There are 2 stakeholders whose views won’t be heard very loudly in this minority debate about parking versus social housing at Abbeylands. The people who could occupy the accommodation that may now not be built, whose voice usually goes unheard. When it is, there’s always an unhealthy voyeuristic angle to it – for there’s not many ways stories about poor people in housing need help flog newspapers.
And then there are High Street residents, who usually suffer quietly. I’m frequently told: “… if you live on a High Street, that’s what you should expect …” Many, perhaps most High Streets are technically designated as ‘mixed use’ in rural areas at least. The role of residents is a fact that Mary Portas seriously underplays in her recent report intended to stimulate their revival. Not only do residents have a stake but it would be a good thing if their voice was listened to a bit more. I contend that until this happens many High Streets will continue in their progressive decline. Owner occupiers can bring much needed investment to support genuinely local business and are more likely to be engaged with issues that affect their street.
Turning to the perceived problem. There is a parking problem on the High Street in Dunbar, but it lets get it into perspective.
1) There is no residents parking, despite the density of housing. Other authorities have policies to provide at least some parking for residents, but not this one. This has consequences, gardens get paved over, residents park in neighbouring streets, and, in turn, their gardens get paved over. New drives reduce parking further, with a public space replaced by a private one. New housing within the town must provide some additional parking, but the equation usually means that additional residents parking is needed elsewhere.
2) Many people just do not use the off street facilities available. Why? Perhaps they don’t know they are there, the signage is poor, perhaps the 2 minute walk isn’t congenial? Or perhaps it is still too easy to park on the High Street, if you are prepared to cruise around for a space or bend the law? Policies that encourage greater use of the town parking facilities, walking and cycling, and conversely discourage on street parking, are still thin. People say to me that it used to be better. But I ask, when was it better? When the population was half what it is today, when shops used to deliver to your door and car ownership lower?
3) But there’s a deeper problem. Some people don’t really want to hang around too long, lest they spend too much of their hard earned money on our High Street. I read somewhere that people who walk spend more than people who drive. Maybe our High Streets don’t provide the sufficiently welcoming, clean and safe environment that Mary Portas claims shopping malls do so well? This may be true.
Public investment goes into white elephants like CCTV, inappropriately sited belisha beacons (better than pelicans though), on the one hand, or gold plating legal requirements on the other. None of this is really raising standards. What we need is a more pragmatic and real world response, tackling fundamentals and stimulating significant private investment, which is seriously lacking, aimed at raising the whole town’s game. Easy parking just doesn’t deliver, it actually encourages this drive-through mentality (all in the name of the false deity of ‘convenience’), which makes it relatively easy to pass through towards some other destination. Is this transient trade all we can hope for?
North Berwick, by contrast, where the parking has always been rubbish, has people flocking to it. Why do they not come to Dunbar instead?
4) Illegal parking. Take a stroll down the Dunbar High Street and count the number of illegal parking incidents. At certain times of the day it is alarmingly high. Blocked bus stops. Junctions blocked. Parking on double yellows. Double parking to pick up a pie. Creative parking. Blocking the disabled facilities.
Convenience comes first, even though a suitable slot maybe available just yards away. Or why not use 2 bays when 1 will do? Large delivery vehicles are often culprits, but that’s only because the unloading provision is appalling, (and certain outlets who I shall not name, are ridiculously badly located to service their stores.)
Enforcement isn’t exactly what it could be, as custom and practice amply demonstrates. (Take away the wardens and most people won’t notice the difference)
Another reading of the parking problem is that there are too many cars rather than not enough spaces. Tackling parking by dealing with the supply end is analagous to building by-passes to ease congestion.
In the case of the proposed extra provision at Abbeylands 1, I suggest that spaces would be taken up primarily by residents and businesses, followed by rail users 2. I won’t be complaining, but is that a result?
As for a small housing scheme, this seems to me an inherently good idea. The location of the site is ideal, down a quiet effectively private cul de sac, which isn’t at all suited to additional traffic. We certainly do not need additional retail units here – on average there have been 2-3 units empty for the last 10 years, nor do we want to encourage yet more cars to go down a road with nowhere to go.
There need to be some conditions to the new building. The building itself needs to be well-designed and fit with the historic townscape – and not too tall 3. It would be opportune to invest in some tree planting too – well protected, as they have done artfully in North Berwick. And why not formalise the cul de sac as a venue for occasional market days?
There also needs to be space for the people who are going to live there to enjoy their little bit of outdoors. Some garden space seems essential, not just open space. Why is it that social schemes so often seem to imprison their occupants and provide little or no outdoor space, but plenty for cars?
Maybe what we need is smaller housing schemes not a bigger one – more humanising space. If these cost us a bit more as tax payers, we will reap the rewards later as the people that occupy them will take greater pride in their place.
In fact we should stop building substantial structures on Dunbar’s backlands. Garden grabbing should be stopped, whether or not the developer is the local authority or a private one. We should definitely stop creating more car parking for convenience shopping. Dunbar’s backlands are a significant and unique asset that contribute greatly to the character, interest and quality of the place.
Anyone who has read beyond the summary of the Portas review will realise that she was not even talking about places like Dunbar, where parking is already readily and easily available for shoppers and it is still entirely free (unlike elsewhere in Scotland and Britain generally).
But we could tackle some of the other blights on the High Street, which Portas highlights, if we cut through some of the current utterly muddled thinking.
- This would require a deviation from the Local Structure Plan, as the site is designated for housing and a neighbouring development will now not go ahead meaning there is even more pressure for social housing ↩
- It turns out that this has happened exactly as predicted ↩
- Watch Camberwell Grove for some inspired TV documentary about the rise and fall and the rise again of a London Street ↩