Ray Dawe: Horsham’s car parking charges remain competitive

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There have been various emails, tweets and Facebook entries to the council and in the County Times over some weeks now about parking and the prices that are charged in Horsham town car parks.

At the same time, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has, in his indomitable fashion, waded into the world of car parking charging saying that councils shouldn’t charge too much.

When people write about parking charges or indeed any other charge, there is usually the underlying comment that these are too high and that somehow the council is profiteering from them. Though quite who gains from this extra “profit” is always unstated. In fact it is of course the council tax payer!

More specific comments have been critical of the introduction of a £1 charge for the two hour period from 6 to 8pm in some Horsham car parks (while in fact still leaving others very nearby free at that time). Again the request is that this charge should be dropped regardless of the effect of it on council finances. I am always surprised that the relatively modest charge for parking in Horsham is seen by some correspondents as unfair yet car parks have to be run, repaired and money found to do this. They do not last forever and the fuel to get there is undoubtedly more expensive than the cost to park in an attractive town that offers such easy access to its shops and restaurants with such easy parking.

I can understand that no one likes paying increased or new charges but like all councils we face a very financially challenging situation. Councils basically get their money from three sources: council tax which everyone pays regardless of which services they use, grant money from central government and income from things like charges for leisure facilities and parking. At the same time the council needs to be as efficient as possible and we have saved over £7 million in overhead costs in the last five years with a requirement to save more again over the next two years.

Councils don’t make a profit. In simple terms they take in money from residents and then spend it to maintain existing services for those same residents. The sums involved may vary from year to year but over the mid term we have to balance the books. The obvious alternative to increasing parking charges would be to increase council tax for everyone regardless of whether they used the car parks or not.

The amount of grant money from the government has been reduced by over 30 per cent since 2010 and is about to be reduced by at least a further ten per cent next year. This then puts pressure on the remaining two of the three income areas that I have mentioned. At the same time, in order to balance the books and given the increasing shortfall in funding that is happening then councils will either need to look at increased charges or cut back on the services they provide while looking for more big efficiency savings.

Although it collects the council tax on behalf of the county council, parish councils and the police, Horsham District Council only keeps about nine per cent of the amount it collects. The rest is passed onto the other authorities. Horsham District Council in fact charges one of the lowest council taxes in the country.

Last year we introduced a charge for garden waste collection. This is not a service we have to provide and we chose to make a charge for those people wanting it rather than cut it back or increase council tax for everyone. In fact last year was the fourth year with no increase in general council tax nor have we cut any services.

So yes, we need to operate the council even more efficiently and reduce our overhead costs - this has to happen and is happening - but even there there is a limit. Such changes also take time. We believe that car parking charges in Horsham remain very competitive compared with surrounding areas and we will continue to monitor them carefully to see if there is any detrimental effect on business. No-one likes paying increased or new charges but that £1 for two hours car parking if it didn’t exist would mean the need to find another £1 elsewhere!