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Is Darlington's 'anti-car' image affecting its high street?
Our high streets are struggling, shoppers are switching to out-of-town retail parks, and empty shops are filling our town centres. As our shopping habits change and more people go online, something has to give if high streets are to survive. Hannah Bryan looks at how parking measures in one North-East town could affect its high street
“THERE is a feeling from people that Darlington is completely anti-car,” says Darlington borough councillor, Gill Cartwright. “As a council we should be encouraging people to come into the town and to say welcome to Darlington, not give them parking tickets.”
She, like hundreds of others in the town, believe something must change if Darlington town centre is to survive. With free parking at large out-of-town retail parks, like Teesside Park, and Middlesbrough Council offering two hours of free parking in all authority-operated car parks, she fears shoppers are choosing to drive the extra few miles rather than shop on their doorstep.
In a bid to encourage more shoppers back to the town centre, the Tory councillor is calling on her colleagues to "apply some common sense" when it comes to parking charges and enforcement in the town centre.
“As a council we need to work at losing the ‘anti-car’ image and the reputation that Darlington has gained for having over-zealous traffic enforcement officers, to let common sense prevail to welcome visitors to our town,” she argues.
“There is a lot of talk at the moment that the high street will continue to decline. We have got to be proactive as a council and realise that one of the big issues with people is parking.
“It’s time Darlington offered some incentives to encourage people into the town and support our local shops and businesses. If we are going to keep our high street we need to be fighting for it.”
Her thoughts are echoed by Beryl Hankin, a Darlington business owner who has repeatedly called on the council to review its parking policy. For more than 40 years Mrs Hankin has run her shop, Guru Boutique, but admits it has become a struggle to keep her business afloat and encourage people into the town centre.
“People are exasperated,” she says. “We get customers in who ask: ‘Why are the council like this? We want to come over and spend money but they seem hell bent on making it difficult.’
“Obviously the council do need the money but unfortunately parking is a big issue in the success of the town and they should really consider that when making decisions. It is hard work keeping people positive about the town and wanting to come to Darlington.”
Local Government secretary, Eric Pickles, recently called on town halls to ‘ditch their anti-car dogma’ saying parking rules should rejuvenate high streets, rather than raise revenue from penalising drivers.
By releasing new guidance to town halls, he hopes to see an end to ‘draconian’ measures against cars, including over-zealous traffic wardens and ‘confusing car parking practices’, which he believes are stifling the local economy.
HOWEVER the ‘anti-car’ reputation gained by Darlington is strongly refuted by the leader of the council, Bill Dixon. Since taking over civil parking enforcement in December 2010, the number of enforcement officers employed by Darlington Borough Council has reduced – a sign, says Councillor Dixon, that parking in the borough is improving.
“Traffic wardens have got a job to do,” he says. “I remember before we brought in enforcement often I could not get into town because people had abandoned vehicles all over the place.
“We are not interested in fining people; enforcement is to make people behave. It is about getting the balancing act and we do encourage people who feel a mistake has been made to appeal.”
In 2012 to 2013, 17,668 penalty charge notices were given out in the town, and so far, £438,149.50 has been paid. Although the authority is expecting a fall in “profits” from both parking charges and fines in 2013 to 2014, it is still on course to pocket £1.325m. But at least half of this money, according to Coun Dixon, is reinvested in the car parks and their CCTV and without it they could not maintain their facilities.
“Everybody says if you have free car parking you generate more trade, but all that would happen is the car park gets full with commuters, not shoppers, and that is it for the day,” he says. “If you look at the statistics for town centre parking we expect to get four to six cars in each bay, but if we had free car parking one shop assistant would park in it all day and that is it, you are left with six shoppers who can't get in.”
Darlington Borough Council is beginning a consultation on its new parking strategy for 2014 to 2026, which outlines a number of proposals, including plans to keep the current charges of £1 per hour or £4 per day in the majority of council-operated car parks until at least 2014, with Coun Dixon ruling out any reduction in tariffs.
Consultation sessions will be held on Friday, September 6, from 9.30am to noon, and Wednesday, September 11, from 5pm to 7pm, in the Dolphin Centre reception, as well as on Saturday, September 14, from 9.30am to noon, in Darlington town centre.
A session for people living in residents' parking zones will be held on Monday, September 23, from 5pm to 7pm, in the studio at the Dolphin Centre.
Alternatively, an online form can be completed at darlington.gov.uk/parking consultation. The consultation closes on Monday, September 30.
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