And who better to query on the issue than Mr Iain Wallis, I ask you? Take a deep breath…
As I sit in my car doing up the windows this extraordinarily fine February afternoon, I look around at our notable Market Place where I’ve parked. It’s a beautiful centre of town, it could look even better if it wasn’t a carpark. Yet needs must, in busy market towns, parking is thorny at the best of times, not forgoing pressure on local business to attract shoppers. The Market Place has historically been functional firstly, before ascetically pleasing; for whatever the need be at the time. In times of yore the market would spawn here, still does, social events and fairs came and went, and no doubt will again, no matter what the outcome of the current issue.
Yet I’m only planning to nip into the bank, only wish to be five-ten minutes. I wonder what would become of this convenience if these changes take place, I’d have to find on-street parking, tricky now, without all these other cars parked here trying to do likewise. Or I could use a pay-carpark, minimum one hour at 80p. Secretly, that’s what Wiltshire Council want me to do.
If you think they’d like to see our town centre a thriving, festive place, as they’ve suggested, then you’re very much mistaken, caved no doubt, into the fabrications. I labelled all this to “Devizes own Brexit,” but retract this lambast, for I fail to see why anyone would really want to reduce parking options, no matter what Councillors may be attempting to convince us of.
The environmental angle is a no-brainer, as it’d surely be chaos trying to find on street parking; cars moving slowly in jammed traffic far worse than cars parked.
We’ve done a few spoof articles on this fiasco, my serious attempt at communicating with Town Clerk Simon Fisher probably more amusing than the spoof one. His failure to deal with the questions, and “this is going to happen, the population of Devizes agrees,” brashness only fed the feeling of locals that The Devizes Town Council, and in particular the majority party, Devizes Guardians, are sadly and seriously out of touch on this decision; whatcha gonna do?
Two things, one: we’re going to rap with Mr Iain Wallis, lord help me, as a local businessman who is fiercely crusading against the proposal, making it the focal point of his independent campaign for a seat on the council. And two: let you know, if you didn’t already, there’s a rumble in the jungle, as far as local politics will endure, in the Market Place on Saturday.
The Town Council host a “drop in” session, despite expressing they didn’t wish to, outside Greggs between 10am and 2pm. Campaigners Devizes Future Market Place Group, plan to gather at Times Square to gather findings and collate “alternative concepts for the Market Place.”
“It’s so important the council listen on this issue, as they still claim the public are on their side, which is just bonkers,” Iain explains. “We’re not just a group of grumpy shopkeepers…” Ahem, “well, okay, perhaps a little grumpy! We’re really concerned that this move could lead to closures and a real loss to the community.” Iain has taken a backseat in hosting campaigns due to election rules. “As it happens the whole election thing went well, we kept this issue in the news cycle for a month and the Devizes Guardians got a wakeup call; if Karen and I hadn’t made such a fuss they probably would have walked the election once again.”
But this must be what Wiltshire Council wants; desperate to rake back cash from Government cuts, they’ve reduced their workload by parring off certain powers to town councils, as a “transfer of assets and services,” but not without ultimatums. Maintaining control of car parking, their position must be to obliviate free car parking, and being the public outcry about doing thus in the Devizes Market Place was prevalent, they proposed it be pedestrianised, for the sake of hosting events.
It sounds more threat than progressive change to me, because despite in an ideal world, a lively bustling Market Place with regular events and festivities is something Devizine, as an entertainment guide would support, as would most of us, the reality is that the Market Place can be, and has been, closed for special occasions and events, if and when the need be. The remaining time, being as you can’t have Christmas every day, it currently serves its best purpose as a car park. On a cold Tuesday morning, it’s hardly likely to attract a mob of crazy revellers, hot on partying like it was Glastonbury Festival 1975, now is it?
“We just want the town council to admit there are flaws in their plan and to sit down with us and Wiltshire Council to sort something out that works better for all.” Continues Mr Wallis. “If Wiltshire Council is the problem, then DTC needs to stop acting like their bulletproof-vest and stand behind us, so as a town, we can hammer something out. The more they declare they’re doing the best for the town the more WC can hide behind them and let them take all the flack.”
Melksham has already suffered with a lonely, vacant space in its centre, only occasionally occupied by something of interest. Townsfolk comment on our online debates about it, tell us it was a mistake to allow this to happen. Often laughing at our difference of opinions, Iain takes a joke well, yet I find myself strongly agreeing with him on this. “Would the campaign groups then,” I must ask, “rather DC refuse the transfer deal, if it means we keep free parking in the Market Place?”
“So, this is a really complex point,” Iain tells me. Glutton for punishment me! “Basically, almost two years ago Philip Whitehead made a demand for an extra £95k from Devizes, which he thinks he could make from charging in the Market Place. To make it clear he has no legal basis to make this demand and carried out no impact assessments. He even said in a meeting that he wanted to charge because he could get the money that way, not that it was best for Devizes. He then suggested that by removing parking completely he thought he would also get the money as he would displace free parking to the paid for car parks – he could be wrong on this as studies suggest people will just go elsewhere.”
“Cue many meetings where DTC were obsessed with the Market Place and the businesses wanted to look at parking as a whole. We felt we may be able to get a deal that makes people want to use the parking whether it was free or paid for. This could mean losing free parking but getting cheaper parking overall, or something like that. Basically, we were open to anything that meant: a, people visited the town more, and b, have the flexibility the market place currently offer.”
“To cut a long story short, DTC gave away their bargaining power with WC and started to give in. I then brought Philip back to the table by going to the press, which annoyed him hugely but in that meeting he said ‘okay, what do you want?’ He then agreed to consider what we were asking for – including a free parking period. After that meeting however, I was told that the working group would have to be suspended whilst the asset transfer went through as that may ‘sort out’ the Market Place issue. I and others asked to input during this process and were told that we couldn’t as it was secret so we stepped aside assuming that if there was an issue we would be called back to help.”
“Instead the council, almost none of whom want parking removed, agreed to this deal in order to take ownership of the market place. They say they don’t like it but had no choice. They did have a choice. They could have walked away from the table, come back to the town, and told us WC were trying to force their arm. If they had done that, we would have all supported them and for the last month I would have been a thorn in the side of WC instead!”
“What we want, essentially, is for DTC to say that they won’t accept removal of parking and go back to the table with proposals for mixed use. At the moment that probably looks like losing 30 spaces to community space, keeping 40 and making them chargeable for up to two hours with 30 minutes free. We would also want x number of free parking days for the main events each year so events don’t have to fork out £20 a space just to use the Market Place.”
Tell you what, it all seems fair enough to me, an opinion piece here; I don’t stand on convention, it never stood on me. Yet, how easy is this to pull off?
“We don’t think it will be easy,” continued Mr Wallis, who I have to salute for his passion on this issue, just don’t ask him his life story! No, he loves me really, of that I’m certain! “But if they did do the above then the pressure would be on WC and I believe they would cave as it’s a small price to pay to shut us up.”
Please, Devizes Town Council, just do as he says! All in all, though, the convenience of parking free, for just a few moments to fulfil a simple chore like nipping into the bank seems like a small favour to ask, the idea it could be a thing of the past is something of an urban nightmare, lets hope it doesn’t come true in our pleasant little town.
Adverts & All That!