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Northgate End multi-storey: Online petition serves the interests of a disaffected minority who cannot accept need for change

By Chas Gill

Northgate End car park planned entrance and exit
Northgate End car park planned entrance and exit

Indie columnist Chas Gill says an online petition against the proposed 546-space car park at Northgate End is all well and good, but what about the silent majority?

I think the world might be going petition mad. We are seeing so many of late. A petition is a demand for a course of action when we fear we won’t get what we want by conventional means.

A referendum is an admission by our decision-makers that they don’t want the sole responsibility for making certain decisions on our behalf.

In both cases we get drawn in to matters that are normally left to our elected representatives to resolve and, in doing so, we can find ourselves somewhat out of our depth.

The fundamental worry about these instruments is that they are in danger of asking leading questions which can influence the result, or of making inappropriate demands based on misconceptions.

How many times has it been suggested in recent months that, knowing what we know now, a lot of us might have voted differently in the Brexit referendum? Similarly, a knee-jerk reaction to an emotive petition can gain high numbers of signatures, even though the demands of the petition may be ill-informed and/or misleading.

We have seen two examples of petitions lately: a campaign to “Save Rhodes” and now another urging the district council to abandon its proposal for the new multi-storey car park at Northgate End.

I cannot speak for the current planning committee at East Herts, but I know from past experience that they will have seen thoroughly reasoned arguments, based upon masses of research data from the case officers, to back up the proposal for this car park. Its construction is the next logical step in the delivery of the Old River Lane regeneration project.

Any petition based upon emotive statements and opinion cannot stand in the face of factual casework and the petition will probably fail for that reason alone. But does it have value as an expression of strong feelings by the local community?

Well, we have had a wealth of opportunities since 2016 to comment via local consultations on both the town planning framework and the Old River Lane proposal. Following these consultations, which received good public support, the district council agreed on December 13 last year to the land use proposals and work has proceeded on that basis.

All of these consultations have shown that the current Causeway car park would need to close and the land be repurposed for the development to proceed. These consultations have always suggested a multi-storey replacement car park at Northgate End and general opinion has been in favour of the scheme, so why the petition now?

It feels to me like a last-ditch attempt to preserve amenity for the few at the expense of the many. This petition is economical with the truth and worded to serve the interests of a disaffected minority who, perhaps understandably, cannot accept the need for change or progress.

Let’s be very clear about the significance of this minority. As I write, about 700 signatures have been secured. That seems a lot until we remind ourselves that another 37,000 or so citizens (97%) will have either declined to sign it or, more likely, not been given the opportunity to say one way or another.

That’s the trouble with petitions. What do we do about the silent majority? What do they want? I’m guessing most of them would not sign because they want better car parking or they want Old River Lane to happen. But they simply aren’t being given an opportunity to say that; they are just being conveniently left out.

And when did any of us ever come across a petition signature collector that gave an unbiased account of both sides of the story? No petition ever carries the names of those who didn’t sign because they were against it. Or those who weren’t even asked. It is a referendum without a “Yes” box to tick, and unless it truly reveals hitherto undiscovered and valid reasons to reconsider the case then it has no relevance and has to be ignored.

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