Friday, 8 February 2019

Two hours free Town Centre parking and the elephant in the room!

The latest edition of Oracle dropped through my letter box this week and I see that the magazine is encouraging readers to download a petition form calling for Southend Council to make the first 2 hours parking in Town Centre car parks free to help stimulate town centre business.

This was one of the recommendations of an informative initiative facilitated by Philip Miller before Christmas to help save the Town Centre which included other excellent suggestions such as the reintroduction of vehicles to parts of the High Street and an increased emphasis on residential use.

It is difficult to argue against the claim that to introduce free parking would assist the retailers in the Town Centre however the problem with current calls is that no one is addressing the obvious elephant in the room namely what would fill the resulting and significant hole in the Council’s income.

In my time as Leader of the Council I asked officers to cost an initial period of free parking, but other than for a very limited introduction at Xmas, it was simply financially undeliverable. Instead we had to fall back on freezing the charges for 6 of the relevant 7 years and introducing other user friendly policies such as “pay on exit” – whatever happened to that!

For this to be deliverable there has to be a clear indication of how the hole in the Council’s finances would be filled – funding which would have to be income not capital and be sustainable moving forward.

There are other issues such as:
1. users would still need to take a ticket to check when the “free” period had expired;
2. what charge would apply after 2 hours? If at present levels the hit for staying slightly more than 2 hours would be dramatic and discourage stayers and to reduce would further erode income;
3. if the concession is limited to the Town Centre how would this affect parking on the seafront and preventing the Town Centre car parks filling with visitors not seeking to support retailers?

It is easy to say that the Council wastes money and it would be a brave man to deny that some waste existed however not at this level, particularly in circumstances where central government funding continues to decrease and demands for council services increase.

One option would be to increase council tax but this would be likely to require a local referendum and my experience of campaigning in local elections in the Town for the last 40 years is that it is highly unlikely that residents would support a council tax increase for this reason. Similarly money strapped businesses are unlikely to be able (or enthusiastic) about subsidising the scheme.

So a great idea but there needs to be a sensible debate on funding. In the meantime “pay on exit”, the return of 1 and 3 hour bands and machines that take cash would all help make council car parks more user friendly rather than downright hostile as they sometimes seem at present!