I manage a small office and shopping centre for a property company. They, the property company, bought the site from a Quango back in the mid 1990's. A Quango if you do not know what that is in the UK is a:
Quasi Autonomous Non Governmental Body in essence what it means is that they are Government Funded with a seemingly Bottomless Pit of money and in many instances with Power and Authority and in some cases power and authority to run rough shod over local authorities in planning matters. If you want to know more about that here is an interesting article that appeared in the Daily Telegraph back in 2009, but do please pop back and read the rest of my little ramble, it's about a newspaper and a local BBC outlet!
So, this site I manage, it has a car park with around 400 parking spaces on it and being a generous and magnanimous local landlord the company who own it has and still does allow free parking on a 24/7 basis. However, the site also has a very large permanent street market on it that has existed since the 1970's, prior to that the market was a stone's throw away and I do literally mean a stone's throw.
Problems started to arise when the local Tesco and retail park also in very close proximity to our site , imposed restrictions on parking and while the parking was still free, a time limit of three hours was imposed, remain after that time and you would have to pay a parking charge. Now, we and the other two sites mentioned also share another common thread in that we are all within walking distance of the local rail station and so commuters who did not want to pay for parking over there were using either the retail park or Tesco car parks and walking the few minutes to the station.
However, when both of these introduced limited parking, commuters started to park in our car park. Again, we were not to bothered to begin with, but, we did notice that while the car park was usually about half full on most days most of our tenant shops were seeing no appreciable increase, if any, in sales/ turnover. In addition of course this was having an impact on market days as well when we needed every space and we needed to have a turnover of visitors to maximise the footfall to the market.
So, we imposed restrictions similar to the other retailers in the area but unlike them we employed a chap who walked round the car park on market days and put Vehicle registration numbers into a hand held device. He would walk round all day and eventually if he put a registration in that had been recognised as having been there for more than the allowed three hours, than a parking charge notice would be issued. The other units installed number plate recognition cameras to do this for them, which at the end of the day was/is a much more viable way of doing it in terms of making sure that anyone overstaying the three hour limit would have to pay the parking charge and then think twice about doing it again!
SO, eventually we also decided to go down this route as we knew, without being critical of the chap employed to go round with the device, that it was a boring repetitive and tedious task, and we also know that some cars were being missed. We took the decision to change to the automatic number plate recognition system in late May early June with a commissioning date set for mid July. All went well and the system was installed and trialled. The signs we had in the car park were replaced, 10 of them that included one on the public highway before entering the car park and flyers and leaflets were put in all of the local shops. The only difference this time was that instead of enforcing the three hour limit on market days only we would also do as the other retail units around us had done and make it 24/7. Bearing in mind that I have been getting quotes recently to re-surface the car park and the cheapest one obtained was in the region of £400k and that is a cost that the tenants have to pay for on the service charge. So while we were not expecting to make a profit from the introduction of the scheme, my thinking behind it was that any monies raised, once the capital outlay for the cameras, etc, had been met, could be off set against the repair and maintenance bill, which I believe is a reasonable stance to adopt, you'd think!
So what has all of this got to do with the press and the BBC that I mentioned earlier?
Well, about a month ago, which would have been a month into the new system I received a phone call from a local BBC Essex Radio reporter. He introduced himself and then proceeded to tell me that he was calling to investigate a story, as a result of complaints received from local residents, on the introduction of car parking fees to a long established and local council car park! He went on to inform me that prior to making the call he had in fact established that the car park in question did not in fact have anything to do with the local authority in question. Did I have a comment?
Well, as a matter of fact I did. I started off by jumping past the local authority thing and said that in actual fact the car park was as it always has been in the past, FREE, to anyone who wished to use it, but for the benefit of the tenants in the shops and offices and for the market we were restricting the period of FREE parking to THREE hours every day and not just on Market days, so there really is no reason for anyone to feel that they are being charged as long as they comply with our reasonable directions not to exceed that time limit.
