I’m not sure where to begin. On Monday night I attended a meeting of Berkhamsted Town Council as a member of the public. They were due to discuss the planning application for an eight-storey car park in the centre of our town and I wanted to be there, to see the process for myself and raise my concerns. The council had given people a week in December last year to formally review and comment on the proposal and this had passed me by in the pre-Christmas rush.
In case you aren’t aware of the proposed multi-storey car park (MSCP)—and I think a lot of people aren’t—here are a impressions by an urban designer of what it will look like:
There were about 25 members of the public at the meeting, seated around the outside of the room. The town councillors sat in the middle around a table. We were each given a programme of business and asked whether we wanted to speak at the appropriate time. When I turned up I had no intention of talking but while waiting for the meeting to begin and reflecting on what was happening I raised my hand and said that I too would like to speak. I had little idea of what I was going to say.
First up was a planning application for 19 flats on a site by an existing residential area near Bank Mill. It turned out that a large number of people had come to the meeting specifically to raise concerns about this. The proceedings were suspended to allow people to speak, two local residents read their written speeches and the council thanked them. The application was quickly dismissed with the council members citing the numerous policy violations that the development would make. “This is great!” I thought. “The council seem to know exactly what they are talking about and are clear on the policies.” From the extensive work that people had done looking into the numerous policies that the MSCP would conflict with—including Dacorum Borough Council’s own transport and parking policies—I knew that the objections stood up and hoped that the council would be just as diligent in dismissing the application on similar grounds.
Dacorum Borough Council have spent over £350k on putting the application together. Despite spending all of this money, the application is deeply flawed. By deeply, I don’t just mean that there is some controversy over the technical details of impact to traffic flow and air quality (although there is that too!), I mean that it has basic issues such as saying that no trees will be impacted where in fact there are many across the whole of the site and multiple conflicting messages about what the core purpose of the car park is. Many people have written to DBC, Berkhamsted Town Council or commented on the proposal with their objections based on these issues and many are more eloquent or detailed than me.
Everyone agrees that parking in Berkhamsted is a total pain. So much so that there is a local parking forum that meets to discuss the issues. Anecdotally, you only need to drive down Lower King’s Road on a Saturday to experience the cars queuing back from the entrance to Waitrose onto the road itself. However, the ‘solution’ of a MSCP is short-sighted—even the representative of the parking forum said so at the meeting! We are very fortunate to have an independent traffic consultant in the town as well as a number of volunteers who contributed to an independent traffic survey. From the data they collected and the professional model that they used it is clear that there would be additional traffic in the area as well as significant pollution.
Here’s the thing for me—I don’t see how the MSCP will be good for the town whether it is full or not. If it is a ‘success’ and gets filled up with cars as is intended then we will have the added pollution and traffic—the main junction at the high street and Lower King’s Road will both become more of a nightmare than they are today. If it is unsuccessful and people don’t use it then we have spent £3.5m of public money on something that will have changed the character of our town centre for a very long time, with no payback.
Five members of the public spoke against the car park, including me, one after the other. Numerous policy violations were cited as well as yet another recent survey where local residents object to it. The representative of the town’s parking forum expressed disappointment at the lack of engagement from the Council. One final person then spoke in support of it. I learned later that this was Julie Laws, an ex-town councillor and former Mayor of Berkhamsted, who had been significantly involved in putting the original proposal together and was at the DBC Cabinet meeting where this was approved and the money allocated. She asked the room not to listen to the negative voices as they “always speak the loudest.”
Proceedings reconvened and I assumed it was an open and shut case. To my dismay, the councillors then started to give their own speeches in support of the work. First up was Tom Richie, our current Mayor. Incidentally, Mayor Ritchie is also an elected official of Dacorum Borough Council and sits on their Development Control Committee. DBC are the applicants in the planning process and are also have the final say in terms of whether it should be approved. So, Mayor Richie played a part in submitting it, was speaking (and had a vote) in supporting it at the Town Council level and will then assess it when it goes through DBC. Not only was this not declared at the start of the meeting when conflicts of interest were requested, it seems perfectly normal to everyone that this is the way of things! In my role as Chair of Governors at a local primary school I am often thinking about the seven principles of public life that came out of the Nolan report and making sure I ask myself how my actions look; at the very least, this participation as submitter and adjudicator seems to be at odds with the spirit of the principles, if not the letter of them. It feels like democracy theatre. Mayor Ritchie acknowledged that the application was flawed but effectively said that we should not turn down this opportunity to have £3.5m invested in Berkhamsted as the opportunity would not come around again—and we wouldn’t get the money for anything else if we turned it down.
Ian Reay, another former mayor, then spoke. His words reflected that of the Mayor in that we should be taking this forward. He said that we should approve it ‘with concerns’ and try to engage Dacorum Borough Council on the issues. I am not sure what this means in practice.
Councillor Garrick Stevens sat through this, shaking his head at what he was hearing—as did a large number of the public attendees, including people who had come along for the Bank Mill application. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Councillor Stevens made an impassioned plea to his fellow councillors not to approve this due to all of the factors that have been highlighted, however two more councillors spoke in support of the application.
The chair, Julian Ashbourn, then proposed that the Committee vote on the proposal. He offered a choice of rejecting it outright or approving it ‘with strong concerns’. Only one person, Councillor Stevens, voted against it. Everyone around the room was confused as to what this meant and Councillor Stevens himself had to ask for clarification as to what they had all just agreed on. Is ‘approved with strong concerns’ appropriate for a planning application of this magnitude? Councillor Stevens finished by saying “Right. You’ve sold yourselves down the river,” and this is exactly how we felt.
Where can we go from here? I get the impression that the majority of the councillors are keen to do something rather than the thing that is best for Berkhamsted. I do not see why there is such a rush to get this through. For example, could we test the impact of a temporary two-storey structure such as the one that was erected at the train station? These can be hired (for a lot less than £3.5m I assume) and would surely give a good insight into what would happen with an additional six storeys?
The Conservative councillors had the car park in their manifesto and I assume that they feel they are delivering on what they have promised, leaving a legacy for all of us. Many of us believe that we should be pressing pause and thinking again, but no matter how loudly we speak or clear our arguments, it doesn’t seem that we are being heard.