It’s confirmed Chester ’s popular Free after 3 parking discount will be axed but everyone remains in the dark about what will replace it and when.
Cheshire West and Chester Council ’s Labour cabinet unanimously backed a borough-wide parking strategy sounding the death-knell for a scheme that has enabled shoppers to park free of charge after 3pm at certain city centre car parks.
Council consultants Mott MacDonald claimed Free after 3 added to the evening congestion but the majority of trips were short-stay implying only a limited benefit to the economy.
The furore sparked by talk of its demise appears to have panicked the controlling Labour group to suggest a number of possible replacements such as Free after 2pm for Park and Ride users and ‘spend and save’ – the idea of retailers partly refunding customers’ parking charges if they spend over a certain amount.
However, these are only proposals being considered at the moment.
Action plans for each area of the borough will follow but with no timetable as to when changes will take place.
Traders in Northgate Street and the market are feeling vulnerable after bus services were taken out of Princess Street to create space for the proposed £300m Northgate retail development.
Mark Thomas, of greengrocers Francis Thomas, in Northgate Street, Chester, said: “Since the bus station closed we have seen a noticeable drop-off in trade. We reckon we are 35% down on normal takings and it’s very disappointing as this time of year should be our busiest time.
“It’s very disappointing they are proposing to close Free after 3, especially as they have not put forward any concrete proposals for the replacement of that offer.”
If the council wants to spread traffic flow throughout the day then Mark suggests free parking for the first 1.5 hours after 10am and then a charge to the motorist after that.
Jade Palmer, owner of the Ginger wine and deli business in Northgate Street, offers a similar perspective but accepts the area comes alive at night, especially since the opening of Storyhouse, which benefits her business.
She said: “I would say in the evening it’s buzzing but maybe during the daytime it has dipped slightly since the bus station moved.”
Talking about the end of Free after 3, she commented: “We get a lot of stock from the market and the market is really struggling since the bus station closed. The loss of Free after 3 will have an extra knock-on effect on that.
“So we are concerned for our suppliers and our other friends running businesses in the city.”
Jade would like the ‘dead space’ created by the closure of the bus station used for something productive such as a coach park.
While acknowledging the council was ‘trying its best’ and had laid on a free shuttle service between the new Gorse Stacks bus interchange and the old site, it was ‘not that busy’, adding: “There’s no bus shelter for it.”
Butcher Geoff Hughes, who is based in the market, said recent publicity around the plight of the market hall had boosted customer numbers but fears shoppers will swerve Chester in favour of Cheshire Oaks , Broughton Park and the Trafford Centre when Free after 3 stops.
He said: “They offer thousands of free spaces and it’s taking the general public away from the city centre.”
Geoff isn’t convinced by the idea of free park ride after 2pm, saying: “They’ve still got to go to the Park and Ride and they’ve still got to come in on the Park and Ride so they’re still paying any way.”
He is more open to the idea of customers spending over a certain amount having part of their parking charge partly refunded by the retailer but only if everyone participates.
The 15-year strategy has the stated aim of delivering sufficient ‘fit for purpose’ parking facilities across the borough to support residents and businesses, reduce congestion and improve air quality.
But Labour cabinet members including Cllr Nicole Meardon , who has responsibility for children and young people, appeared to hint at the real reason behind rolling out more charges in referencing £335m central government cuts. “This is austerity. This is what it looks like,” she said.
Proposing the parking strategy, her colleague Cllr Karen Shore, cabinet member for environment, told the meeting: “Research shows that parking charges are only weakly related to footfall and that other factors such as access to clean, safe parking is more important. And we also know, for example, that Free after 3 doesn’t increase footfall in the city centre of Chester.
“We plan to introduce better pricing structures and special offers that will not only replace Free after 3 but with better offers that are more attractive to people and are designed to increase dwell time and appeal to a wider range of people while also managing a more steady flow of traffic and relieving congestion and pollution.”
Deputy Tory group leader Cllr Margaret Parker hit back saying there was no business plan and no time-line for when extra car parking capacity could be expected in places like Cuddington , Hartford, Helsby and Frodsham .
She asked: “Being cynical, is it just about air quality and getting more money into Chester’s car parking revenue?”
Warning the council could be putting retail schemes like Northgate in Chester and Baron’s Quay in Northwich in jeopardy, she added: “Where is the timetable for the action plan? This is a time of uncertainty with Brexit looming and many businesses are nervous and a lack of a timetable fuels that uncertainty. National retailers will wait to see how things pan out before committing to places like Chester and Northwich.”
Talking about the loss of Free after 3, introduced in 2008 under her leadership at the defunct city council, Cllr Parker said: ”Free after 3 was and has been very successful. Why try to mend something that isn’t broken?
“Market traders and many retailers are struggling now, therefore I urge you to retain Free after 3 or I fear you will see many businesses cease to trade as residents and visitors will flock to Broughton, Cheshire Oaks and the Trafford Centre.”