Belfast Telegraph

Shoppers driven out of town by parking policy

Three out of four households have access to a car but congestion measures in our town and city centres favour retail giants and threaten our small businesses, says Glyn Roberts

According to the Department for Regional Development (DRD), car ownership continues to grow, with more than 860,000 registered owners at the end of 2009, giving confirmation, if any were needed, that the car remains the dominant mode of transport and equates to three out of four households owning or having access to a vehicle.

These facts are vital in devising a transport system that provides for the growth of our economy and for the future development of our town and city centres.

The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) is concerned at new proposals to introduce additional car parking charges for 30 of our towns by the DRD, with the threat of a £90 fine for anyone who contravenes the restrictions. These proposals, in our view, can only be described as a stealth tax on town-centre shopping at a time when we need to be doing more to incentivise shoppers to visit our town and city centres.

In addition, this will increase a growing trend toward out-of-town multiple supermarkets that already boast free parking. This issue has not been addressed by the DRD.

According to the DRD, these charges are about ensuring a turnover of cars in town centres to reduce congestion and avoid employees from parking all day and therefore denying parking spaces to shoppers. I agree with that objective and would support a fair review of parking policy to ensure that does not happen.

However, in many of those 30 towns they already have free car parking for an hour, or even two, which allows the consumer ample time to shop. If anyone tries to abuse this scheme then, quite rightly, they are given a fine by the ever-present 'red coats'.

This achieves a turnover of cars, accommodates shoppers and prevents all-day parking - all without charging the consumer.

Instead of charging shoppers every time they park in our town centres, surely a more sensible policy would be to ensure that free one or even two-hour parking is the normal practice?

Our town centres are under huge threat from unsustainable out-of-town retail developments which are destroying jobs in the independent retail sector and are sucking the life out of our town centres. It is absolutely crazy for the DRD to even consider introducing these charges at this time.

Quite simply, it is the wrong charge at the wrong time and could well be the final nail in the coffin of our struggling town centres - not to mention the closure of independent retailers and considerable job losses.

It should be immediately halted and we will be urging all Assembly election candidates to pledge to reject this policy.

I agree with DRD Minister Conor Murphy when he said that "public transport should be people's first choice and not a last resort", but to hit shoppers who use cars in such a direct and costly way is not a sensible course of action.

Recently, NIIRTA helped to launch a Translink scheme to encourage more shoppers to use public transport and have welcomed the improved Metro service in Belfast.

In NIIRTA's manifesto for the Assembly elections, it said: "Having an affordable, accessible and effective public transport system is essential not just for our town and city centres but also for our economy as a whole."

We now have the prospect of a £90 fine for those shoppers who contravene this scheme. I don't know about you, but given our often over-zealous red-coat friends, this prospect fills me with dread. There is already a growing perception that parking enforcers show little flexibility as it is.

How would a pensioner or someone on a low income possibly be able to afford a £90 fine for a minor parking offence?

NIIRTA has strongly welcomed Finance Minister Sammy Wilson's announcement of a fairer rates policy. It proposed that the big out-of-town stores, who continue to make billions in profit, enjoy free car parking and pay less per square foot in rates than town-centre independent retailers, will have to pay additional rates. This means that they will have to pay for their unfair competitive advantage over town-centre retailers.

These additional rates will help fund an increase in the qualifying criteria of the small business rate relief scheme, giving welcome help to struggling town-centre small traders. This is a long overdue development which will bring fairness and balance in our non-domestic rates system and has been a core policy objective of NIIRTA for some time.

However, this excellent initiative could well have little impact if town-centre traders are starved of shoppers because of these draconian car parking charges. It seems a case of the Executive giving with one hand and taking with another. If you care about the future of your town centre, then support our campaign to reject these charges.

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