BUSINESS leaders have described Wiltshire Council claims that increases in car parking charges are not to blame for a decline in trade as an ‘insult’.

A report prepared for Wiltshire councillors suggests that it is in fact the businesses in west Wiltshire’s towns that are to blame, and not the increases in charges.

The conclusion has been branded “an insult to hard-working businesses” by David Baker, president of Trowbridge Chamber of Commerce, who has challenged the council to introduce free parking in the county town for a week to see the difference in the number of people visiting local businesses.

The report, which looks into the changes introduced in April, claims the number of people parking in council-run car parks was already in decline and that any downturn in trade in Wiltshire’s market towns should be blamed on the selection of businesses on offer.

Mr Baker said: “It beggars belief that the council are blaming local businesses for the decline that we are seeing in our towns. No-one denies that the recession has played a big part but this latest report is an insult to hard-working businesses.

“I challenge the council to make car parking in Trowbridge free for just one week. Then we can see just what a difference it makes.”

Wiltshire Council is citing the number of tickets sold in on and off-street parking sites countywide year-on-year, saying annual ticket sales had declined from 4,274,523 in April 2009-March 2010 to 4,038,743 in the period April 2010-March 2011.

In the report, to be discussed at a cabinet meeting next Tuesday, Mark Boden, corporate director for neighbourhood and planning, said: “The findings of wider research are that it is what a town has to offer is the primary factor affecting economic health, and not parking charges.

“Neighbouring local authorities are also reporting a decline in car park usage and/or an income shortfall. A large number of authorities have either brought in increased parking charges or are considering such a move. A few have reduced their charges, with limited and mixed results.”

Hayley Spencer, who runs Komix comic bookstore in Melksham, said: “There are less people in town, and the council can attribute that to whatever they like but on a Saturday morning in the Church Street car park you’d be queuing for a space at 9.30am, that was back when it was free for the first hour. Now you can wander through and it’s half empty.”

Graham Ellis, president of Melksham Chamber of Commerce, said: “The car parking charges have certainly not helped town centre traders. Obviously the town centre has to look to its future and businesses will always come and go, but for Wiltshire Council to blame the town centre traders is slightly disingenuous.”

Westbury Chamber of Commerce president David Jenkins said: “This is a very disappointing report, but it doesn’t surprise me that this is what they have come out with. When I speak to retailers around the town, the main issue which comes up is parking.”

Wiltshire Council leader Jane Scott, meanwhile, has not ruled out a U-turn on the charges at a full meeting of councillors on November 8.