Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Leaving space for small businesses

Introducing parking charges in town centres across Northern Ireland obviously ticks a number of boxes in the minds of politicians and civil servants. It stops people parking all day for free clogging up thoroughfares; it could raise £37m annually and it works in cities like Belfast and Lisburn and in smaller urban areas like Newry. But would this one-size-fits-all plan really work throughout the province?

In big urban areas like Belfast and Lisburn parking charges work. A critical mass of people have to go into those city centres for shopping or work and they are prepared to pay for that privilege. Newry has the advantage of a burgeoning cross-border trade and is an important retail destination in its area. Again parking charges work.

But the centres of some 30 smaller towns in the province have a more fragile economy. The shopkeepers there have to maximise every advantage to compete against multiple retailers and free on-street parking is a big bonus for them. If shoppers were suddenly faced with expensive car parking charges they may well reconsider their retailing habits and head for the large outlets which offer free parking, never to return. Locally-owned small business could not survive a drift of shoppers to the suburbs.

In the frenzy of the election campaign in the next few weeks the plight of these shopkeepers may well get overlooked. That is why this newspaper is campaigning to keep the issue at the forefront of public attention. Our town centres are vital to the well-being of this province. They are populated, in large measure, by locally-owned businesses who depend on passing trade to keep going.

Whoever is the next minister for regional development can make himself a really popular person with the electorate if he follows our simple advice: Park the Charges. But he or she will also be doing the community at large a great service by preventing its commercial lifeblood from draining away.

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