My Lords, it is a pleasure and privilege to be asked to introduce this Private Member’s Bill. I congratulate my honourable friend the Member for Bosworth, David Tredinnick, on sponsoring the Bill in the other place—where, I am pleased to say, there was opposition support and no amendment of the Bill. I also thank the Department for Communities and Local Government for my briefings. I refer the House to my interests listed in the register.
This Private Member’s Bill supports businesses, large and small, which make up our town centre communities across the country, creating much-needed job opportunities. UK small businesses contribute 51% of our GDP and employ 60% of the private sector workforce. They are the foundation of the UK economy. The Federation of Small Businesses also supports the Bill before us as high parking charges can do serious damage to small businesses. A lack of free parking and escalating charges are particular threats to small businesses operating in town centres and high streets, with seven in 10 small firms thinking that parking is a priority for the future of independent shops.
Independent retailers in town centres are the engine which helps to make local communities what they are. The Parking Places (Variation of Charges) Bill, which I have been asked to introduce, will be of positive benefit to local authorities, shoppers and businesses. The subject of parking is of real interest to residents in North Lincolnshire, where I have had the privilege of serving both as a councillor and then as leader, as it is right across the country, because parking charges can be a sensitive issue in some communities. My council’s record of introducing free parking has been acknowledged as helping to inject substantial investment which has helped to stimulate and promote the high street. We have a duty to do all we can to make sure that our high streets are thriving places at the heart of our communities.
Since we first launched free parking across North Lincolnshire in 2011, we have seen more people visiting and spending longer shopping, socialising and visiting other venues. That choice helps to complement our large retail parks and challenge internet shopping. Our businesses need our support. This Bill sends a clear message to their owners and, it is hoped, will help to stimulate business confidence. In North Lincolnshire we have free parking all day on Saturday and Sunday in addition to two hours in the week and after 2 pm in The Parishes car park. We are seeing a reduction in the number of empty shops.
The clauses in this Bill would amend the existing powers of the Secretary of State under Sections 35C and 46A of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to make regulations providing for the procedure to be followed by local authorities in giving notice to vary charges on both off-street and on-street parking places. It will allow for new regulations to be made that revise the existing regulations to reduce the burden on local authorities choosing to seek to lower their charges. In addition, the Bill allows for a new power which would mean that local authorities will need to consult their communities and businesses if they increase their parking charges under an existing traffic order.
As I said earlier, town centres are at the heart of our communities. This Bill will allow local authorities to respond quickly to market changes and allow greater flexibility if they decide to reduce parking charges or even introduce free parking. It would put them on an equal footing with the private sector by allowing them to provide free or discounted parking at short notice to support town centre special events. Conversely, this must be balanced by the effect that increased parking charges has on businesses in town centres as anecdotal evidence suggests, and the FSB has stated. It discourages visitors to high streets who those businesses rely on.
I am strongly of the view that councils should engage with their local communities when raising charges to help ensure that the business community is aware of any proposals and able to make informed comments or representations. I feel that that will reinforce what should be good practice and, I would emphasise, ensure that the system is less bureaucratic for local authorities when implementing any changes.
Perhaps I may also make reference to the RAC Foundation where the director noted that in the 2015-16 financial year, councils in England made a combined surplus or “profit” of £756 million from their on-street and off-street parking activities. He went on to say that this Bill recognises that there are times when setting parking charges is not about keeping cars out of urban areas but about ensuring the vibrancy of our towns and cities by making them accessible, affordable and sustainable. Motorists and businesses will welcome a change in the law and agree that councils will be able to react quickly to boost local economies by cutting fees while ensuring that any prospect of charges being raised will be fully scrutinised through consultation.
