|Contis Plage: free showers, washing up facilities, toilets and just 11 Euros per night.|
I am talking about ‘aires de camping car’. These are overnight parking places that are specifically designated for motorhomes and campervans. The system is prevalent in France. The idea is that local councils provide an overnight stop for self contained motorhomes. Tents and caravans are not allowed, neither is putting out tables and chairs or awnings. Most ‘aires’ have fresh water and facilities for emptying waste water and toilet tanks. Some have electricity. Some local councils charge for the privilege and others don’t. Some provide showers and toilets, others just the basics – a parking place and somewhere to empty the porta potti. The police make daily rounds and take number plates to ensure no one abuses the system. We used them a lot on our trip because they offered us a cheap alternative to staying on campsites. In fact, the aire at Biscarosse was one of our favourite stops. It was close enough to town to be able to cycle to restaurants and just a stone’s throw from the beach.
I understand why the French have aires. They offer a neat solution to some problems. With designated places they can police who stays overnight and control illegal camping on the roadside or at beauty spots. They can also control a little of the flow of traffic through busy summer resorts by signposting the aires via quiet routes or by placing them on the edge of town. It works. The system also works to attract people to a town and gives them a reason to visit. If there is a cheap place to stay, people will come and spend money in the town.
So why don’t we do this very much in the UK when there are over 200,000 motorhomes (not including camper vans) registered here? Well, a few councils do and I praise them for it (you can find them on the brilliant motorhomes.net site here). Many others don’t. Where I live – the area controlled by Torridge District Council - there are at least four beautiful parking spots (with toilet facilities) that are empty overnight, every night. It’s a terrible waste of an opportunity and you have to ask where the motorhomes are going for their holidays! Europe, I’d wager.
The thing is that local councils have the power to change this. They are the ones who can grant exemptions and planning permission for camping on their land or car parks or on anyone else’s land (‘wild camping’ is illegal in England and Wales unless you have local authority permission). They can set the charges, but something like £10 per night seems reasonable enough. Some sites in France have capacity for as many as 50 motorhomes parked overnight. That’s £500 per night that the council wouldn’t have had before. Do the rest of the maths and you can see how it could begin to pay for itself.
Then there are the side benefits. When we were in France we were on a budget so the days we spent on aires were often days when we felt we had money to spend on restaurants. At one stop in the Pyrenees we spent 80 Euros eating at the local auberge. This is money they wouldn’t have had if we hadn't had free parking overnight. Times that by fifty and you have a further gain to the local economy. And even if we opted to cook in the van we’d still have to go and buy food from the local shops. So everyone benefits.
I think I know why more councils don’t do this. There are two main reasons. The first is that they are afraid. Removing unwanted itinerants from council land is costly to them. They are afraid that people won’t go away. They don’t want Swampy and his mates turning up! But times have changed. Most motorhomes cost upwards of £25K these days so the people who opt to travel this way are often well off older couples who are living the dream. They are not poor. They are people who want to see the country and are looking for somewhere nice to stay. Of course there will be undesirables at some point and there will always be the odd problem, but if the system is planned properly and the rules are strict, these things will sort themselves out.
The second reason why I think councils won’t do this is because they fear it will take business away from local campsites and hotels. Well it won’t. People who want to stay on aires won’t necessarily want to stay on campsites, so if there isn’t an aire they won’t come. It’s as simple as that. They certainly won’t abandon the van and check into a hotel or put up with some grotty holiday camp or downmarket touring park. They will move on until they can find somewhere better.
Perhaps councils are ignorant of this opportunity or simply don’t care. Perhaps they think that providing safe overnights for the hundreds of thousands of motorhomers and campervan drivers who love to tour the UK doesn’t fit their ‘target audience’ or won’t bring in any revenue. Perhaps they have yet to tune into the way we like to holiday these days. Perhaps the guy who owns the local camp site is on the planning committee.
Maybe. But, come on councils! I know you are always looking for new ways to increase the length of the season. I know you are desperate for cash outside the six weeks of summer. I know you need to make your assets work harder. And I know – particularly in the case of Torridge District Council – that you have beautiful locations that some people would give their eye teeth to wake up in. Think about it.
Make them welcome and they will come (bringing their money along with them).
Straying from the well worn path. Other ways of staying in the UK:
www.britstops.com is a scheme that is new to the UK but is based on the France Passion Scheme whereby private land owners offer free camping in the hope that motorhomers will buy their produce or at least show an interest. In France it’s fantastic but here it's growing fast.
Nightstop is a scheme from Practical Motorhome Magazine whereby motorhomes can stay at pubs, sports clubs and private car parks.
Wild Camping is legal in parts of Scotland but there are places where it has been abused, particularly at Lunan bay and on the shores of Loch Lomond. It is now illegal to wild camp on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. If you ever do wild camp, always make sure you leave it nicer than it was when you got there.
www.motorhomestopover.co.uk lists 500 overnight stops in the UK where you can stay overnight for free if you are a member of the club. Membership is £30.