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Northgate End multi-storey: My win-win-win for short-stay town centre visitors, businesses and all us residents

By any measure, it is a disaster. The Northgate End multi-storey car park is drastically underused and is nowhere near paying for itself as well as being an intrusive neighbour, writes Bishop’s Stortford Independent Letters page correspondent Stephen Cronie.

It was created by East Herts Council, which is now having to subsidise it, though it is us residents who will ultimately have to pay through increased charges such as parking or reduced services.

According to the ‘free spaces’ sign before it was removed, when empty it said 583 spaces. On weekdays it never got below 420, in the last few months never below 460 (21% full). So it is only about a quarter full, getting less popular and empties out quickly in the early evening.

Northgate End multi-storey car park
Northgate End multi-storey car park

Luckily there are evidenced solutions to start filling more spaces, which would also generate considerable extra customers for town centre businesses.

Solutions that are taken from the same source as Bishop’s Stortford BID manager Gina Thomas’s rejected town centre workers’ parking permit scheme, which was a reworking of ideas originally in the Labour Party’s response to this newspaper’s request for parking ideas before the 2019 district council elections, later picked up by Tory backbench councillor Holly Drake and proposed to the EHC leadership in a wider effort to improve parking.

The basis for much of the Labour/Drake/Thomas ideas was evidence from the AECOM Bishop’s Stortford Parking Study 2019, which found – to no one’s surprise – there were “severe issues with parking space availability in the town centre”.

It proved that all council car parks were full on weekdays if they allowed long-stay parking (ignoring Grange Paddocks, as not central). For car parks that allowed both long and short stay, they were clogged up with 80-83% (aggregated) long-stayers, claimed to be train commuters avoiding inflated railway station prices, who displaced short-stay parking.

Jackson Square multi-storey was used by 68% of all short-stay visitors who used council car parks on weekdays, 19% used the Causeway car park and 13% all the others combined. For short visits to the town, the parking choice was, realistically, Jackson Square or the Causeway surface-level car park, for those who did not get on with multi-storeys (or their vehicle didn’t).

In other words, the AECOM study showed that Stortford is a key commuter hub, for town and catchment area, which relies on town centre as well as station parking. As long-stayers got there earlier, they were crowding out short-stayers, leaving the only spare weekday short-stay capacity on the Causeway. Jackson Square defined, and still defines, where the high footfall areas of the town are.

Since the study, a lot has changed. The result of the Holly Drake work was that the Tory leadership agreed to expand residential parking zones (RPZs) to stop commuters parking in the streets, effectively increasing the demand for long-stay car park spaces. Ideas to increase available short-stay spaces were rejected.

These decisions, along with the forced closure of the Causeway and Charringtons car parks when Northgate End opened, were to coerce people into using the new multi-storey, as then Tory EHC leader Linda Haysey was worried about it not covering its costs.

Northgate End was a prerequisite for the Old River Lane development, Haysey’s ruthlessly protected legacy project. The post-Covid surge in working from home has significantly reduced commuter numbers. Also, with the Causeway closures, there are drastically fewer surface short-stay spaces available.

As other town centre car parks are still full and Northgate End was to replace three packed car parks, it is quite an achievement to be failing so badly. We need a survey to find why people are rejecting Northgate End to stop it becoming a white elephant and a long-term burden.

People giving up on visiting Stortford town centre is not new. Even though it is the largest town in a huge catchment area, it has long underperformed as a shopping destination, due anecdotally to the frustrating experience of its congested road system, limited parking spaces and lack of signage for infrequent visitors.

The simple part of the solution – to fill more of Northgate End and facilitate more short-stay visitors – is to ban long-stay parking in Apton Road and Basbow Lane and provide some encouragement for long-stayers to move into Northgate End.

Long-stayers have proven themselves very motivated to seek out parking – unsurprisingly, as their livelihood is involved – so would be more tolerant than short-stayers of Northgate End’s inconveniences.

The freed-up short-stay spaces would almost definitely be filled by those wanting surface parking, the long-time latent demand and the more recent rapidly increasing town and catchment area populations. It would be a win-win-win, for short-stay visitors, central businesses trading and all us residents needing to subsidise Northgate End losses.

As someone who has driven around Apton Road and Basbow Lane car parks hunting for a space many times, and failing to find one much more often than succeeding, I now rarely ever try these car parks. I know there is very likely huge unmet demand for extra short-stay spaces. But habits get formed, and it will need a campaign to encourage people to try Stortford again, maybe when TK Maxx is opened. Habit re-forming may also require discounts, such as in Gina Thomas’s scheme, temporarily.

Also frustrating shoppers away is the long-unresolved problem of Jackson Square multi-storey’s exit and its erratic flow and occasional long standstills locking people in. The exit needs an assured share of the priority to access Adderley Road, to get some consistency of flow, even when roads are busy.

Reopening the Causeway car park, as numerous have requested, is not a viable alternative solution because of EHC’s finances being on the edge of bankruptcy. The council is committed to paying off borrowing worth over seven years of council tax. It does not currently have the income to support itself and the previous Tory leadership used up nearly all the borrowing capacity.

Demolishing Northgate End is not viable. It has to stop being a huge financial drain, which means the Causeway and Charringtons car parks are redundant and necessitate the ORL site’s redevelopment, somehow.

What was important to EHC’s last Tory leadership was "talking the talk" of working for the town’s benefit, because until the May elections, that was enough to keep them in power. Actually "walking the walk" was lower down the priorities, to the point where town centre businesses gave up on EHC and created the BID to represent them.

The new entrusted EHC Green Party and Liberal Democrat leadership will not survive beyond the next elections by just "talk" alone – they need to clearly demonstrate they are better at running the town for everyone’s benefit, such as fixing Northgate End.

The Tories’ legacy ORL mess is going to take a lot of fixing, mostly at residents’ expense, but Northgate End does not have to cost us, and we could finally start to unleash the town centre’s potential.

Stephen Cronie, RestoreEastHertsDemocracy@gmail.com

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