Finally, it only remains for me to highlight once more that the Government are supportive of the Bill’s purpose, together with opposition support in the other place. I beg to move.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, for giving me the chance to speak very briefly at this point. What I have to say is not really relevant to the Bill but it is relevant to the subject of the Bill because it is about car parking in towns and cities, specifically in private car parks. Although all car parks are useful to disabled people, the different rules that apply in private car parks can catch people out—when blue badges are not recognised, for example. Often, private car parks are close to DWP assessment centres, so it is quite a live issue. There can also be a problem when there are no ticket machines and payment has to be made by card. Quite often this arrangement does not work, for one reason or another. A person may try to give a credit card number and when it is rejected they face a penalty. One of my correspondents had this problem when he was delivering a disabled person to such an assessment centre. Or it may be that a disabled person is being helped out of a car, very helpfully and safely, and the time limit is overrun by a few minutes and a penalty charge is incurred. I ask the Minister whether there is any meaningful oversight of the running of private car parks to make quite sure that they are operating fairly, both for disabled people and other motorists. As far as the Bill is concerned, we Liberal Democrats give it a warm welcome.
My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register and declare that I am an elected councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, on sponsoring the Bill and securing its Second Reading. Parking charges are an important issue, as the noble Baroness outlined, and the Bill proposes to make it easier for local authorities to lower parking charges and requires them to consult on changes such as increasing charges. I can be very clear that the Opposition support the Bill and wish it a speedy passage on to the statute book.
It is important to say at the outset that local authorities are not seeking to extract as much cash as possible from parking charges; these are part of managing the traffic situation in their district and the fee charged is an important part of that and material in enabling traffic and parking in their area. It should also be noted that the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 is prescriptive about what the surplus can be used for; if there is a shortage of car parking spaces in towns, the money can be used to provide additional spaces and other improvements. It is not a profit-making service for the local authority and if a surplus is made, it is reinvested: it is important that we note that as well. It is not just about people being able to get in and out of our town centres but about supporting the economies of our towns and cities and their high streets to ensure that they are vibrant—as we know, they have been struggling for some time in many places. Review after review has highlighted the vulnerability of our high streets, in particular, and we want to make sure that we give them as much support as possible. The measures in the Bill are another way that we can do that.
We should give as much power, responsibility and accountability as we can to local councils and their communities to do what is right for their area: if it is not right the voters at the next local elections can give their verdict on the councillors concerned. My own local authority, Lewisham, often suspends parking charges on a few Saturdays before Christmas, for example.
We also need to be a bit clearer about what we mean by consultation and who is going to be consulted. In some cases this can be straightforward, such as consulting the business improvement district or another small group of people, but the area of interest could be much wider, meaning that a much wider group of people would be considered to have an interest and should be consulted. We want to be clear about what that involves. I would not want to see an onerous consultation exercise imposed on a council if it was seeking to reduce car parking charges or to make minor changes to the car parking arrangements. What will the consultation involve? Would a statutory notice in the local newspaper be enough or would we expect much more than that? Equally, councils, quite rightly, might look at raising their charges as part of their budget-making processes. If a local authority is proposing a modest, perhaps inflation-linked, rise in their car parking charges, what sort of consultation can we expect to deal with that? We need to be clear about what we want from councils in terms of proportionality. That is important.
It is also important to recognise that no two areas are the same. There are different local communities, local economies and local experiences. Lewisham, where I live, is very different from Brigg in the noble Baroness’s district, which, again, is very different from Nottingham, where I lived for many years. These are all very different areas, which have their own problems of car parking and traffic and other issues. It is right for the local councillors to make what they think are the best decisions. It must be a matter for local councils. For me anyway, it is not just a way to generate revenue but is about ensuring that the parking arrangements support the viability of the shops and the retail sector in town centres. I think we all agree with that and we all want to see vibrant local economies. That is an important matter. I was pleased to learn that we have the support of the Federation of Small Businesses.
