SPECIAL REPORT: Will the county council plans to get people into its Â£53m HQ work?
More than 2,000 Northamptonshire County Council staff are set to move into a Â£53 million new office in the centre of town - but with only 65 parking spaces for car sharers and a park and ride scheme on offer, there are fears it just won't work.
The authority will move employees from all 13 of its current buildings into the new glass-fronted Angel Street offices next month.
It had been hoped workers could take a salary sacrifice of around £600 a year to use one of Northampton Borough Council’s 14 car parks all-year-round. A total of 900 spaces would have been made available to employees across the town - but the county and borough have failed to strike such a deal.
It means the only parking available will now be underneath Angel Street itself - though only for fleet vehicles and those taking part in a car share scheme. Chief executive Paul Blantern will have the only reserved spot. This week, plans were announced for a park and ride bus scheme travelling from behind Franklin’s Gardens, off Edgar Mobbs Way, exclusively for employees.
But will the £1.20-per-journey scheme work?
No, it won’t
The planned park and ride will deposit up to 900 cars in St James every day, clog up side streets and force drivers from the east to cut across the town centre in peak times, those against the move say.
Chair of the county branch of Unison Penny Smith said staff now have serious concerns about the move to Angel Street in a month’s time – with many who still have no idea of how they will get to the new headquarters and some worried they will have to resort to paying £7-a-day to park in a multi-storey.
She said: “We are getting a lot of people ringing us up really quite stressed.
“The park and ride is fine if you live in that part of town.
“But if you live anywhere else, you have got to get there first – the congestion that will cause will be unbelievable.”
Mrs Smith said the lack of parking at Angel Street could even put people off from taking up a job at the county council, which like many across the country, is struggling to fill children’s social worker posts.
“We already have disproportionate amount of agency workers,” said branch assistant chair Ged Carlton. “How on earth is this going to retain the best staff?”
There are also wider issues surrounding St James, where the 900-car capacity park and ride will be based.
Councillor Gareth Eales (Lab, Dallington and Spencer) said: “If you come from in from the other side of the county, you have got to drive pretty much past your place of work, to come around the other side of town.”
He added that the promise of journey times taking just 12 minutes were just “sheer fiction.”
He said: “I don’t know if they are proposing to use a helicopter, I have never managed to make it into town in 12 minutes.
“It’s embarrassing the county council couldn’t plan this better.”
And chairman of St James Residents’ association, Graham Croucher, said to save time, many will be tempted to park in free side streets before boarding public transport, clogging up residential areas already jammed with cars.
He said: “The reality is that most (cars) will enter the area via Spencer Bridge Road and St Peters Way and if they don’t like parking so far out they may find it more convenient to park in our side streets and either walk to town or catch the same bus in a more convenient location.”
Councillor Eales has urged both the county and borough councils to go back to the negotiating table and come to an agreement on town centre parking.
Yes, it will
The chief executive of the county council said he does “empathise” with people travelling in from the east of town – but he believes a new app, flexible working hours and even electric bikes will be the making of the new building.
Paul Blantern has conceded there may be some “teething issues” around the lack of town centre parking for some 2,000 employees likely to use the Angel Street headquarters.
“I have empathy with the people who currently come in from the east and will drive round,” he said.
“But we have also put in place a massive amount of flexible working - really, anyone can work anywhere where there is internet.
“There will be a lot more people working from home.”
Mr Blantern said workers will be able to avoid rush hour by the new arrangements, which will see employees ‘hot-desk’ at the new headquarters, rather than remain seated at a permanent desk.
There are fears the park and ride scheme will be over-stretched at rush hour - with staff possibly forced to wait for a bus home at 5pm when hundreds pile out of the new offices.
But Mr Blantern believes flexible hours and staggered start times will prevent any “peak blip” as well as mitigate the traffic impact in St James. “If there are queues we will put more buses in, it’s as simple as that,” he added.
As for why the deal to provide town centre parking with the borough council fell through, Mr Blantern said the borough was not willing to allow for 900 spaces to be saved for county staff over Christmas.
He said: “From the lights switch-on to the end of the panto season, they would only allow us 200 spaces. We can understand the argument.”
The authority has provided all of its staff with an app known as Faxi, which will enable them to contact people in their area who have the same commute. Employees will be able to send messages to one another to discuss car sharing and splitting the fuel costs.
But the app will also be able to trace car movements, meaning those parking in side streets will be spotted - and maybe even barred from boarding the park and ride bus.
Those living within the Northampton area will also soon be encouraged to take up a reduced price electric bike to get to work instead of their cars.
A fleet of pool cars will be available for social workers and Mr Blantern has assured staff they will not need to take a bus back to their car first before heading to jobs around the county.
On the accusation the park and ride scheme was a rushed alternative to town centre parking, Mr Blantern disagreed. He said: “The park and ride scheme was always going to be plan A. It was always part of our long-term plans.”