Communities secretary Eric Pickles spent yesterday in Wiltshire supporting Chippenham’s Conservative candidate launch a campaign to get free parking for the town centre.
Michelle Donelan, who will stand against Liberal Democrat Duncan Hames in next year’s general election, is surveying 8,000 homes in Chippenham to find out if people would shop more in the town centre if they could park there for 30 minutes for free, after shoppers had told her time after time that they were deterred by parking charges.
An hour’s free parking was removed from county car parks three years ago by a Conservative-led Wiltshire Council.
Miss Donelan denied this had been a mistake, despite saying: “At the moment the parking charges are strangling out high street. We need to bring back the life blood and make them [town centres] into hubs again.”
She said: “It’s about listening and trying different things. Nobody ever knows anything until they listen and try, and the reason why I’m doing this survey is... to get a better picture.”
Miss Donelan said the decision to remove the free hour had been taken because the revenue would subsidise local bus services, but denied that public transport would suffer if charges were reduced.
“We’re looking at a few options,” she said. “The idea is that this would only be done if it’s going to bring more money into the town centre.
"The idea is it might be a money generator rather than a take away.”
Secretary of State Mr Pickles, who told Parliament in October that expensive car parking was “cutting off the nose to spite the face, because the more you get into the town centre, the more prosperous it becomes”, said yesterday it was “enormously important” to protect the sense of home a thriving town centre can create.
“Using a town centre is about more than just shopping, it is about keeping your community alive,” he said.
“We need to really start recognising that councils, be they unitary or town councils, need to start taking responsibility and it is not all about raking in money it’s about trying to ensure that your community has a bit of an edge.
“The smart ones will do reductions at certain times of the day or at weekends. If we don’t do that then town centres start to die and to wither and that does matter because you need places to meet to see your neighbour and friends to be part of the community.”
He said it was not possible for Chippenham to compete with out-of-town retail parks or the internet and so had to offer something different.
“It isn’t about the big names; the things that really get people going is a really good bespoke local shop, they’ll travel a long way for that,” he said.
Miss Donelan suggested Bradford on Avon as a model and Mr Pickles said that in his constituency of Brentwood in Essex, free parking had helped the Conservatives to take over the council, after years of Liberal Democrat control.
“We found it made a heck of a difference,” he said.
He said councils that did not offer 30 minutes free parking were “failing in their duty” and he had discussed the issue with Wiltshire Council leader Jane Scott for the first time the night before.
Under her leadership in April 2011 the council put up prices in its car parks and ended a one-hour free parking tariff, which left traders complaining about its effect on footfall.
It made the council £4.9m profit in the following year, the 23rd highest figure for a local authority out of 359 nationally.
When asked if Coun Scott appreciated his intervention, Mr Pickles said: “She seemed delighted. Her response was very positive, she was very interested in the survey, very open to listening.”
They were to have dinner together in Chippenham with other members of the Conservative Party last night.
Neither he or Miss Donelan had approached Chippenham MP Duncan Hames about the proposal.
A petition that Wiltshire Council should levy a charge on supermarkets in Wiltshire to reduce car parking charges in its market towns was launched last year by Trowbridge councillor Jeff Osborn and Melksham councillor Terry Chivers, who are both independent. It has been signed by 288 people.