By Daniel Hunter
The Forum of Private Business is urging local authorities across the country to do their bit for retailers by scrapping town centre car parking charges.
With councils starting to put together their budget plans for the 2013/14 year — which are traditionally announced in the last week of February — the Forum is urging authorities to spare a thought for struggling retailers and make car parking free for shoppers.
This, it says, would increase footfall in town centres, make them more attractive places for firms to do business, and reduce the number of vacant commercial premises.
The not-for-profit small business support group described any such move as ‘one of the most business-friendly concessions’ a council could make for small retailers in what is promising to be another challenging trading year for the sector.
The Forum’s Head of Policy, Alex Jackman, said: “There are so many good reasons why all councils should be considering something along these lines, but first and foremost would be to help retailers through another tough trading year.
“High streets across the country are under threat and have been for many years now from the likes of out-of-town shopping centres where parking is universally free. Then there’s the internet and the rise of e-tailers taking an increasingly bigger slice of a shrinking consumer pie.
“It doesn’t take a genius to work out that councils charging people ever more for the privilege of coming in to their town centres to spend their hard earned cash is not the best plan to grow footfall. Set it against a backdrop of spiralling motoring costs and it’s a recipe for disaster.”
The Forum says national research shows an alarming number of shops closing down. Between 2000 and 2009 some 15,000 retailers rolled down the shutters in town centres, but a further 10,000 closed in 2010 and 2011 suggesting failure rates are gaining pace.
Jackman continued: “If councils want to see fewer empty properties blighting their high streets, then axing car parking charges is something they must look at. It’s no longer acceptable to just offer free parking at Christmas to help traders during the festive period, a tactic in itself which shows councils do understand the link between free parking and increased trade.
“If councils want thriving town centres with improved occupancy levels then they need to take drastic action without delay.”
The Forum has pointed to Lancashire’s Pendle Council where free parking is offered right across the borough in all 45 of the authority’s car parks for the first two and half hours.
“Councillor Paul White, the council’s Executive Councillor for Business, said: “Free parking’s not just for Christmas here, it’s all year round!
“We pride ourselves on our support for private enterprise, and recognise that it’s a great thing for business, and encourages people to visit our local shops and services.
“We have 45 car parks in the borough and we celebrate free parking 365 days of the year. People who come to shop and enjoy our leisure facilities in Pendle often comment on it.”
The Forum says Pendle’s model, which offers two and half hours of free parking with a disk controlled system, is a great example of a council doing its bit for local business.
Interestingly, Pendle was also highlighted in Forum research earlier this year for making it into the top 10 of English authorities which paid a high proportion of its supplier invoices in under 10 days — again underling the small business friendly culture there.
Jackman added: “There’s no doubt that Pendle’s example should be looked at by other councils, and sooner rather than later, because to stem the tide of retail closures in 2013 will require swift action.
“It doesn’t look like trading conditions are going to get much better for retailers next year: weak growth, rising business costs, reduced returns for investors and consumer spending that is now the same as 2002 levels. And the internet is only going to get stronger.
“The Government has done its bit by extending Small Business Rate Relief in the Autumn Statement, now it’s the turn of councils to do likewise with free car parking, or any kind of concession for motorists that entices shoppers in to their local town centre.”
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