I beg to move,
That this House has considered Chippenham parking charges.
This week in Parliament, we are discussing the two issues that I would argue are the most important to Chippenham residents: Brexit and, believe it or not, parking. I should say that those are the two issues on which I receive the most correspondence. Parking is an issue across the constituency, but today I shall focus mainly on the town of Chippenham, where problems are the most acute and could easily be dealt with, and from which the majority of businesses and residents contact me. For instance, the situation in Bradford on Avon, which I represent, is more challenging because space in that historic town is at such a premium. I have campaigned on parking and parking charges in Chippenham for many years, from well before I was elected as the local MP, and the recent council proposal on parking charges left me with no option but to call this debate.
I completely empathise with the council’s motivations and thought processes in this area, but I hope to highlight the need for it to think again and to press the Minister to respect devolution but consider publishing best practice on this topic. As an MP, I have no power to dictate parking policy, nor should I, but I must stand up as a champion of my residents and businesses, as it appears that their voice has not been listened to or heard.
Chippenham’s parking problems are twofold, as I am sure you are aware, Mr Gray, having represented the area yourself. First, prices are too high, and further proposed increases in prices and charges will cripple our local high street and town centre businesses. Secondly, the number of spaces available is far too low to accommodate the town’s residents and visitors, and the staff that businesses need. It is important to note that both those problems need addressing.
In 2014, I conducted a local survey on parking charges and the key findings were that 93% of residents agreed that parking charges were—then—too high, and 88% of residents said they would shop in the town centre more often if prices were reduced even slightly. I raised the topic as one of my first questions to the Prime Minister on the support we could give market towns. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, stated that he would argue
“in the case of market towns, that we should make parking easier—and, preferably, free.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2015; Vol. 597, c. 315.]
A key point is that since the Salisbury incident, overall, Chippenham residents are paying the highest fees of all towns in Wiltshire for parking per hour and for permits. Prices went up in February, which I fought against to no avail; I still await the results of the consultation. Those increases mean a total increase in the last two and a half years of up to 15%. However, it is the new proposals that are deeply worrying: parking season permits would increase by 145%. That is a problem for all my constituency, but most acutely for Chippenham. Some key local businesses, not just local retail offerings, are based in the town, and both have barely any of their own parking. Staff are therefore forced to park in car parks.
The other change is to introduce parking charges on Sundays and bank holidays, which will damage all of Wiltshire and is beyond short sighted. The average car parking charge in Chippenham is £1.20, and a premium season ticket is already more than £1,200. Council representatives have regularly disputed that charges deter shoppers or affect the high street. It is therefore ironic that one of the first things done after the Salisbury incident was to introduce free parking there for three hours in the city centre to boost footfall. Let us not forget that the national planning policy framework states:
“Local planning authorities should set appropriate parking charges that do not undermine the vitality of town centres”.
Taxpayers and consumers should always get value for money. As you know, Mr Gray, Chippenham is a small and beautiful market town, and one that is brilliantly placed for businesses to locate. However, that price should reflect the relatively small offering, which is not on a par with that from a city or a large town, although the charges as they are set—as they will be following these changes—suggest that it is. People will pay for what they get: the residents and employees of Chippenham are not asking to pay nothing, but they are asking for a fair parking and permit price.
One local resident who corresponded with me on bank holiday and Sunday charges wrote:
“The town centre is already struggling and this will only make things worse. You can go to Trowbridge, which has more to offer and where the parking is far cheaper...or as we now often do…go to Yate, which is free.”
That speaks volumes—we are literally driving our own residents out of our own town.
The disproportionate prices are killing our high street. Yes, the internet and changing buying behaviours are also key, but as Juliet Davenport, chief executive officer of Good Energy, one of the largest companies in Chippenham, said, this is making the “task harder”. It is something we simply do not need to do. When it is cheaper to get a return train ticket to Bath or Swindon than to park in Chippenham for the day, it is a no-brainer, and I know which most people would choose to go shopping.
I stress that I am fully behind cutting down on vehicle use, but we simply do not have the cycle routes and sustainable transport network to enable people to leave the car to go to work or to shop. That is needed first. I also argue that when buying the Gazette and Herald, at £1.15, costs less than parking, someone will probably go to Sainsbury’s or Morrisons just outside of the town, where parking is free, or to the Brookside retail park. When there, they might buy other things. The beauty of the high street is that when we go to buy one thing we see others, which helps to support the economy.
