IT TAKES A CARDIGAN TO WARM UP THE TOWN CENTRE DEBATE
It has often been claimed, usually by Town Centre businesses, that parking meters, parking fees and parking fines kills their business. It gives out-of-town centres a strong and unfair advantage.
Unfair, they claim, because both sets of businesses pay considerable rates to the Local Authority yet Town Centre businesses are penalised by parking fees imposed by the council while out-of-town retailers get away with free parking.
Councils however have refused to accept that parking charges make such a huge difference and argue that it is down to the actions of the retailers to improve their lot.
In fairness to Carmarthenshire County Council and other Councils in Wales, they have over the years tried their best to improve Town Centres. In our case they have invested in some physical improvements and some regeneration of parts of the town but replacing awnings and building walls on roundabouts has had little impact. In the meantime the Council continues to bank the fees from parking charges every week.
Well now something has happened in a small Mid-Wales town, providing some clear proof over this issue, which is hard to ignore.
Sometime in June this year, fuelled and energised by an intake of excess alcohol, a small group of individuals decide that it was a good idea to smash the pay and display machines in the centre of Cardigan Town, to access the funds to pay for some further liquid refreshment.
The machines have been out of action and faced with a bill of over £20,000 to repair them it took the Council a while to repair them so during that time people could park in the town centre totally free.
Now no sensible person can condone the action of the vandals and I do not recommend that people should go around wrecking parking meters like Paul Newman did in one of his films. Having said that the criminal actions in Cardigan have had some unintended outcomes and produced what local traders have described as a minor economic miracle.
Footfall has increased terrifically and every business has reported a strong increase in turnover, some as much as 50%. They say it is down to the fact that shoppers can park for free and spend as much time as they want in the Town Centre without having to rush back to move their car. Some retailers have noticed that there is a much better atmosphere with shoppers having time to socialise over a cup of coffee. Social as well as economic benefits for the community.
Now some may argue that these changes could be down to many different things but the real punch to this story is that when the machines were repaired and people had to pay for parking everything went back to what it was before. Footfall down, car parks three quarters empty and businesses not making money.
Consider this against a background which has seen over 20,000 small retailers go out of business in the UK over the last few years with thousands more in Wales doing all they can just to survive. Consider this against the backdrop of our own Town Centre where, if you count the charity shops as closed business premises, then there are more closed retail shops than open ones. Consider this against the dire straits that the small retail sector is experiencing with the power of the ever growing super-supermarkets, the increasing price wars between them and the slow but sure increase of internet shopping. This just might be a small economic miracle after all.
The reality is, however that this is no miracle, this is no magic wand. This is just common sense.
Councils will say that with the cut-backs to their budgets they need the money but this is false economics as what they are doing is chasing a quick and easy parking fee today without counting the cost that has to be met tomorrow. Councils in Wales made over £9M profit from parking charges last year but the real cost to Wales may be more than that.
Every shop that closes represents a large loss of income to the Council (and remember charity shops pay little or no rates at all). Every shop that closes means a loss of jobs and more pressure on the council’s services (let alone more cost to the public purse benefits system)
A slowly decaying Town Centre depresses the local economy, decreases the community’s confidence and reduces house prices in the surrounding area. In short it flattens the market and does nothing to encourage investment or an entrepreneurial activity. Councils should learn to do the maths properly.
New legislation is on the way which will give Councils the power to relax Sunday shopping rules in favour of the High Street. Allowing the High Street retailers to open earlier and close later on Sundays is a start but not enough to save local businesses who are fighting for their lives. More is needed and we need our Councils to be brave and to act now.
Cardigan has not only warmed up this debate it has shown the way and the whole of the UK should learn from this.