Trucking absurd

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?

2:44pm, 29th August 2009

2:44pm, 29th August 2009

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.

8:08pm, 18th August 2008

8:08pm, 18th August 2008

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.

From the Express & Star, 4th August 2009

From the Express & Star, 4th August 2009

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.

8:13pm, 18th August 2009: not a traffic warden in sight...

8:13pm, 18th August 2009: not a traffic warden in sight...

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?

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11 Responses to Trucking absurd

  1. Walsall Guy says:

    Interesting results of your FOI enquiry. This shows, as I have said on several occasions, that Walsall Council do not wish to undertake full, open and honest consultation with ‘us’ as it is not contollable and the outcome may not support what they wish to do in any given situation. They are an organisation that over use ‘spin’ to support and promote their own views and ends to such an extent they appear to be ethically bankrupt. I wish I had your confidence in the Walsall Council Leader, Mr Bird to act ethically and openly in such matters and in his leadership at these important and challenging times.

    Some Walsall Councillors need a sharp lesson to remind them that they were elected to serve all the people of Walsall and that we are not here to ‘serve’ them!!

    I hope that your blog will be read in the right places and Walsall Council will surprise us both and prove that it is not to late by fully reviewing this proposed change and maybe even consulting more openly.

    Once again thanks to you for the excellent service and input that you provide for the local good.

    WalsallGuy

  2. stymaster says:

    I’ll probably make several comments on this article- another well-written one that will take several reads to digest fully- but for atarters:

    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.

    Have you ever tried getting from the A5 to the M5 (or even to one of the service areas on the M6) in rush hour?

  3. Arkrite says:

    Thanks Bob for once again ressurecting childhood memories. That lorry park was certainly there in the fifties.It was a source of fascination for me and my mates.This was a time when young boys wanted to drive lorries,buses and railway engines. Only gods flew aeroplanes.
    We played amongst Leylands,Atkinsons, ERFs, Thames Traders and ex Army Bedfords. They smelled of hot oil and diesel fuel which they liberally dripped over the mud and chipping surface. Having many times had the backs of my legs slapped for taking it into the house on the soles of my shoes.
    Honest labour in England is rare,it now being service industry done from nice clean offices. I remember Walsall Wood for its Coal mines , Brickworks and Sand quarries. I suppose its all computer terminals

  4. Andrew says:

    Interesting and well written article. The consulation at Chuckery consisted of 28 young people on one night. The youth service could not say how many young people live in Chuckery!

    The moral is to join in every bit of consultation offered. There is one open at the moment for an elected mayor. I don’t agree with elected mayors but I agree even less with one party states controlled by people who are paid (I almost typed earn – but they don’t earn it) more than the Prime Minister. I am not sure what local councillors do – as sure as eggs is eggs it aint listening to people but if they people do not speak how can they be heard.

  5. stymaster says:

    I’ve commented to my better half many times about the fact that Walsall
    Wood still has a busy High St. The cafe, despite my false statement of
    doom, remains in business. There’s 4 pubs and a hotel, all still in
    business, and several long-standing food aoutlets as you say. It’s one of the things I like about where I live.

    There’s a lot of factors at work here, but the lorry park is certainly
    one of them. The current ability to park for free (and importantly in
    the High St outside the door
    ) is another. That isn’t a factor for
    me- I’m close enough to walk as fast as I could drive- but other people
    live further away and/or are lazier, so wish to drive.

    I do feel that the taxi firm is being unfairly victimised. They have to
    park somewhere, and I like having a taxi firm nearby. Of course,
    they should park legally.

    The businesses in the High St feed off each other to some degree- the takeaways make money from pub customers and vice versa. I know for a fact that I’m not the only person who orders a takeaway and goes for a couple of pints to wait for it. The 2 newsagents and convenience stores survive by being competitive and spreading their hours.

    It is true that the lorry park is still reasonably well used and well known- a colleague is an ex lorry driver, and hardly knows the borough at all, but knew of the lorry park when he learned where we lived. Also, I regularly see several trucks there, and I pass nearly every day.

    Regarding the parking you’ve pictured near the gym, there’s what killed off the Somerfield at Streets Corner. People driving to the gym to use excercise machines- but we’ve commented on that before.

    Local democracy seems to be a somewhat patchy experience.

    Sad, isn’t it. People unfortunately don’t care enough to get involved in the consultation, and the local councillors were unaware of or unwilling to notice the petition. I mailed Mike Flower about it…

    Incidentally, have you noticed how his blog has now had comments turned off? Does he still frequent Twatter, or have Walsall MBC beaten the enthusiasm out of him?

  6. The Plastic Hippo says:

    Consultation? Walsall? Excuse me…

  7. dinkey says:

    I think the plastic hippo just farted!

  8. stymaster says:

    Walsall did do a consultation, surprisingly, it’s just hardly anyone responded. I must have been one of the few.

  9. Schwannschwein says:

    With regard to recent comments about the use of blogging sites for voicing opinions about local issues, I have to disagree with some of the comments expressed. The web may be faceless and it may seem that discussing issues face to face is a more authentic experience…However, I think that to dismiss it and ignore its value as a vehicle for gaugung public opinion is a big mistake. Like it or not we are slap bang in the middle ofa technolgiical revolution and this is particulalrly pertinent in relation to the way in which we communicate and receive information. Politics has long been in trouble. In an ideal world it may be better for people to raise issues with their elected representatives in person but the relaity is that so many are either disillusioned or indifferent that this does not happen. You only have to look at turn out at local elections to see this. I admire people who stand as councillors and politicians in that they are at least prepared to get up and do something Good for them. And I have to say that I would have thought that the web and blog sites are surely one way in which councillors and politicians can reengage with their public. To ignore it and underestimate its power within a modern democracy is surely naive.

  10. stymaster says:

    @Schwannschwein:

    Agree with everything you say, with the exception of:

    I admire people who stand as councillors and politicians in that they are at least prepared to get up and do something Good for them.

    Some politicians and councillors do that, and I do admire and respect them for their convictions. Some, however, just do it to wield a bit of power and get on the gravy train. Sorry for the cynicism :-).

    Politics is in huge trouble. This is why people don’t get involved. All the ‘usual’ political parties play the same games, run the same scams, and are as ineffectual as each other.

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