Government inspectorate overturns Wirral Council decision on Cherry Tree parking cameras

Controversial cameras that have fined thousands of people will be allowed to stay in a blow to campaigners who argued they have hurt their high street.

The number plate recognition cameras were introduced in 2021 in the car park of the Cherry Tree shopping centre in Liscard but have been massively controversial with people arguing it has driven them away from the town centre. 

Blue badge holders claimed they were being charged large fines for parking in the car park and Smart Parking who operate the cameras were accused of “preying on people’s misery”.

It is not known exactly how many people have been issued with fines but more than 2,000 people have been refunded according to Smart Parking figures in 2022. A Facebook group dedicated to sorting out incorrect fines has more than 3,300 members.

Smart Parking applied for retrospective planning permission in 2022 for the cameras but this was unanimously rejected by Wirral Council. This was appealed and upheld by the Planning Inspectorate on 9 January meaning the cameras will stay.

In its decision, the government body said it was clear the cameras were “required for the general management and efficient operation of the car park” and argued there was “insufficient evidence” to back up the council’s case.

A local business owner had provided statistical data “suggesting that since Smart Parking began and the ANPR cameras were installed, the number of visitors to the shopping centre has significantly decreased.” Liscard councillor Daisy Kenny said they had also demonstrated a decrease in footfall of 25 to 29% between 2019 and 2022.

Councillors voted unanimously against the application for CCTV cameras in the Cherry Tree Shopping Centre Car Park. Credit: James Stewart Laing

However, the inspectorate said despite the correlation, “this could be the result of a number of things, most notably the Covid pandemic and its lasting effects, the current cost of living crisis and a general shift towards online shopping.”

While it agreed some people may struggle with parking technology and not visit Liscard as a result, the Planning Inspectorate said, “The number of such people is likely to be so minimal that they do not have a discernible effect on the vitality and viability of the town centre.”

They said during a site visit before Christmas, the car park appeared to be full, which “clearly shows that many people are capable of using the parking technology.”

The inspectorate added Smart Parking could argue they could erect the cameras anyway under permitted development rights if the council’s refusal had been upheld.

Rebecca Lowe (pictured, lead image) who runs Flower Flies Florist in the shopping centre said she still helps people daily with issues or finding a parking attendant. She said, “I am gutted to be honest. I didn’t want to be negative but I just had this feeling we wouldn’t win. It’s the system, we were never going to win.

“No one is happy they are here. It’s affected all the businesses. No one is happy they are here. It’s caused so much upset and misery and now they are here to stay. People in Liscard don’t have much money. It’s just disgusting, I am really upset.”

She said she had been told an intercom would soon be installed aimed at helping worried customers but added, “People are still coming in daily. A lot of people won’t come here. If they are boycotting it, I guess I feel it’s a good thing. I may be losing a bit of money but you have to make a stand against these things sometimes.”

Following the decision, planning committee chair Stuart Kelly argued “the government needs to intervene to properly regulate private parking companies from ripping people off” while Liscard’s councillors said they would be lobbying local MPs to change it.

Cllr Kelly said, “A disappointing decision, the whole business model of Smart Parking is based on catching people out and issuing penalty notices.”

Cllr Daisy Kenny

On Facebook, Liscard councillor Daisy Kenny said, “I am absolutely gutted and frustrated but not surprised. Unfortunately, the planning system is built to protect large corporations who can afford expensive planning lawyers.”

A joint statement by Cllr Kenny and fellow councillors Janette Williamson and James Laing said, “We argued that harassing customers with unjust parking charges, many of whom are blue badge holders, is negatively impacting our town centre. Sadly, the planning inspector didn’t agree.

“Correcting injustice should be society’s responsibility but unfortunately not all are in agreement. Once again the system protects many of the big corporations.”

They accused Smart Parking of working with debt recovery companies to “harass vulnerable people to pay £170 because they couldn’t find a parking attendant to register their blue badge or for entering a registration digit wrong. We find this grossly disproportionate and we will continue to fight for local residents.”

Smart Parking has hit back against the criticism defending the camera’s installation. A spokesperson said, “Smart Parking was first brought in to manage the Liscard car park, to stop the endemic parking abuse that had been taking place, which meant that some people were correctly paying for parking while others were not.   

“Using a state-of-the-art ANPR parking management system that monitors cars entering and exiting and prevents people parking for free, we have now stopped the vast majority of parking abuses at the site. 

“Importantly while doing this, user numbers at the car park have not changed and this was noted in our successful appeal against the council’s decision to revoke our planning permission.  

“We have always believed the council’s notice against us was misguided, ill-founded and inappropriate, and this view has been vindicated in our successful appeal. Considering this we are particularly disappointed by the continuing statements made by some councillors.  

“Moving forward we are committed to engagement and would be happy to sit down with any council members to discuss our parking solutions and how they benefit the community.  

“Finally, Smart Parking are members of British Parking Association (BPA), and we strictly follow the association’s guidelines. We operate a BPA audited appeals service and we encourage motorists to contact us if they feel there are mitigating circumstances in their cases.”

Image: Rebecca Lowe, who runs Flower Flies Florist, said issues with cameras in the car park are still ongoing. Credit: Ed Barnes.

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