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Brentwood Town Centre Parking - a big change in policy

February 9, 2021 9:50 PM
By Cllr Philip Mynott

Car park machineBrentwood's Lib Dems have expressed alarm at a sudden change in the Council's position on Brentwood Town Centre car parking, which took place during the Inspectors' Hearings for the Brentwood Local Plan on Thursday February the 4th.

The council was being questioned by the Inspectors and others in relation to town centre car park sites. There are multiple examples of these, including Brentwood Station Car Park (R10 in the Plan), Westbury Road Car Park (R11), Chatham Way Car Park (R13) and William Hunter Way Car Park (R14). Nonetheless the questions became so unanswerable, from the Council's point of view, that all examination of this aspect of Local Plan Matter 7c was halted, with the only site specifically touched on having been the Station Car Park. A decision was then made to defer all further discussion until the Council had hurriedly worked up a new document explaining its position, with the coverage of these sites postponed until 2pm on Thursday February 25th.

This in itself is not so very unusual: the examination of any Matter may go on for longer than predicted, and throw up unexpected questions and facts, which is why there are always several sessions set aside at the end of the scheduled process for outstanding matters. However a number of aspects are of profound concern in this case.

Firstly the questions surrounding levels of town centre car parking and their proposed redevelopment for housing are hardly new or unexpected. Brentwood's Lib Dems have been continually asking such questions throughout the evolution of the Local Plan, and doing so because the numbers have very visibly never stacked up, or reflected the realities of Brentwood's problems.

In terms of housing numbers, Lib Dems have raised concerns for years, throughout the Local Plan process, at the levels of Town Centre development proposed; levels finally approved (by the Conservatives only), in November 2018. On the Matter 7c sites alone (numbers in each case quoted as being "around") 125 housing units were allocated for Nags Head Lane, 100 for the Station Car Park, 45 for Westbury Road, 31 for Chatham Way, 300 for William Hunter Way, 48 for Hunter House, and 80 for Wates Way; in total, 729. But, that isn't all: there are also "around" 200 units allocated to Doddinghurst Road, 38 on the Sow and Grow Nursery in Pilgrims Hatch, 43 off Warley Hill, 473 on or near the Ford HQ in Warley, 45 in Priests Lane, 35 on the Blood Bank site in Crescent Road (although 86 have been approved), and 825 north of Shenfield in Officers Meadow and surrounding land. In November 2018 there were 2687 houses and flats proposed for the Brentwood Urban Area (which includes the Shenfield, Warley and Pilgrims Hatch sites)! The traffic from all of which would inevitably, at some stage, have to use the same handful of junctions on, and between, the A1023 (Brentwood High Street/Shenfield Road/ Chelmsford Road), the A128 (Ongar/Ingrave Road), the B186 (Warley Hill/ Queens Road), the B185 (Kings Road) and the A129 (Hutton/ Rayleigh Road). None of which junctions consist of anything more sophisticated than a mini roundabout, and none of which have room for, or agreed/ financed plans for, junction improvements!

But secondly, whilst overdevelopment approved by local Tories should obviously be of enormous concern in itself (as regards the threat of gridlock on the roads, air quality plummeting and the local economy and businesses expiring - as anyone who can avoid the town centre proceeds to do so), there is still another side to this mess, and that is Town Centre car parking. As the Inspectors themselves point out in their Matters Issues and Questions (MIQs) "evidence submitted suggests that those [Town Centre car park] sites controlled by the Council (R11, R13 and R14) provide nearly 600 spaces which constitutes 45% of publicly available parking in the town centre." Because of this the Council has so far undertaken to maintain levels of existing Town Centre public car parking across the council owned sites, without ever committing to exactly what the final distribution of these maintained numbers of parking spaces would be. And again it is Brentwood's Lib Dems who have held officers to account, repeatedly asking for confirmations that this was the policy, and that this vital commitment would continue.

Moreover, and thirdly, there is the little matter of the Council's Car Parking Strategy, which has been talked about seemingly for years, and about which discussions are still rumbling on. Again it is Brentwood Lib Dems who have held the Council to account, and pointed out that it would always have made sense for this document to be discussed, prepared and consulted on in tandem with the Local Plan process. Instead of which, thanks to Tory mismanagement, the Council's poor officers are now having to try to persuade Planning Inspectors (at what is supposed to be the end of a grinding eight year Local Plan process), that proposals to redevelop town centre car parks for housing make sense, even though no Car Parking Strategy exists.

Nevertheless, at least up until about 10.50 on the morning of Thursday 4th, the Council did still plan to maintain town centre public car park numbers. Except what happened on Thursday was that, faced by the realities of the Inspectors' questions as to the feasibility of the council's commitment to maintaining numbers of spaces whilst simultaneously proposing so much housing on these sites, the Council's policy resolve began to crumble, and the policy could be seen being altered on the hoof, after a half hour break in the hearing. Again the council must have prepared answers to this in advance - the Inspectors' MIQs ask "If the [town centre] sites are no longer required for parking, why do the policies require proposals to 'consider wider Town Centre parking needs …….. in order to ensure that the current level of Town Centre public parking spaces is maintained'?" Furthermore the Inspectors enquire "How is this achievable?"

And yet it turned out on Thursday that the Council apparently couldn't answer how this was achievable. Paul Shadarevian, QC, speaking for the Council, said, "the policies as originally worded did seek to maintain the same level [of parking] through collaboration with other development sites in the Town Centre… In so far as modifications have been proposed recently to those policies I think they should be set aside because we cannot be confident that the existing public parking provision on those sites can be maintained." He then proposed that the Council "prepare a paper which identifies the potential ability of the allocations to maintain a level of public parking", but admitted, "What I can't do at the moment is to identify what the outcome of that process will be, other than to indicate that there is likely to be a net loss."

Without pre-empting the outcome of the Council's (hasty) further work on this, the position of Brentwood's Lib Dems is that this is entirely the wrong approach. If maintaining the existing levels of public parking in the Town Centre proves, when examined, not to be deliverable whilst the Plan's current proposals to develop car park sites for housing remain in place, then

The council should have been able to identify this basic flaw in the Local Plan, during the years of work on it that have already taken place.

This is a huge failure, but not of the Council's officers, (who have worked long and hard, but also long been under-resourced by the Conservative administration). It is, plain and simple, a failure of Brentwood's Conservative administration to pay attention, not merely to the basic realities of life in Brentwood, but to years of Lib Dem comments pointing out exactly these deficiencies in the Plan, all of which were originally offered in a non party-political effort to arrive at a Plan which did make sense.

The correct solution to the problem of an undeliverable combination of too many proposed new housing units and maintaining the present amount of parking spaces is very simple. Reduce the numbers of new housing units proposed in the Plan, and maintain existing levels of public car parking!

And the reason why is simple too. Unless this is done, a Plan that already threatens to wreak destruction on the borough's economic, retail and commercial heart, and to drastically worsen the living standards of thousands of existing borough residents is just about to be made more damaging still.

Brentwood's Lib Dems will continue to fight against this unnecessary and irresponsible destruction. Will you?

Cllr Philip Mynott

Cllr Philip Mynott has been ward councillor for Brentwood North since 2010 and is deputy leader of Brentwood Liberal Democrats.