Axing the popular ‘Free after 3’ parking discount could turn Chester city centre into a ‘ghost town’, according a business leader who represents 500 members.
Carl Critchlow, manager of the CH1 Chester Business Improvement District (BID), says retailers are already struggling due to high business rates, internet shopping and projects like replacing the old bus station that causes disruption to trade.
He believes Cheshire West and Chester Council’s proposals to chop the initiative that allows shoppers to park free of charge after 3pm at certain car parks will be a ‘hammer blow’.
But on Wednesday (July 12) the Labour-led authority is expected to back plans to replace ‘Free after 3’ with other offers saying it is not working, while also admitting extra revenue needs to be raised to invest in improving parking facilities.
In an open letter, Mr Critchlow wrote: “The council’s decision to remove Free after 3 – if it happens – would be a hammer blow for all businesses in Chester and for the city that we all love...the city our members and our community are passionate about protecting.
“Losing more city centre businesses would be a bitter pill to swallow for every proud Cestrian who calls Chester home. After all, who would visit a high street resembling a ghost town?”
Mr Critchlow said the council’s justifications for removing Free after 3 are contradictory including claims it is leading congestion yet isn’t adding to numbers visiting the city centre. He agrees there is a need to extend the ‘dwell time’ of visitors but says the popularity of Free after 3 is a good starting point on which to build.
He concluded: “The reality of the matter is that removing Free after 3 is about raising revenue. It is a way of generating income from the public to fill holes in council budgets.
"There is, however, an alternative. By adopting business-friendly policies we can encourage more business into Chester bringing with them the revenues, staff and customers that will benefit whole city economy and ensure Chester thrives for years to come.”
Cllr Karen Shore, cabinet member for environment, defended confining Free after 3 to the dustbin of history even though some believe it could cost Labour its slender one seat majority.
In reply to the BID manager, she wrote: “The council is absolutely committed to supporting local businesses, increasing footfall and retail spend in the city, and indeed across the borough, and continuing to create a thriving economy.
“We’re taking forward the Northgate development after years of uncertainty, long-held dreams of the return of a theatre are now a reality, funding for a new bus station was secured and we’re investing in large-scale public realm improvements like the amphitheatre and Frodsham Street to name just a few.”
Talking specifically about axing the off peak parking discount, she added: “We are not just proposing to scrap Free after 3; we are proposing to replace it.
“Analysis strongly suggests that Free after 3 is having only a limited impact, while contributing to the evening peak in traffic and air pollution. The time spent in the city by those using ‘Free after 3’ is short – in most cases less than an hour - whereas research shows that dwell time is a key factor in successful retail centres, including the High Street.“
Cllr Shore stressed: “A key option we want to develop with businesses is a ‘spend and save’ offer where participating retailers refund or part-pay for parking charges when customers spend with them.”
Among the other options being considered include:
■ Cheaper short stay rates in Trinity Street car park under the Crowne Plaza
■ Simplified pricing to promote cheaper short-stay parking in central car parks and cheaper medium stay in others
■ A flat rate tariff for longer-stay visitors in car parks outside the inner ring road, such as Little Roodee and Lower Watergate Street,
■ Trialling free after 2pm mid-week on Park and Ride
“All of the proposals are intended to support the best use of the car parks for businesses by reducing some charges and encouraging longer dwell times of shoppers in the central car parks,” added Cllr Shore, whose authority wants to provide enough car parking spaces in the right places that are safe and clean with good signage and use of new technology to make paying easier.
She added: “But we can’t do it without investment. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realise that we will need to generate income to contribute to improvements that will bring our facilities to the highest standard.
“Nobody likes paying for things that used to be free, we understand that, but research shows that with a range of reduced charges and attractive offers such as the ‘spend and save’ option, shoppers actually value safety, flexibility and ease-of-use much more than cost.”