Let us not forget that the Portas review recommended that local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres, and that we should have a new parking league table. Well, we have one in Wiltshire, but Chippenham is not playing well this season. Chippenham business improvement district, which represents 370 member businesses across Chippenham town centre, has been fielding a tide of complaints and concerns from its members on this topic. In fact, Sarah Andrews, manager of Mail Boxes Etc in Chippenham, said:
“The council need to be attracting businesses…not driving them away. I use Bath Road car park and the lines are not even drawn out clearly or maintained”.
I have had much correspondence on that. Although some of the money from charges is supposed to be reinvested in maintenance and the technology used in the car parks, that does not seem to be happening. Again, the argument is that there should be value for money and that people should pay a fair price. I reiterate that local residents are not against paying; they are against paying a charge that is not fair.
Our parking meters do not take card payments, but those in most large market towns across the UK now do. Our machines also do not give change, which means that someone who does not have the correct change is regularly losing 30p to 80p. The online service is patchy, given that we also have a number of notspots.
I must be clear: I fully appreciate that local councils use parking revenue to subsidise rural bus services, and I am not suggesting for one minute that we should cut those valuable services, which are lifelines for so many vulnerable, elderly and isolated people, but it is important to remember that we have lost a lot of our bus services in the last few years, so the policy is not working—and it is not sustainable, anyway. Plus, Sunday and bank holiday charges are expected to raise only £78,000 across Wiltshire, so they will cause more damage than they will raise revenue.
Damaging our high street to pay for rural bus services is not the answer. I have long argued for councils to look at smarter, more sustainable models such as regional bus contracts to fulfil their needs, rather than solely relying on parking revenue. In addition, and most importantly, starving towns of customers and encouraging businesses to leave serves only to reduce the business rate pot, meaning less money overall in the council’s coffers in the long term. That makes little financial sense.
A retort that has often been floated is that austerity is causing the increases and changes, but it is important to remember that the money has always subsidised bus services, so that argument does not really stack up. Other areas have introduced sensible parking systems, which speaks volumes—the evidence base is there. For example, Braintree introduced a parking charge of 10p after 3 pm, and 10p all day on Sunday. Figures show that more than 44,000 extra cars took advantage of that over the course of the year, thus increasing business rates and footfall in the town. Local authorities in Middlesbrough and other places have done similar things, and even Swindon, our neighbour, has found that reducing car parking prices for short-term and long-stay car parks has increased footfall. The list goes on.
We all know that difficult decisions have to be made in politics—indeed, we as MPs know that even more than most—and sometimes cuts and price increases are the only option. However, we must always have red lines and make decisions based on the will of the community and its interests, the local economy, and the long-term plan for an area. Those must be our priorities, otherwise what are we in politics for? Hiking parking charges again does not do that, but instead smacks of short-term thinking that is simply out of touch with the town, its residents and the business community. We have such wonderful potential to attract so many more businesses, especially given our location.
The consultation process was deeply flawed, which highlights my point. I have spoken to a number of businesses, the chamber of commerce, the business improvement district and multiple residents and community groups, all of whom had heard nothing about the consultation. The notice displayed on parking meters was, I think, in font size 10, and season ticket holders would never have gone to the meter to see it, even though they would be the most directly affected by the proposals. One constituent summed it up:
“I didn’t even know there was a consultation. What is the point of consulting when no one is given the chance to let the council know their views?”
As you might know, Mr Gray, I am somewhat passionate about parking—something many would find odd unless they lived in Chippenham. I invite the Minister to come to our wonderful town, which is nestled only 1 hour and 15 minutes on the train from Paddington, and sandwiched between Bristol, Swindon and Bath. It is a hub of engineering, technology and design, and has some of the leading companies in their sectors, such as Good Energy, Siemens, and MJ Church. We have a huge opportunity not only to retain those companies, but to build on them. However, the proposed changes to permits would particularly cripple the business community, because the staff spend in the retail offerings at lunch and in the evenings, and because a number of those businesses pay the permits for their staff.
For example, Alliance Pharma has said that if these changes are introduced it will simply leave, which would be devastating for our local economy. The managing director of accountancy firm Mander Duffill has said that it will stop its funding and encourage staff to park in residential streets. The business improvement district stated:
“Big businesses are threatening to leave the area if parking charges increase as much as is proposed…Town centres need a varied and robust offering”,
and that must be sufficient and well priced.
Let us be under no illusion: this is a very stark problem. The president of Chippenham chamber of commerce said:
“These changes will affect businesses in the town centre and will discourage people from visiting Chippenham.”
Little Waitrose has said that Sunday and bank holiday charges would mean closing its store. If all that happens, it will be devastating.
