In the run up to two key announcements, one in the Vale the other in Cherwell…Iain Nicholson examines the cost of parking charges in our market towns.

Parking. Always a top three issue if you talk business in our market towns, and a hot topic again. Traders in Abingdon, Faringdon and Wantage wait to see what the new Vale administration’s meant by promising free parking. Business groups and traders lobby against increased charges in Banbury and Bicester. It’s a controversial issue, but not a complex one. So here’s a perspective: Parking charges in market towns are anti-business. They’re anti-competitive; putting traders in towns with charges at a disadvantage against out-of-town stores, and shops in nearby towns with free parking. They also run contrary to policy if the Council says its economic development strategy is to support market town vitality. It often appears that councillors levying charges are using parking as a cash cow – a revenue-raising source to boost their budget. Some argue that ‘low’ fees (or ‘small’ increases) can’t realistically be a barrier to people making a shopping trip. They’re wrong. It’s worth saying that free parking regimes also have issues. And we know other factors – including the mix and quality of shops – affect a potential shopper’s choice. But parking charges have an impact – they have to. Some, knowing there are charges where they’re considering shopping, will go less often, or go elsewhere. Some stay for less time than they’d otherwise do. That’s why parking charges in market towns are anti-business. It’s why traders – and residents – are fighting increases in Cherwell; why chambers and shopkeepers welcome the Vale initiative. And it’s why a question is being asked about the possibility of legislation. Could it be made unlawful for a council to earn more from parking than it costs to run the service? Controversial, counter to the current spirit of localism maybe, but a sign of the strength of feeling about this most talked about market towns issue.

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