Why are our High Streets turning into ghost towns populated with charity shops? Why are more and more people shopping on line? Why are HMV closing 60 shops?
One reason is that local authorities have spent the past ten years waging war against motorists to the point where it’s too expensive to shop in town centres.
The last Government wanted us all to travel by bus or metro. It ordered councils to do their best to stop us using our cars to get to the shops or the office.
Parking charges soared. Some councils just wanted the money.
Others deliberately made parking expensive because they thought it was the “green” environmentally-friendly thing to do – as if forcing the local greengrocer out of business was somehow going to save the planet.
Apart from encouraging the success of out-of-town shopping centres like Merry Hill – where parking is free and motorists are positively encouraged – the councils didn’t achieve much.
More than 100 local authorities lost money on car parking charges in the year 2008-9 even though motorists forked out a total of £1,338 million. Wolverhampton’s traffic wardens made a profit of only £18,000.
High parking charges deter shoppers. Stores don’t make any money so they close, turning High Streets into wildernesses of charity shops.
Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, has now announced an end to the “war on motorists” and given councils the freedom to develop their own parking policies.
In theory, this means parking charges could be cut. The Black Country councils have already said they will look again at the whole question.
Wolverhampton Council obviously knows charges deter shoppers otherwise it wouldn’t be offering an hour’s free parking in Market Street and School Street throughout January and February to attract more people to the struggling markets.
Could the whole city centre get free parking and enjoy a boom in business? Don’t bet on it.
Councils will claim they can’t afford to reduce revenues at a time when the Government is axing their grants.
In the long run, it would pay them to revive their dying town centres by encouraging visitors.
Lost revenue from axing parking charges is a small price to pay if it leads to busy shops and buoyant business rates income.
But that’s a bit far-sighted for most local authorities, alas.
For years, motorists have been a favourite target for Governments wanting to raise money.
One small example this week was the case of Michael Thompson, who had to pay a £175 fine, £250 costs and a £15 victims’ surcharge for warning fellow motorists of a police speed trap.
The poor man simply flashed his lights at oncoming traffic, advising drivers to slow down. This, supposedly, amounts to “wilfully obstructing a policewoman in the execution of her duty”.
Surely he could argue he was trying to prevent the crime of exceeding the speed limit.
What this case proves, though, is that it will take more than an announcement from Mr Pickles to bring a cease-fire in the war on motorists.
For instance, less than a year ago, Birmingham Council adopted a new 34,000-word policy document announcing a clampdown on parking and promising “lower standards”.
The council is pledged to cut long-term parking spaces in the city centre and Sutton Coldfield; limit parking spaces for new developments; impose ever-higher prices for long-stay parking; use SMART cars fitted with CCTV to police parking offenders; introduce more bus lanes; and expand pay-and-display beyond the city centre.
The report says: “Whilst the Council cannot directly control car ownership, polices for charging for, and the supply of, both on and off-street parking can influence parking demand, parking space turnover and, ultimately, car use and ownership.
“Parking policies seek to restrain unnecessary car travel, especially for local trips within the city, and reduce the need to travel or at least encourage the use of more sustainable travel choices.”
Had all this nonsense been announced a decade ago by some newly-elected right-on, politically-correct New Labour local authority, you might not have been surprised.
Yet this is official policy of a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats.
In some cities it’s even worse. Next year, Nottingham will be the first place in the country – so far – to impose workplace parking charges.
The tax will be £1 per space per day “to begin with” and you can be sure it the price won’t go down.
The excuse is that the money will pay for more trams.
Try telling that to the businesses in the city which will have to fork out hundreds of thousands of pounds but still can’t get their lorries in and out of Nottingham.
It would be marvellous to discover that, thanks to Mr Pickles, our councils realised the car played a vital role in encouraging prosperity. Without visiting motorists, our town centres will become impoverished wastelands.
Cynics, though, may wonder about the timing of his announcement. It came on the day that rises in VAT and fuel duty sent petrol prices soaring.
Maybe Mr Pickles was just trying to divert attention away from the fact that motorists are still the Government’s favourite tax target.