High street woes? Don’t blame parking charges says Wiltshire Council report

Written by Tony Millett on .

On Tuesday, 8 November the full Wiltshire Council meeting in Salisbury City Hall will discuss a new report: “Countywide analysis of the impact of car parking charges.”  This report comes after the widespread controversy over the increases to parking charges made in April 2011 and the council’s U-turn on the abolition of Salisbury’s one-hour parking rate.

The report – with a mass of back-up appendices, charts and tables – sets out to examine the link between car park usage in the context of the current economic climate and the introduction of Wiltshire’s new car parking strategy and new charges.  It comes to the unsurprising conclusion that increased charges have not affected the number of people using car parks so they can shop in the county’s high streets.

The report cites ‘wider research’ that “what a town or city has to offer is the primary factor affecting economic health and not parking charges.”  And points out that sales of parking tickets were in decline before the charges were increased in April 2011.

Apart from the economy’s ‘slow growth’, other factors producing poorer retail sales from town centre shops include the rise of internet shopping, of out-of-town shopping centres, of chain stores and of supermarkets - the usual suspects.

The increase in charges in April was part of the unitary authority’s policy to harmonise charges across the county.  However, it is quite apparent that the charges were ‘harmonised up’ rather than ‘harmonised down’.

Charges rose towards Marlborough’s high level of charges, rather than being brought down to meet Corsham and Wootton Bassett’s pre-April charges of 20p for one hour and £1.00 for two hours.  Indeed Marlborough’s one and two-hour charges are still higher than Council’s declared Band 3 charges of 40p for one hour and £1.20 for two hours – the Band it says Marlborough should be in.

The total income from car parks in the county administered by Wiltshire Council was forecast in the budget for 2011-2012 to be £9,292,000 – before taking into account maintenance, wardens, emptying the ticket machines and so on.  And the new 2011 charges were expected to generate an extra £309,000 over this financial year.

But the year so far has seen a sharp downturn in the expected income.  There is an anticipated shortfall for the year of £540,000.  Of this figure £40,000 is down to the Council’s decision to re-introduce Salisbury’s one-hour charge.

Since April 2011, the use of Marlborough’s short stay (and in this case ‘short’ is considered by the Council as being up to four hours) parking has dropped by six per cent, with long stay dropping by three per cent.

Marlborough’s Waitrose car park

In Marlborough, the ‘Waitrose’ short-term car park causes some of the bitterest comments on pricing.  This car park is managed by the Council under a contract with Waitrose signed in June 2000.  The contract grants the Council the right to manage the car park and take the fees for twenty-five years – so it has fourteen more years to run.

The car park is to be run “for the primary use of shoppers.”  More specifically the agreement states that the Council must “use its best endeavours to impose a scale of charges on the public using the car parking spaces which will encourage short stay parking and discourage long stay parking.”

This means that if it wished, the Council could make the first hour’s parking free or 10p, so long as charges for subsequent hours discourage long-term parking.

How the Town Council could help

If the town council considers Marlborough is getting a bad deal on parking charges, it can continue to badger Wiltshire Council to reduce the town’s charges at least to the Band 3 level.  Or it could (as Warminster did prior to April 2011) buy from the county a free hour for a set number of parking spaces.

Alternatively, the town council could support financially, perhaps in conjunction with Waitrose or the Chamber of Commerce, a redemption scheme – like the one run at the Sainsbury’s car park in Devizes.  This entitles shoppers to a refund of their first hour’s parking charge if they spend a specified amount in one of the shops joining the scheme.

Earlier this year, a county-wide redemption scheme was proposed by Wiltshire Council.  But in July it was reported that “such a scheme may not be wanted by the retail trade in some areas.” And the Council is now consulting about a scheme with town councils, chambers of commerce, and other interested parties.

Wiltshire Council defends its parking charges on two main grounds – it needs to reduce CO2 emissions and meet air quality targets, and it needs the income to subsidise bus routes. It wants fewer cars on the roads and higher income from those that use its car parks.

Watch this space for a report that will try and find out how the bus subsidies work.

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