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Can we save our town centres? Not by using free parking to attract shoppers

PUBLISHED: 00:06 01 November 2018 | UPDATED: 15:52 13 November 2018

This year's Christmas will be the first on the new Cornhill. Will it give the town a boost? Picture: ARCHANT

This year's Christmas will be the first on the new Cornhill. Will it give the town a boost? Picture: ARCHANT

Archant

Chancellor Philip Hammond had a bit to say on the state of our town and city centres this week as he announced his budget.

Woodbridge can pull in the crowds without free parking - the problem is often finding a space in the town! Picture: CHRIS MAPEYWoodbridge can pull in the crowds without free parking - the problem is often finding a space in the town! Picture: CHRIS MAPEY

The idea of creating a fund to encourage local authorities or business organisations to refresh their town centres is certain welcome – but I do wonder just how far £675m will go across the country as a whole.

And his support for small businesses with rate relief will also be good news for many independent shops and should give them a fair amount of breathing space.

But of course many of the concerns about town centres focuses more on the larger stores and chains – House of Fraser, Debenhams, New Look following the demise of BHS, Maplin, and in earlier years Woolworths – and they haven’t been offered any government support.

The government’s new Transformation Fund is going to concentrate on ensuring town centres can thrive without having to rely too much on retail which is likely to switch more online – encouraging more leisure use, cafes, and the conversion of some commercial premises into homes.

Prices are being kept down at the new Crown car park in Ipswich during the Christmas season. Picture: IPSWICH BOROUGH COUNCILPrices are being kept down at the new Crown car park in Ipswich during the Christmas season. Picture: IPSWICH BOROUGH COUNCIL

But all of this is relatively long-term. For many town centre businesses their main concern at present is ensuring that they are able to attract a good number of shoppers during the run-up to Christmas.

Towns and cities look at various ways of doing this – offering Christmas markets, street entertainment, and generally creating a welcoming atmosphere during the run-up to the festive season.

One weapon we are seeing used more and more is special offers and even free parking in some towns.

Car parking prices should be reasonable – but I’m not at all sure about the free parking and the relentless drive to the bottom as far as cost is concerned. For many shoppers convenience, security and the general state of the car park is more important than price.

I know I’d rather pay £1.50 an hour to park in a well-lit, asphalt car park convenient to the town centre than pay 50p an hour (or even free) to park on a bomb site that’s difficult to access. And you do get what you pay for.

In Ipswich car parking prices for some borough parks have gone up recently from £1.20 to £1.30 an hour in most town centre shoppers’ car parks run by the borough (although it’s still £1 an hour in the new Crown Car Park over the Christmas shopping period).

That’s become a bit of a political issue with some Tories on the borough calling for the increase to be reversed and even for some free parking in the town.

The Labour administration has, unsurprisingly, countered by pointing out that when the Tories were leading the borough in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the cost of parking was much higher than it is now – and that it was Labour who original brought in the £1 an hour charge.

The borough Tories might also like to reflect that their party colleagues at Suffolk County Council are not at all happy about Ipswich’s “cheap parking” policies because they seriously threaten the viability of the town’s Park and Ride service.

And the fact is that in some of the towns that are getting free car parking the cost of leaving your car has never been an issue – the problem is finding a space in the first place! Have you ever tried to find a parking space in the middle of Woodbridge on a nice Saturday?

The Christmas season is a busy time for retailers but I’m not sure how much of their business is actually selling presents or decorations for people’s homes.

These days it seems to be as much about meeting up with friends over a festive coffee or browsing through the Christmas sales to see what you want to buy for yourself rather than looking for presents for people who may actually have all they need already!

I will be interested to see how Ipswich’s two-week Christmas Market on the new-look Cornhill does. It could be a great success if it brings a steady stream of shoppers to the town rather than a massive flood that could overwhelm its facilities.

Or it could turn out to be a bit of a disappointment if it turns out to be just a few stalls with a bit of tinsel on them selling nothing very special.

But at least it will be a new initiative trying to bring people into the town centre at the heart of the festive season – and that is what our town centres will need everywhere as we approach Christmas over the next few weeks.

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