There’s been a vehicle park on the corner between Beechtree Road and Brookland Road in Walsall Wood for as long as I can remember. I’ve tried to find out when the small patch of hardstanding was first laid, and folk I’ve spoken to certainly remember the area, and the cafe nearby, as existing back in the fifties. Back then, the establishment was rumoured to be host to activities involving women of negotiable virtue, but the overnight parking of lorries and commercial vehicles has continued there for decades. Maintaining a village atmosphere, despite straddling the A461, Walsall Wood sits on one of the primary freight trunk routes that heavy goods vehicles traverse on their daily schedules, and the lorry parking and abundance of food outlets clearly provides a valuable service to these latterday warriors of the road. In fact, Walsall Wood is unusual locally (and possibly, nationally) in that it has just one empty retail unit in it’s High Street – there is food of every description, as well as more regular enterprises like the convenience stores and newsagents. The local businesses and residents have coexisted in this manner for decades, with only occasional bouts of irritation.
It’s against this backdrop that Walsall Council plan to commission a red route along the length of the A461 through Walsall Wood, under the guise of regeneration. Despite traffic usually flowing pretty freely through the Wood, parking on the High Street will be limited after the scheme, and in mitigation, the council offered to resurface the Beechtree Road Park and offer a selection of solutions for the site afterwards. Traders and residents were polled, and consultations were held. The result was apparently decisively in favour of banishing lorries from the Beechtree Road facility and resurfacing it as a ’24 hour shoppers car park’. The people were consulted, and they spoke. Job done, publicise the change, act on it and move on. Who could argue with that?
I, and a few other folks have a number of issues with the plan, although it’s certainly too late now. Planning permission has been applied for the change in use, duly granted and the scheme is certain to go ahead as and when the red route does. However, I think it’s worth looking at some of the facts and subsequent publicity that have circulated over the issue. My position here is simple; I think the reason that the village retains a bustling commercial centre is because the HGV trade contributes to the financial wellbeing of the businesses here, and I think that such a longstanding facility, although probably affecting local residents to some extent, is the kind of price a community pays for its prosperity. Most of us live near something that irritates us and we’d rather see removed, but unpopular stuff simply has to go somewhere. Indeed, a petition was raised against the removal of HGV parking, consisting of 200 signatures, but to no avail.
Alerted to the issue mainly by the local press, I watched and participated in discussions on Councillor Mike Flower’s blog, in which the Lorry Park was always described in the terms of a problem that needed to be ‘solved’ in some way. Mike Flower has certainly worked very hard – with the best of intentions, I’m sure – for his projects in Walsall Wood. It’s true that his early tenure was marked by a difficult planning process which generated no small amount of public ire over the plan to build accommodation for people with Learning Disabilities in Brookland Road. This confrontation between planning and residential issues certainly seems to have informed later council work in Walsall Wood, and I suspect that an eagerness to please was developed by all concerned. There is also a side issue ongoing, that of the Private Hire business operating from Walsall Wood High Street, many of whose vehicles use the park while waiting up. One of the matters colouring the council position seems to be that the business is somehow undesirable, and should be controlled.
Since the consultation took place, the council has been talking up the planned changes quite heavily in the local press. Articles like this one, from the Express & Star of 11th August 2009 appeared extensively, and several also mentioned a figure of 80% public support for banning the lorries, as quoted in associated planning documentation (PDF file, Adobe Reader required). Since I had voted in the online poll myself, I was interested to see the actual numbers involved in the consultation, and subsequently submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to find out the exact data. From this data, it appears that there were 18 participants in the original consultation with 15 in favour, and of the fuller, later process, just 83 votes were received, with 61 voting in favour. Thus it would appear that 76 people in total – assuming that nobody participated in both, or voted multiple times in the online survey – dictated the future of this major facility in Walsall Wood. A petition signed by 200 people was raised in opposition. Bear in mind that the recorded population for the ward of Aldridge North and Walsall Wood is nearly 13,000. Local democracy seems to be a somewhat patchy experience.
Once the changes had been approved, a rather strange article appeared in the Express & Star on the 4th of August 2009, which is scanned here. In the article, the changes are trumpeted, along with a statement attributed to council leader Mike Bird. In the statement quoted, he curiously asserts that the park is ‘…very rarely used by lorries these days and tends instead to be full of taxis.’, with the article also stating that Taxis would be forced to pay and display to park there.
