Rebels force Tory leader John Clark to throw in the towel and abandon further talk of paying to park in Wisbech, March, Chatteris and Whittlesey
PUBLISHED: 23:58 14 January 2016 | UPDATED: 23:58 14 January 2016
Council leader John Clark bowed to the inevitable today and scrapped further talk of introducing car park charges after recognising the scale of opposition within his own ruling Tory group.
With his group split 17:17 on the issue he realised the stakes were too high – and the opposition too strong- to draw up a business case for charging to park in Wisbech, March, Chatteris and Whittlesey.
With even some members of his own cabinet beginning to question the idea – and previous supporters in the words of one Tory councillor “struggling with the pressure”- he bowed out as gracefully as he could.
With the five opposition councillors (three independents and two Lib Dems) firmly in the ‘No’ camp, he recognised the impossibility of bringing forward acceptable proposals.
Such was the scale of opposition within his own group; the threat of exclusion by defying a possible party whip fell at the first hurdle. Councillors can only be excluded if a leader can obtain a two thirds majority of his members – a scenario never likely to happen.
Few Tories were speaking publicly tonight on the issue, although one councillor, speaking privately, told me: “We would not be moved. Clark had to climb down as he knew it would split the group and the damage of that could never be repaired.
“Additionally if any of his pro-camp changed their mind he would have lost face and probably the leadership.”
Other cuts are coming – discussed at a marathon eight hour private meeting of Tory councillors on Tuesday and this will be debated later.
But it was only today, when he attended a seminar for all councillors, did he acknowledge car park charges were dead in the water.
Independent councillor Virginia Bucknor has strongly opposed car park charges and was pleased at the outcome.
“Paid parking is not happening,” she said. “The leader said there was no appetite for it.”
She said she was disappointed he didn’t agree the idea made no economic sense “but a good outcome nonetheless”.
A social media campaign against paid parking– that had support including Wisbech Tory councillors Steve Tierney and Samantha Hoy- was also delighted with the outcome.
“Yes!” organisers posted tonight on Facebook. “Paid parking proposal rejected. Thank you so much everybody. FDC have ruled it out. We win and Fenland wins. Credit to FDC cabinet and councillors for leading the way and making the right choice.”
The writing was on the wall following a recent announcement that a survey had shown only 17 of the 39 councillors favoured pay parking.
Last week Cllr Tierney said: “Paid parking in all the car parks in Wisbech would signal a death knell to small businesses whose unique selling point is good service, interesting products and convenience.
“The fact people can pop to town easily means our town centre thrives - paid parking would take that away and drive people to the large out of town shopping areas.”
Many councillors believe car park charges should never have been included in the consultation documents on possible savings.
Cllr Clark has presented himself as ‘neutral’ over which services could or should be cut; however he insists the vulnerable in society must be protected.
“People who own cars are rich,” said Cllr Clark last month, drawing a comparison to the elderly with no transport and reliant on community buses provided by FACT.
Cllr Clark has always acknowledged the difficulties in persuading his colleagues to consider car park charges – even though he predicted this could generate up to £1.26 million a year in extra revenue.
Fenland Council operates 20 car parks with 2,335 spaces and proposals being bandied around suggested offering free parking for the first 30 minutes and then either 25p or 50p an hour thereafter.
However, the council conceded the estimates were “historic” and would need to be updated “to reflect the current situation and charging model preferred”.