The first call-in of the new Labour administration was a surprisingly good natured affair as the Tories made a seemingly futile challenge to a raft of new on and off street car parking charges in the city centre.
For the uninitiated, a call-in is the device by which a backbench councillor or more commonly a member of shadow cabinet can challenge a decision of the Cabinet – even then it is basically a delaying tactic by which they can strongly urge the Cabinet to reconsider its position.
In this case the opposition Tory spokesman on transport Timothy Huxtable, a man with a remarkable eye for detail, and Tory deputy leader Robert Alden, a man with a remarkable gift for the soundbite, made great play of the Labour Cabinet’s failure to consult with business, in particular the five city centre Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), over the changes in parking fees.
As the transport scrutiny committee met to decide the call-in it was clear the Tories with two members were badly outgunned by Labour’s seven – three on each side and the chairman, Victoria Quinn, facing them.
Huxtable, who cannot help but be fair, said that there were many changes which were to be welcomed, but feared that some businesses might be hit by charges on suspending parking bays and double yellow lines.
But his main concern was that the council really should flag up changes to the wider city centre public first.
Everyone agreed that consultation is a good thing, but sadly the Labour ranks argued, it is not a statutory requirement.
“But it is good practice,” responded Coun Huxtable.
Then Tahir Ali, the recently appointed Labour cabinet member for jobs, development and growth, a title which makes him responsible for city centre car parks, weighed in.
Like a school boy pulling out his homework he plonked down paperwork relating to eight years worth of parking charge reports, including photocopies for many present, under the previous Tory-Lib Dem adminstration in which business consultation was not mentioned.
Timothy replied that there had been both informal and formal consultation on his watch.
Coun Ali then highlighted an impressive package of fee reductions, “Some season tickets will be £250 less,” he said, “We are cutting the cost of the parking for some people, the Tories never did that.”
He also pointed out that raising some fees and cutting others to alter car park usage was something which had not been done in the city centre in a decade.
But having said that, he then tried to rule out the call-in on the basis that it would hit the council hard in the pocket.
“Every month this is delayed, it costs the council £37,000,” he said.
Coun Alden sprung to life: “That’s a £37,000 tax on motorists!”
He added that Coun Ali had forgotten to mention places where fees were going up and this must outstrip the reductions to raise so much money.
Coun Quinn, a lawyer, tried to pin down the financial cost with officials who shuffled uncomfortably, muttered something along the lines of it being a loose estimate. They insisted that traffic and parking space management is the motivation for the changes.
It turns out there are several under -used car parks, such as the one in Pershore Street, Digbeth, where prices need to be cut to attract more traffic.
Whatever they agree or disagree on, in the end it all comes down to party lines and the Labour majority voted down the call-in.
By the end of this tit-for-tat row an agreement was struck that the BIDs in particular and city centre users in general would be consulted over future annual reviews of parking fees.
It was something which allowed both sides to claim a victory and, with that, the politicians went off for the summer break.
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