and on weekends from January 9
car parking spaces removed by the new regulations.
Conservative councillors opposing parking charges
What Westminster expects to earn in parking fines this year.
Per hour on most expensive meters. (Zone G: Soho, Covent Garden, Holborn.)
Annual costs of residents’ parking permits in Westminster.
by Stephen Robinson
27 Oct 2011 – The Evening Standard