(NB since this blog post was written, the press notice has been taken down from the Brighton and Hove Council website. However I managed to screengrab it and it can be found here )
On Christmas Eve, when the rest of the world is winding down towards the holiday break, Brighton and Hove Council have published a press release claiming that the experiment of free parking in the City on the Sundays before Christmas has cost council tax payers £155 for each car attracted.
It’s a disgraceful, partisan and poorly-argued piece of work that will only discredit the case of those (of whom I am one) who opposed free parking on those dates.
First, it recognises that the figures are not yet available for what it calls Sunday 23 December (22 December, I presume) – likely to be the busiest and most significant day.
It then argues that fewer cars were using the car-parks than had done so on the weekend before the free parking became available; it then quotes numbers of additional vehicles using the car parks on subsequent sundays – but without any context (what is the normal level of usage? What does this tell us about how long vehicles stay, which is just as significant as the numbers?) And then it quotes average takings from the car parks per day in December, which of course does not tell us anything significant about the particular Sundays on which the car parks were free. Most of all, the bulk of the costs are deemed to arise from untaken on-street parking places – but there has never been any real evidence that this is an issue.
The most important indicators of the success or otherwise of the policy are in any case comparative. Was what happened in Brighton and Hove any different from towns where there was no free parking? Did the city buck national trends? And of course you can’t know that until you know what has happened elsewhere.
Crucially, the press release tells us nothing about the benefits. Council leader Jason Kitcat is quoted as making a number of statements; that shops appeared to be doing well, that Brighton didn’t need to give away parking to get shoppers into the centre, and so on. None of this is very meaningful either; it’s anecdotal and there’s the world of difference between footfall and spending. And leave the busiest weekend of the Christmas rush out of this and you have no basis for making any of those assertions.
My own belief remains that the impacts are likely to be marginal at best; but I don’t know that, and the simple fact is that the administration doesn’t either. As I have argued before, the effects are likely to get lost in the general economic noise and I am not aware of any real process of appraisal being put in place to assess such benefits as there might be.
But most of all I am concerned by the propriety of using a press notice of this type, published on Christmas Eve and full of unevidenced and unconnected assertions, in such a blatantly political way – at a time when you simply cannot present a full picture of the effects of the policy. It’s clumsy and it’s improper; the Council should wait until all the evidence is available and should be seeking to present a full and proper account of events. The irony is that I would have expected that kind of appraisal to show that the policy didn’t actually achieve very much; but by jumping the gun and politicising the appraisal of the scheme like this, the administration has actually damaged its own credibility. It smacks of panic and desperation.
The way this press release has been issued raises some significant questions of abuse of process. And as transport policy in this city is important, it’s hugely disappointing that this partisan and premature press release should have made building consensus towards a rational policy more, not less, difficult.