The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has announced an end to centrally imposed limits on town centre parking spaces to stimulate trade in the high street. Councils that see the connection between ease of access by car and footfall in town centres can now provide more parking without interference from central Government if they wish to.
National parking restrictions set by Whitehall have until now dictated the number of parking spaces a council is permitted to grant, often with a cap that limits the spaces town centres can offer even when they want to offer more.
The new draft National Planning Policy Framework, recently published, are designed to do away with anti-car restrictions introduced in 2001 and to give high streets a boost to compete for shoppers. It is expected to generate new investment in town centres, provide more jobs and encourage more charging spaces for electric cars.
The Government believes councils and communities are best placed to set parking policies that are right for their area and based on local need – not Whitehall, and that local people know the level of parking that is sustainable for their town centre.
However, those policies need to be carefully thought through. The RAC Foundation has always argued that parking policy should be an important element of any local transport plan and it is pleased to see local authorities given more flexibility. But with the flexibility now comes more responsibility for a parking policy that addresses not only the problems towns and cities face now, but also problems they may face in the future.
Historically, town centres have suffered from lack of vision. During the 1980s many planning restrictions were lifted in the belief that enterprise would be free to locate wherever a commercial advantage could be identified and obtained. The result saw an explosion of out of town retail parks and superstores, most relying on customers who arrived by car and parked in nearby free car parks
At a time when many households were shopping for groceries just once a week, and other shopping had become a leisure activity, easy and free parking led in many cases to a direct decline in traditional shopping practices. High streets and town centres lost shops and investment and choice for those limited to walking and using public transport was significantly reduced.
In many locations just extending existing car parks will not turn back the clock and flood town centre shops with customers. More creative and forward thinking planning strategies are needed to make town centres accessible and attractive to all. These should include plans for all transport modes but amongst these parking should feature close to the top of the list.