JIM PARKER: Christmas has truly come early
IT came like a bolt out of the blue, manna from heaven, an early Chrisms present. The Torbay Council news release announced that parking in every car park in the Bay was being reduced to £2 a day.
It is something for which the local residents, business community and holiday industry had been pleading for yonks.
The gift — albeit initially for a four-month trial period — was delivered by Santa Claus Robert Excell, the councillor who has taken a bigger battering than the seafront walls during the winter storms over the past few months.
The timing was interesting, to say the least.
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Councillors in the ruling Tory group on the council are seeing for the first time the magnitude of the cuts facing the Town Hall over the next couple of years.
Was this the right time for a 'winter sale?'
Robert said: "I have been asked that at this time of austerity and facing cuts of £22million over the next two years, is this right time to do it? Yes it is.
"We need people in the town centres. As long as we can cover our costs there is no issue.
"I am trying desperately to get people into the town."
He said the £2 offer — known as Option Three — was on the table last year.
"I tried to get Option Three in last year, but officers said we would lose £500,000 so full council voted for Option Two which was cost neutral," said Robert.
"It was agreed we would eventually look at implementing this. That is what we are doing.
"I am desperately trying to make parking affordable.
"I get many letters from people who have to rush back to their cars when they are shopping.
"They are watch-clocking all the time and that's no good for anybody.
"They want to park and enjoy the town.
"The government is making so many cuts which will effect major services. People have to have something to hold on to.
"They have to have some sanity in their lives.
"When you have a sale and sell things at half price it increases footfall. If it is affordable people will buy it."
He is confident it will work and says: "We will save some money on administration with people not getting fined."
He added: "People want to feel comfortable in town. They want to come into town and meet their friends.
"It is logical. It is common sense.
"It has taken this long because we have had to go through protocols.
"We were just waiting for the summer to finish.
"It is the winter which effects the residents more."
In somewhat typical Torbay mode, World War Three broke out when the news was first announced.
Some mistakenly believed the £2 offer only applied to car parks in Torquay and it wasn't long before neighbouring Paignton and Brixham were on the warpath.
It transpires that wires had been crossed over details on the same release regarding parking concessions for Christmas events across the three towns.
Torquay has free parking for some of its late night shopping nights where as charges are merely reduced for festive celebrations in Paignton and Brixham.
Robert said the towns had been asked what they wanted over the Christmas period.
He said: "We asked what they wanted. We put that through and it was implemented.
"Whatever they asked for they got.
"It was not until details of the £2 trial was published that they suddenly realised Torquay got free parking.
"All they have to do is come back and say 'hang on, Robert — we need something complimentary'.
"We will look at doing the same for them. We will look at the details and see if it is viable.
"We will treat them as fairly as Torquay."
Brixham councillor Mike Morey says the port is hoping to take up the free parking possibility.
He said: " Somebody was getting the wrong end of the stick.
"I have now emailed Robert and said 'talk to the town council and chamber of trade. These are the dates we would like free parking'.
"I have had a reply to say they are looking into it.
"We want the same as Torquay. We just want to be treated the same."
Just going back to those cuts, as I have revealed the Tory group are in the middle of being briefed by officers on just what may lie ahead.
But, in such unchartered territories and cuts the like of which have never been experienced before, shouldn't all councillors be included from the start?
Mike Morey raised the issue with Mayor Gordon Oliver and council chief Steve Parrock the other week.
He says: "It is looking as if it is going to be dreadful. Politics should not be part of it. We should be working together to do the best we can for the people of Torbay.
"We have councillor briefings which are cross party, but that's not part of the budget. We have asked the mayor to open it up."
And just going back to the £2 parking trial. Can we expect more of the same?
Robert Excell says: "If it improves footfall in the town it may make common sense to continue it in the summer."
Christmas has truly come early.