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written by
Christian Nellemann

How to save the high street, part one: parking

No parking sign

The subject of parking might not capture everyone’s imagination when thinking about how to reinvigorate the high street. But in actual fact, parking is a massive issue.

A few years back, Mary Portas asked the government for free parking in town centres. And in response, the government has ‘relaxed the rules’ – which basically means very little has changed. In fact, in both 2014 and 2015, parking revenue records were broken by UK councils as they raked in nearly £700 million each year.

Meanwhile the rate of high street shop closures is increasing every year. So to put it in simple terms, more shops are closing than ever before, but councils are making it increasingly expensive for shoppers to help change things. Common sense tells me that something has to change.

Free parking in town centres? At the very least we need localised parking plans

Last year Marcus Jones MP suggested that the UK’s town centres should become ‘parking meter-free zones’. He added that parking costs ‘undermine high streets’, and I think that’s very true. The average budget-conscious family will simply shop online to avoid parking costs, and why wouldn’t they? The supermarkets deliver for free, and local high streets haven’t been able to compete.

Meanwhile, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has a slightly different approach, while also recognising the significance of the issue. Their research suggests that 7 in 10 small firms see parking as a priority for the future of independent shops, and accordingly, the FSB regularly campaigns to address high parking charges. But importantly, they want localised parking strategies that address the distinct and unique economic circumstances of different communities. As they put it themselves ‘no two high streets are the same’.

Free parking all over the UK is a powerful idea, but arguably the FSB’s approach is more realistic. Some high streets are already thriving – head to somewhere like Totnes in Devon, and you’ll find a bustling high street, free of chain stores. High street parking is a national issue that warrants a national discussion, but ultimately the decisions themselves must be local.

It works – just ask Cardigan in Wales

A fascinating story emerged last year involving the Welsh town of Cardigan. Vandals smashed the four parking machines in the town, but local council officials couldn’t find, or at least couldn’t justify finding, the £22,500 needed to repair them. As a result, parking in the town centre became free.

The result? A jump in sales of nearly 50% across the town. Anecdotal evidence suggests that customers were staying longer, and doing more on each visit – stopping for lunch and coffee as cafes and restaurants throughout the town reported a significant boost in trade. So every kind of business has reaped the benefits.

Essentially, locals came back to the high street as soon as parking became free.

How can the situation be changed?

The fact is, last year the government did introduce the ’10-minute grace period’ for parking in high streets. That is clearly not enough, but it shows that when enough pressure is applied, change is possible.

So fundamentally, more pressure needs to be put in place, all over the country. That means writing to your local MP, starting and signing petitions, and much more besides. The key of course is that the pressure is localised – circumstances vary across the country.

But also, pressure alone isn’t enough. What we really need are new ideas in this area – some innovation.

So what do you think? How’s the situation where you live? And what solutions do you think are needed? I’d love to hear you thoughts, and to get a conversation started around this most central of dilemmas.

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