Parking charges in Leighton Buzzard are set to increase following a review of fees by cash-strapped Central Beds Council.
The increases, to be introduced universally across the distict, are set to come into force in January, and would see the cost of parking for 3o minutes rise to 50p (previously 20p), with up to one hour £1 (previously 50p), two hours £1 (£1 or 50p), three hours £2 (£1.50), 10 hours £6.50 (£6), one week £15 (£12.80) and a lost token £8 (£5.50).
Councillors worried about the hikes were able to negotiate keeping the two-hour rate to £1 instead of the originally intended £1.50 at a Central Beds Council overview and scrutiny committee meeting.
There are also plans to introduce new ‘pay on exit’ parking machines from August 2016 as part of the changes which will go before full council at Central Beds on November 19.
But Gennaro Borrelli, chairman of traders’ group LB First, said fees increasing by up to 150% would be a “massive hike” and could hit Leighton town centre hard.
Although Leighton has a retail vacancy rate of 2%, compared to Dunstable at 19% and an average of 7% across Central Beds, Mr Borrelli added: “We should not forget that LB First are working hard with the town council and Central Beds Council to make sure that things do not end up as bad as in Dunstable.
“Things are still finely balanced in Leighton Buzzard. Waterborne Walk is struggling and Savills have not done a particularly good job of marketing that centre. The South Side scheme seems to have come to a grinding halt too.
“It’s about getting the right kind of balance and mix to attract shoppers who will then walk into the high street as well.
“Thankfully we have not too many empty shops. There are only two empty in the High Street and hopefully one of those will be taken soon. But we shouldn’t be complacent, that’s when thing start to slide.”
Mr Borrelli, who owns A Touch of Class hair salon in Bridge Street, said: “Other traders are not happy with the charges. They are already fuming as it is about the chan ges to the multi-storey car park in the run up to the Christmas period.
“We are working to make sure we have a vibrant town centre. All the things we have done are having a good effect.
“At the end of the day it is all about footfall and parking charges are not going to help footfall in any town centre.”
He added: “We have asked CBC for a long time to change to pay on exit and thankfully they have taken that on board.
“But putting up charges is going to put people off a lot. That is one of the things in our favour at the moment compared to Milton Keynes.”
Mr Borrelli said the recent Central Beds parking study had shown the car parks in Leighton to be at full capacity.
He said LB First has been pushing for a new multi-storey car park on the fire station site, as well as the South Side retail and leisure development which would draw more people into town.
The group has also proposed a Free From Three scheme, which would see free parking introduced after 3pm – a time when trade tends to peter out. Mr Borrelli said the idea would “soften the blow” of planned charges and would also spread the load with traffic.
He said: “We appreciate council resources are being squeezed, but it’s how you go about it. They might want to look at varying charges at different times of the day, and this could be a boost at a time when it’s normally quiet.”
“It’s now up to the CBC councillors for the town to argue that case and fight the corner for Leighton Buzzard.”
Asked whether the public would boycott the town for the sake of the extra fees, when it would cost more to drive to Milton Keynes, Mr Borrelli added: “It’s a dangerous game to play. If shoppers go elsewhere it’s hard to win them back again.
A Central Bedfordshire Council spokesperson said: “The proposal to increase car parking charges will be the first in a number of years and bring all Central Bedfordshire Council car park charges to the same level making it consistent across the area.
“The proposed decision to make both 1 hour parking and 2 hour parking £1 is to encourage residents to stay longer in our towns. Duration over two hours will rise moderately but again be consistent across Central Bedfordshire.
“At the same time as considering increasing car parking charges we are also looking at improving technology in our four busiest car parks, this includes ‘pay on exit’ machines which will allow customers to pay for how long they parked rather than having to guess how long they will park there and over paying.”
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