A Sunday charge has been suggested, but Sunday is the most profitable day for a number of businesses to which I have spoken, especially in the independent sector. In addition, a Sunday charge would make it harder for people to go to church and worship—churches in our towns do not usually have parking facilities, so this would basically be the introduction of a tax on worship across the constituency.
Even in Edinburgh, which has strong transport links, religious leaders warned that churches could close after plans to introduce parking charges on Sunday mornings were mooted. Our towns do not have the same transport networks or the available spaces that Edinburgh has—imagine the effect! Public holiday charges would particularly damage our restaurants and bars, and they would deter people in our community from going to community events.
Let me spend a couple of minutes talking about spaces—a self-explanatory yet infuriating argument. A common argument used to defend the car parking pricing structure is the regular high levels of occupancy. That is true, but it highlights a second problem, and one should not be used to justify the other. Indeed, high levels of occupancy are often part of the answer given, but that is easily solved: we could double-deck one of the car parks, with that in Bath Road being the easiest solution.
The lack of availability of parking spaces in Chippenham is acute and is pushing people into parking on residential streets, especially in Monkton Park, Wood Lane and other areas from where residents contact me daily to complain about the problem. The issue can prove dangerous for ambulances and service delivery, and even for rubbish collections.
Chippenham has about 31% fewer parking spaces than the national average. Trowbridge has more spaces and its population is 10,000 fewer. In 2013, the British Parking Association published “Re-Think! Parking on the High Street”. Its findings showed that there is a key relationship between the quantity of car parking and footfall in town. If we want our towns to grow and develop, and to support businesses, we need more parking spaces. We need to learn from neighbouring areas such as Cirencester, whose council is investing in car parking, rather than reducing funding, and has created 150 new spaces.
We need sustainable solutions, but also plans that are smart and consider business rate revenues and the importance of regenerating our towns, rather than short-sighted initiatives that will strangle Chippenham, especially if the season ticket price increase goes ahead.
One solution is to increase the number of car parking spaces, because if there were more spaces, revenue would increase—the high footfall has already proven that argument. Charging on bank holidays and Sundays is nonsensical in all areas of the constituency, and we need more spaces in Chippenham to feed the demand. In essence, we need a co-ordinated and considered parking strategy that prioritises local businesses—our job creators—and local people, helping to boost our towns and protect jobs. I therefore urge the Minister to consider conducting a best-practice review and producing a document to assist councils such as mine, which seem to need help on this matter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, especially in this Wiltshire-themed debate.
Point noted, Mr Gray.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on securing this important debate. She has been an incredibly long-standing champion for parking in her local area. From the moment she arrived in this place—and before—not only has she advocated on behalf of her constituents, but she spoke passionately about the Parking (Code of Practice) Bill on which I had the pleasure of leading for the Government some time ago. That Bill would clamp down on rogue parking operators, and she made a powerful speech in that debate.
My hon. Friend is also a champion of small businesses, and in many debates she has spoken with authority and passion about the importance of supporting small businesses, just as she did today. I congratulate her on all those things, and I very much agree with the central premise of what she is saying: high streets and town centres are a crucial part of our local and national economy, creating jobs, nurturing small businesses, and injecting billions of pounds into the economy. Key to a thriving town centre and high street is accessibility, and effective parking is a key element of that. The ability of shoppers and visitors to park is integral to increasing and maintaining footfall on our high streets.
For many people, their day begins and ends with parking their car. Local authorities should analyse people’s need for parking provision, and adjust their strategies to support local need. Suitable parking provision is a matter on which local authorities must decide what is best for their area, as I am glad my hon. Friend acknowledges. As our communities are all diverse and unique, there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach, or a directive that comes from this office, and instead parking should be managed intelligently and be part of a wider holistic transport plan that is tailored to the needs of each local area.
The Government, together with key stakeholders and partners, promote the use of best practice and encourage the sharing of what does and does not work. We support the use of innovative techniques, such as flexible tariffs and the use of mobile technology, to create the most enjoyable experience for visitors to our towns and high streets. On that point, I am very happy to look at the Department’s current operational guidance, which it provides to local authorities, to see whether there is any merit in revisiting it and making sure that best practice is more widely shared, as was suggested by my hon. Friend. I will also have that conversation with the Local Government Association in my work with it on this topic and others.
Research by the British Parking Association and the Association of Town and City Management shows that flexible and intelligent tariffs are a factor in the success of parking management strategies for high streets and towns. Perhaps that is the type of research that my hon. Friend would like to be shared more broadly. Richmondshire District Council instigated free parking for the Tour de Yorkshire in May. That encouraged people to come and enjoy a fantastic event. As the peloton travelled through my constituency, it was a boost to local businesses, supporting community spirit.
