Leighton Buzzard businesses worried planned parking fee increase risks 'driving away' shoppers

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'How can a council think it is completely reasonable to take away free parking, then increase the cost to visit your High Street?'

Leighton Buzzard businesses are urging Central Beds Council to think carefully about hiking up car park prices, which some feel is a "kick in the teeth" to both townsfolk and traders.

A collection of views were put forward to CBC Councillor Carole Hegley, Andrew Selous MP, and two town councillors during a meeting in Costa Coffee in the town centre on Friday, where businesses raised their concerns about shoppers being "driven away" if the price increase goes ahead.

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A number of local entrepreneurs argued that the council should either offer one hour free parking in the car parks, and keep the high street pedestrianised - "with allowances for disabled parking, buses and time specific loading/unloading" - or open the High Street back up to allow customers to park for 30 minutes free of charge once again.

Market Cross. Photo: Jane Russell.Market Cross. Photo: Jane Russell.
Market Cross. Photo: Jane Russell.

One local businessman told the LBO: "When I first read about the parking charges being increased and that this was supported by Conservative councillors my first instinct was to reach out to Andrew Selous and question this stance. How can a council think it is completely reasonable to take away free parking, then increase the cost to visit your High Street, all the while claiming that they want to encourage people to shop local and support small businesses, yet on the edge of town the corporations have the benefits of free parking?"

Mr Selous said: "It was very good to be able to listen to the experiences of shopkeepers at length in the High Street on Friday morning. One of the shopkeepers had seen a significant drop in takings since pedestrianisation was brought in. I want to gather the experience of more shopkeepers to see if there is a collective view and will work with Central Bedfordshire Council and the Town Council to get increased footfall in the High Street looking at both parking and bus issues.”

Concerns were also raised about pedestrianisation, including that there is a "constant flow" of lorries, taxis, and delivery drivers through the High Street, despite residents not being able drive through the town centre or take up 'click and collect' offers during lockdown. It was argued that the amount of traffic meant that pedestrianisation made little difference to air pollution levels.

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It was also felt that elderly or less mobile shoppers were feeling cut off because the buses no longer drive through the High Street and alternative drop offs are too far for them to walk.

Commenting on the potential parking price increase, one businessman added: "People are saying on social media that they would rather travel to MK retail parks /Bletchley town centre as it is free parking."

Retailers represented at the meeting concluded that if CBC is going to increase the parking it "must re-open the high street", so that there is "easy access for those wanting to just nip into town without having to pay a charge" and so buses can return. However, if pedestrianisation remains, it was argued that parking charges should not increase.

However, CBC has stated that the parking increase is needed to fund services such as support for vulnerable adults and children, which are "costly and "under increasing demand".

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Cllr Hegley said: "I think the informal meeting went well and I joined our MP, Andrew Selous, and two local councillors to listen to concerns raised by some local retailers. I explained what was being proposed by CBC in terms of parking increases and that there will be a 12-week public consultation. I encouraged the retailers present to ask residents and businesses to complete the consultation when available. We have had similar concerns expressed about parking charge increases in Dunstable town centre.

"Likewise they mentioned the high street pedestrianisation and similarly I encouraged them to ask residents and businesses to complete that consultation when available. I said I would enquire when this is likely to start and update those present accordingly."

A Central Bedfordshire Council spokeswoman said: “We understand residents and businesses will be concerned about increases to car parking charges and the potential impact on businesses and the vibrancy of local town centres. The economic success of a local area cannot only be attributed to the cost of car parking. Other issues such as availability of public transport, level of car ownership in the local population, changes in shopping behaviour are also important factors.

“Although we are proposing to increase some public car parking charges, mostly by 50 pence, we are not proposing to increase charges for market traders, business or employee permits. We also offer an afternoon of free parking in Duncombe Drive car park in Leighton Buzzard which is not changing.

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“We would like to encourage all residents to participate in the consultation and tell us what they think of the proposals and also make suggestions on other options we could consider.

“The consultation is now live on our website, www.centralbedfordshire.gov.uk/consultations. Paper copies of the consultation summary document and questionnaire can be requested by emailing [email protected] or calling 0300 300 8301.”

On the reason why the charges are set to increase, the CBC consultation states: "Some of the services we provide, like services to support vulnerable adults and children, are costly and are under increasing demand. As described above, parking enforcement and residents' parking zones cost more to run than the income received. Any additional funding we make in car parking income, or through efficiencies, goes towards off-setting some of these costs and limits the need to increase Council Tax. We aim to contribute £300,000 to our budget from the changes to car parking charges."

What's your view on the proposed parking fee hike and the impact of pedestrianisation? Email [email protected]