In conclusion, I congratulate the noble Baroness on presenting her Bill to the House. I wish the Bill well. I will not be tabling any amendments. This will be my last contribution on the Bill before it reaches the statute book, I hope. It is an important area and we need to ensure that we get these things right.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in support of the Bill’s Second Reading. I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lady Redfern on taking her first—of many, I am sure—Private Member’s Bill through the House. I also congratulate my honourable friend the Member for Bosworth for his hard work, in his 30th year in Parliament, in getting his first Private Member’s Bill through the House of Commons. I am grateful to those who have spoken. I will come to the serious issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, in a moment, but I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for the support from his Benches for the Bill.
Parking is an issue that will be familiar to many of us. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Redfern assures me that as leader of North Lincolnshire Council she has always made sure that her local business community is properly consulted on changes to parking charges. North Lincolnshire Council has also led the way in providing targeted free parking in support of its high-street businesses. More than 1.5 million free parking permits were issued in 2015-16, double the number in 2012-13, by her council.
As my noble friend said, and was repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, high streets and town centres are an essential part of the fabric of our lives and are the social core of local communities. The need for affordable parking to access town centres is critical to the sustainability of our high streets. The coalition Government brought forward reforms to make it mandatory for local authorities to give 10-minute grace periods for all on-street parking bays and all off-street car parks. This gives consumers greater flexibility to allow them to complete their business in the town centre without having to worry too much about feeding the meter. That Government were also concerned about the use of CCTV camera cars as a revenue-generating tool. That is why, in addition to the grace periods, they banned local authorities from sending parking tickets through the post. This means that individuals can have a degree of certainty that, when they get a ticket, they know about it on the day.
My noble friend the Minister for Local Government noted that further reforms to the local government transparency code will follow. A recent consultation set out the Government’s intention to amend the code so that everyone will be able to see first-hand a complete breakdown of the parking charges their councils impose and how much money they raise, promoting accountability.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raised the issue of what consultation is. I would like to take that away but perhaps my noble friend Lady Redfern, who also consults at the moment on parking charge changes in North Lincolnshire, can shed some light on best practice in her part of the country.
My noble friend’s Bill recognises on the one hand that all councils need flexibilities, but that they also need to involve local communities in the decision-making process. Her Bill offers a real opportunity for a small but sensible reform to local authority car parks. It will give the Government powers to scrap the bureaucratic requirements on local authorities if they wish to lower their car parking charges. This would allow councils to take a flexible approach in supporting their high streets—for example, by responding to the opportunity of local festivals that can be used to celebrate town centres.
While there is a need to offer councils flexibility in respect of car parking charges, it is important that we recognise that charging levels are a significant concern to town-centre businesses. The Government therefore think it fit and proper that councils are responsive to local concerns before seeking to increase charges. My noble friend’s Bill provides for a consultation requirement if local authorities want to raise their charges on an existing traffic order. I believe this is a sensible and proportionate reform that balances the needs of the local authority to set fair pricing policies, but takes into account the views of local communities.
I listened with interest to the speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and I was concerned to learn about the problems that face many disabled motorists in private car parks when they have difficulties paying or with other issues. Of course the Equality Act applies to all bodies, and the Government urge those who operate private car parks to discharge their responsibilities under that Act. We are carefully considering our response to the discussion paper that we published on private parking in 2015, which focused on a range of issues including disability. We will announce our response in due course and I will make sure that the concerns expressed in this short debate by the noble Baroness are taken on board.
The Government are supportive of the Bill’s intentions because it helps to deliver a more effective parking model that is supportive of Great Britain’s high streets and town centres.
My Lords, I too have sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, regarding fairness to disabled people in private car parks. I also take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his comments, particularly about not wanting too much bureaucracy when we consult people. I thank the Minister for his constructive comments and support.
The Bill recognises that councils need not only to have flexibilities but to involve local communities in their decision-making process. It offers a real opportunity for a small but sensible reform to local authority car parks and will give the Government powers to scrap the bureaucratic requirements on local authorities, if they wish to lower their parking charges, and to react more quickly to market changes and allow for greater flexibility. It also offers a real opportunity for councils to take a flexible approach to supporting their high streets. That is what the Bill seeks to achieve and I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.