Unrestricted free parking is not always a magic bullet: it can have a negative impact on town centre footfall if spaces are used more often by workers or commuters parking all day, meaning that spaces are not available for leisure users such as shoppers. There is a balance to strike. Intelligent tariffs, such as reduced parking charges or free parking, can be used effectively to incentivise people to visit their high street. My hon. Friend mentioned reducing the cost of parking to support local markets and events, or even during off-peak periods. That is a tool that the Government would urge local authorities to consider when developing high street parking strategies.
New technologies are supporting better access to high street and town centre parking. Technologies such as AppyParking give real-time reports of on-street and off-street parking availability, and they interface with payment apps used by local councils to offer a one-stop shop that allows users to find and pay for parking. Similarly, car parks are increasingly embracing technology to improve accessibility to customers. Larger parking companies, including NCP, now offer the ability to book spaces, giving motorists certainty that they can access high streets and economic centres conveniently.
My hon. Friend spoke clearly on the subject of high streets, and parking strategies that support our high streets and market towns are more important than ever. High streets are changing: we see it happening around us every week and the Government are committed to helping communities adapt. If a high street or market town centre is to flourish, local people, businesses and councils in an area need to work together to develop their own unique offer for the high street and town centre that resonates with the local community. It is not just about retail. People care about high streets because they are the centres of their community. Consumers are looking for a range of experiences when they visit a high street, from leisure to health services. I am pleased to say that the Government are taking forward a wide range of measures to support high streets and businesses.
In Chippenham, as my hon. Friend will know, there is a growth deal project to improve the train station. The project aims to enhance the station facilities and to develop the surrounding land for improved commercial and residential property, including increased car parking capacity. She was right to point out that local authorities should ensure that there is adequate provision for parking in town centres. My understanding is that, through that project, car parking capacity at the station will double, which I hope is welcome. In addition, there will be public realm improvements to signpost to the high street to improve access.
More broadly, since 2010 the Government have helped to create more than 360 town teams and have given more than £18 million to towns. That has included successful initiatives such as Love Your Local Market, and the Great British High Street competition. We also support Small Business Saturday UK. An estimated £748 million was spent with small businesses across the UK for Small Business Saturday UK 2017, which was up 4% on the previous year’s spend. I know that my hon. Friend, as a devout and passionate supporter of small business, will welcome those measures, and no doubt she has been involved in supporting them in her area. The Government also established the future high streets forum, which is chaired by the Minister for local growth, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry). The forum consists of developers, investors and retailers and provides leadership from the Government and the business community to support our high streets and town centres to adapt and compete in the face of changing consumer and social trends.
We also believe in celebrating success, including the wonderful work that communities put into their high streets, making them community hubs. The Great British High Street awards highlight some of the excellent examples of high streets up and down the country. Members may know that the last awards, in 2016, garnered more than 900 applications across 15 categories, and more than half a million people participated in the voting.
Because of the knowledge and insight with which my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham speaks on matters relating to parking and the success of high streets, I have spoken to the local growth Minister, who has responsibility for high streets, and arranged for her to meet him at the earliest opportunity to convey her views on how parking should feed into the Government’s wider strategy on high streets. The Minister is working intently on the topic as we speak, and exciting things are to happen in the near future, so I urge her to meet him as soon as she can to feed in some of her ideas.
My hon. Friend asked about consultations, and I am pleased to tell her that the Government are developing the secondary legislation under the Parking Places (Variation of Charges) Act 2017. The Act provides for powers to simplify the procedure for lower parking charges. It also introduces a requirement for local authorities to consult businesses and communities on increasing charges, to ensure that local decisions are informed by local views. I know she will welcome that.
I think that we can all agree that parking provision is essential to making our high streets accessible, and to supporting them as vibrant economic centres. An intelligent and tailored parking strategy, taking account of local needs and designed to support high streets and town centres, should be central to local authorities’ transport plans. Suitable parking tariffs and, where appropriate, free or discounted parking are positive elements of such plans. We will continue to work with local authorities and key stakeholders to ensure that our high streets thrive in the future.
I end by echoing what I said in beginning: I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for continuing the work that she does to champion her constituents, in this instance in relation to parking but, more generally, in the matter of supporting high streets and small businesses. She has been a tireless advocate of her constituents on those issues and I know that she will continue to press me and other members of the Government to ensure that they get the best possible deal.
Question put and agreed to.