Monday Musing: Back to the future?

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David Cameron said before the general election that he wanted councils to invest in their town centres, returning our High Streets back into the vibrant and accessible places they once were – including, advocating free parking.  How far back would he like to go? A return to 2009 or any time between then and 2014 saw the largest fallout in the High Street from the economic crisis.

But let’s not forget that those retailers didn’t fail because there weren’t enough shoppers. There were probably the same amount of people shopping as there always has been, but their shopping habits had changed and they no longer wanted or needed the things that some retailers were offering at the prices they were being offered at.  Woolworths, for example, didn’t fail because of its products, it failed because of its structure, it didn’t evolve and became a retail dinosaur. So isn’t it about time that shoppers stopped being blamed for the high street’s demise? 

According to the Daily Mail, David Cameron said: 'People like to drive into a market town and park. So if you keep charging them it is not surprising that they will go elsewhere.'  So, every town should be a market town and have a Marks & Spencer. Well, if that’s all that’s required…. 

But that doesn’t address the era of the high street that Mr Cameron is perhaps referring to.  According to recent BBC documentary “Back in time for dinner”, our shopping habits have already changed and continue to do so.  It’s not as routine to trek to the supermarket once a week for one big shop - it’s all about top-up shopping every few days.  So if we’re already doing it, we don’t need an incentive, do we?

Perhaps Mr Cameron should look at recent shopping trends before he makes a statement about offering free parking because the danger is that this will increase the amount of traffic to such an extent that no-one can actually park when they get there.  Now, that wouldn’t be a good idea would it?  The shops would soon be complaining that there wasn’t enough parking and the council should do something about it.  And what would that be?  Build another car park?  What with?  Councils are facing a 30% reduction to their budget so the likelihood of anything being built will be pure fantasy.

So it’s evident that we’re already returning to the way we used to shop in the 1950’s. The rise of the mini-supermarket can testify to the growth in this area. But whilst ample free parking exists at out of town retail parks, our high streets and town centres cannot keep up and we can’t return to a vision of yesteryear without taking away millions of cars.  The flipside of government is that it has policies to reduce carbon emissions, encourage public transport, cycling and walking, but car ownership continues to rise every year.

But if like David Cameron says, motorists still want to drive all the way into the town centre and park, there will still need to be charges for that privilege as its these that help provide the funds to keep our streets safe and free from obstruction, protecting spaces for residents or particular groups like disabled people, enabling servicing and deliveries to take place in high streets that would become congested if parking wasn't properly managed.

Free parking costs money and someone needs to pay for it. Will that be you Prime Minister?


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