Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Parking mad

If you pick the right day for your Christmas shopping, you might be lucky enough to get to park your car for free.

Across the Black Country and further afield, councils are scurrying around trying to come up with special free parking deals to boost their town centres for the festive spending spree.

So if you plan to go late-night shopping in Stourbridge or Walsall, shop around and you might save yourself £2.50 in parking costs.

The same applies for most of the Saturdays in December.

Councils seem to think that cutting the cost of parking on the busiest shopping days of the whole year will somehow keep their ailing town centres in business for another 12 months.

Their attitude is that they are doing us a tremendous favour by suspending charges for a few days.

Councillor Judy Foster, who is responsible for transport in Dudley, pretty much said as much.

"The suspension of car park charges is seen as a goodwill gesture on behalf of the council and an added incentive for shoppers to visit the borough on the run up to Christmas," she declared magnanimously.

A goodwill gesture? "Goodwill towards whom?" you may well ask.

Is this free parking supposed to be a Christmas present to hard-pressed shoppers from their generous local authorities?

Can it really be the case that local authorities still don't realise they are systematically killing off their town centres?

If they had any good sense, never mind goodwill, they would realise their policy of trying to stop us from using our cars was a major factor in the long, slow, painful decline of Britain's High Streets.

Maybe not as short-sighted as giving permission for out-of-town retail parks and superstores but every little helps.

It is no exaggeration to say many town centres are caught in an agonising death spiral. And parking charges are one of the reasons why.

Out-of-town centres with plentiful free parking are obviously a big factor.

So is the internet. Why bother to go to one of the last remaining CD or book shops when you can download the same thing from the comfort of your own home?

Why traipse round clothes shops when you can order what you want on line and send it back if it doesn't fit?

To make matters worse, many shop landlords bought their properties at the height of the boom.

Now they are stuck with half-empty rows of buildings which are declining in value. So they increase the rents.

That, in turn, prices some retailers out of the market altogether. Small shopkeepers and national chains are both caught by declining sales and rising rents.

This madness leads to more and more charity shops, which don’t pay business rates, and boarded-up buildings.

Things have got so bad Britain's shopkeepers have now set up the Distressed Retail Property Taskforce.

The British Council of Shopping Centres, the British Retail Consortium and the Property Bankers’ Forum plan to spend six months trying to find a way out of this crisis.

Councils should be involved as well. For decades they have seen their biggest shopping centres as lucrative, pain-free sources of revenue.

Business rates and car-parking charges have helped fund many a spendthrift local authority.

Yet with so many shopping centres are in terminal decline, the best they can manage is an occasional "goodwill gesture" for a day or two before Christmas.

The true attitude of local councils is summed up in a recent report for Wolverhampton Council.

It says: "The Council also has a responsibility to promote economic development and regeneration in the City Centre and it recognises that the provision of accessible, high quality car parking is an important factor in the economic success of the City."

So far, so good. But then it says: "At the same time, the Council needs to promote the effectiveness and use of public transport to reduce the reliance on cars and to limit the creation of more car parking spaces."

This attitude would be fine if shopping centres were booming. But they are not. Half the time, they're virtually deserted.

Don't be fooled by the pre-Christmas crush. It's not usually like this. Councils should be haunted by the fear that some of their centres are becoming ghost towns.

The "goodwill gesture" of suspending parking charges in the run-up to Christmas clearly shows councils believe these taxes play a part in deciding where people do their shopping.

It proves they think free parking is a key to boosting their town centres and, therefore, that they are aware their charges deter shoppers. Actually, their policies set out deliberately to alienate motorists.

The conclusion is obvious. If they want to save their town centres, councils should invest in plentiful, accessible, free car parking.

On its own this won't reverse the decline but it would help. And it would give councils a chance to cling on to the taxes and jobs lost every time another shop closes. The cost of lost parking revenue is nothing compared with the high price of longer-term decline.

Councils should realise free parking is for life, not just for Christmas.

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