I’m sure a man of Mr. Bird’s stature and position would not knowingly tell outright lies, but one must question the observational skills of the person who produced the information forming the basis of that statement. Pictures within this article – taken in the weeks after it appeared – show the park in use by HGV’s, even early on a summer evening. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen it empty, most nights there are four or five wagons parked up there. The plan to persecute the local taxi firm, by making them pay to park whilst the facility is free to everyone else seems rather peculiar, too. A less gentlemanly commentator may suggest there are base reasons for this, but that would clearly be a gross supposition with no basis in fact. Such a charge wouldn’t have any effect on the perceived nuisance, so one must assume that it’s mere mischief making by a hard-up council. Since many of the vehicles parked along the High Street on any given day are those of employees of the various businesses located nearby, one imagines they will end up in the car park when the red route comes to pass. It seems rather iniquitous to charge taxis for using the car park but not other local workers.
The imminent closure of the HGV facility came to the attention of freelance transport journalist Chris Tindall, who writes articles for various trade journals within the freight and haulage industry. Chris contacted me after spotting my freedom of information request on Whatdotheyknow.com, and pointed out that the continued loss of such facilities nationwide was affecting the security and wellbeing of drivers, who prefer to lay up overnight in designated parks where other drivers are nearby. Lorry hijackings are on the increase, and lorries parked in remote laybys and industrial estates are vulnerable to robbery and attack.
Chris received an initial, somewhat pointed statement from Walsall cabinet member for regeneration, Councillor Adrian Andrew:
“Through several local consultations led by local residents and local councillors local people who live in the area on a permanent basis have expressed the view to have the lorry park changed into an ordinary car park. The council is duty bound to listen to the taxpayers of this borough. Its unfortunate that those who are now lobbying to have this decision reversed did not engage in the consultation process at an earlier stage. I want to congratulate and thank all those Walsall Wood residents for getting involved in the process at an early stage to determine the future of their community”
It seems rather presumptuous of Mr. Andrew to assume that those who oppose his worldview are neither permanently resident in the borough, nor taxpayers here. I certainly registered my vote, but I doubt many in the wider area were aware of the consultation. Chris Tindall’s first article appeared on roadtransport.com, here.
Subsequently, Chris also queried Walsall Council as to whether they had any intention of providing an alternate facility, and Councillor Andrew issued a second statement:
“There are no proposals to provide additional or replacement lorry parking facilities in the borough as we feel there is sufficient parking on other sites located nearby. The council does not have a statutory duty to provide any lorry parking facilities but we do have a large site in Willenhall and in addition there is overnight parking for lorries on the M5 and M6 and other parks which are easily accessible from the A5 north of the borough.
We are duty bound to listen to our taxpayers and both residents and traders in the local community took part in the consultations held at Walsall Wood library which was well advertised. All those who took part in the questionnaire did so anonymously and it is the council’s policy not to give out the names of people who respond to questionnaires or attend public consultations.
Planning permission to change the site to a car park only was granted in August but it is unlikely any changes will take place for approximately six months as the off street parking places order needs to be amended, advertised and approved before anything can happen. Notices will be erected on the site advising lorry drivers of the changes and the need to find alternate facilities.”
I can almost picture the cabinet member tapping the desk pointedly when he dictated that, possibly whilst sighing impatiently. The irritation is almost tangible. A second article by Chris was published on roadtransport.com, here.
It seems to me that whilst modern society relies on freight transport, we don’t actually want to think about it, or the people who do it for us. Haulage related crime is increasing, as often lone drivers marshall valuable cargoes between distribution depots with minimal protection or security. These are real people, with real concerns, who provide an essential service to us – yet we don’t want any evidence of their occupation near us, even if it does provide a small corner of our borough with much-needed trade. It would not be so bad if Walsall Council were so keen on consultation in planning matters where the result affected them; I bet there won’t be a public vote on moving the council depot to the former Wagon site, nor was there on the new Ring Road. The mess that was the Chuckery Youth Centre debacle illustrates this duality well. In this case, our authority seems happy to sacrifice the trade and wellbeing of HGV drivers for a little nimby stroking. Next time your laptop gets lost by the courier, or your new TV doesn’t arrive, try not to imagine that it could have been taken from a terrified driver in a lonely lay-by at knifepoint.
Meanwhile, on the evening of 18th August 2009, a familiar scene was in evidence further along the A461 opposite Oak Park. Here we have real parking issues causing a hazard to pedestrians, yet the council are strangly silent on the matter. I wonder why?