Joanna Morris asks if Middlesbrough's plan in the solution to trading woes or throwing money down the drain?
ACCORDING to retailing expert Mary Portas affordable parking will play a key role in saving Britain's High Streets from irreversible decline.
The Government's retailing advisor made cheap parking one of the key recommendations in her review of High Street shopping published in 2011.
Middlesbrough Council’s proposals to offer shoppers free town centre parking in an effort to boost trade are in line with her recommendations. However, reactions to the scheme have been mixed.
Retailers in neighbouring towns fear the free parking offer will lead to a loss of business and other councils have been forced on the defensive.
However, the scheme also faced criticism closer to home.
Debbie Anderson, manager of Middlesbrough's Cleveland Centre shopping mall, said: “Retailers are in difficulty at the moment and we are all left with empty units that we are struggling to fill.
"More needs to be done in the town to improve the environment and keep the streets safe and clean for shoppers. There is a much bigger picture. This parking initiative is not going to be the solution to the issues we have got.”
Other councils expressed doubt as to the viability of the initiative. Bill Dixon, leader of Darlington Borough Council, said: "Middlesbrough will be reliant on car parking income for services, like every other authority. It is difficult to see how they are going to raise that money now.
"I can see the impact of having free parking, it will boost shops, but with the potential loss of revenue to the local authority, there is a danger that they could end up worse off…How much trade this will actually generate is debatable.”
Mike Smith, a councillor in neighbouring Stockton, said: “Free parking is difficult to manage and our experience in Yarm, when no enforcement was in place, meant that the turn-over of visitors was much reduced and had a detrimental impact on retailers.”
Former mayor of Yarm, Jason Hadlow - who unsuccessfully fought to ban Stockton Borough Council from implementing car parking charges in the town - disagreed.
He said: “Car parking charges do not work. Private landlords do not charge for parking because they know it would kill their business…I congratulate Middlesbrough Council for their brave decision, which is the right decision to save the town.”
The leader of Redcar and Cleveland Council – which is set to review its parking charges - said he did not think free parking in Middlesbrough would entice visitors away from the East Cleveland area.
Councillor George Dunning added: “We have a lot of regeneration projects going on and I am confident visitors will be attracted to the area as a result. I would like to wish Middlesbrough all the luck in the world and hope that they do manage to get more people to visit the town.”
Parking campaigner Beryl Hankin, who runs the Guru boutique, in Darlington, said cheap parking was the key to future prosperity.
The owner of Saltburn's Pet Centre, Peter Fulcher, is fighting the implementation of parking charges in Saltburn. He said: "Nobody should be charged for parking in any town centre. There should be free parking for all if they want people to use facilities in their town."
Northallerton trader Marcus Grover, of Grovers Toymaster, said: “Shoppers want convenience and if they don’t have to rummage around in their pockets for loose change or go into a shop to get the change they need for a parking meter it makes a lot of difference to a shopper.”
“I absolutely think shopping in Middlesbrough will be more attractive to people from outside the area if there is free parking – people certainly like to use the two hours of free disc parking available in Northallerton.”