Secondly, I enquired if he had called the local retail park or the local Tesco Extra to make the same enquiry of them. This question was at first met with silence and so I repeated it only to have the reply to me of, " I don't understand why you are asking me about these other places and why you are being so aggressive about this, why should I be contacting these other places, it is you I am talking to"?
"Well", said I, "the reason I am asking is that in your introduction to me you told me who you were and why you were calling and you said that you were calling, to investigate a story, as a result of complaints received from local residents, on the introduction of car parking fees to a long established and local council car park! You then told me that you had established that we were not in fact 'a local authority' before you called me, is that correct", I asked. "Yes" he responded. "So. I will ask you again", says I, "why are you phoning. You receive calls complaining about the introduction of parking fees where none apply to a council car park that is not a council car park and UNLESS they overstay the three hours and then you tell me that you have not investigated the same thing happening with two other businesses who did exactly the same thing some 18 months before we did. And then you accuse me of being aggressive in my responses, why do you think that is"? I ask "I've no idea why you are responding to me like this he says, It's not as if I am trying to do an expose". "Yes, but forgive me for being so obviously obtuse here, but having established before you made the phone call to me today wasting both of our time, why did you think you needed to call a private company to enquire about their management of a car park in a small insignificant shopping centre, it's not as if it is a hospital car park where you might have had an interest and there might indeed have been some public interest, now is it, can you see my point"? "No," says he and then tells me that there is no point in continuing the conversation.
I thought that was the end of it until today, 27th Sept. There I was having popped out of the office as it was a nice sunny day to enjoy the summer revival. Minding my own business and standing in the car park chatting to a couple of surveyors who had arrived on site at the behest of the London office. As we chatted we were passed by a rather seedy and scrawny looking chap with a man bag slung over his shoulder ( I use one too so that was not a critique) and a pen in one hand and a notebook in the other.
Without introducing himself he says, "Can I ask who you guys are"? Now, normally that's my line. The receptionist will give me a call and direct my attention to a camera with some suited or not, person taking photos or writing notes as they wander about the centre and of course curious as we are I would pop out, INTRODUCE myself and ask if I can be of assistance, and then ASK who they are!
Not this weedy little character, he asked us who we were without an introduction. And having already guessed who he was I then enquired who he was. He responded without giving his name as if to make us tremble in our shoes, "I'm a reporter from the (Basildon) Echo," says he, "I'm doing a story on the recent introduction of charges in the car park and the lack of signage"!
"You are" says I, "and have you noticed any signage in the car park where it clearly states that PARKING IS FREE for the first three Hours and that there are 10 signs across the car park"? "Yes, I've noticed the signs, but they aren't very clear" he replied. "And there isn't one at the entrance" "Well, yes there is says I and in fact it is on the public highway before you even enter the site", but by then he wasn't really listening so with that I ignored him and went back to my conversation with the two visitors and he wandered off.
Now I have reproduced one of the 10 signs for you below and all I can do is ask you, and having read any of my blogs you will note that I am not one prone to issue expletives in print, don't get me wrong it is not a prudish thing, I really can't explain it and as anyone who knows me, apart from my kids, as they have rarely heard me swear, but I do, like a trooper and as one of my nieces said to me recently, "Go for it Unky Tom, sometimes a written piece just needs a good fuck, and do you know what she was right!
So, Is it me, or are these Motherfuckers just messing with me? I don't think I am being over sensitive about this even from the point of view that I manage the place but it just seems to me that it is a NON FUCKING STORY initiated by morons who have lost a facility that was never theirs to lose in the first place and I cannot for the life of me understand why tarts from the press are finding it so compelling?
The phot reproduced below is one I just snapped on my phone today and it is the one out on the public highway but it is exactly the same as the ones inside the car park and even from that one you can clearly note where it says FREE PARKING FOR 3 HOURS