Leighton Buzzard town centre 'at a tipping point' as meeting told increased car parking charges 'punish shoppers'

Duncombe Drive car park (Picture: Tony Margiocchi)Duncombe Drive car park (Picture: Tony Margiocchi)
Duncombe Drive car park (Picture: Tony Margiocchi)
But council leader says High Street shopping faces 'deeper problem' than a 10p increase on parking charges

Leighton Buzzard town centre is “holding on for now, but at a real tipping point”, a meeting heard.

Increased parking charges from January would undermine any progress made since the pandemic, Central Bedfordshire Council’s executive was warned.

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Independent Aspley and Woburn councillor John Baker said: “The predicted figure is 6.1 per cent, but 6.8 per cent could be the right figure.

“In November 2020, the council agreed an inflationary increase to be applied to the fees and charges each year. This was set at two per cent or September’s consumer price index, whichever is larger.”

Conservative Dunstable West councillor Eugene Ghent called for towns to be given more time to recover from the pandemic, warning: “You’ll lose a tonne of revenue by sheer lack of footfall.”

Independent Dunstable East councillor John Gurney said: “It seems to me we’re trying to punish the shoppers. What we’re saying here is ‘Don’t come to the town centre, go shopping somewhere else’.”

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Independent Leighton Linslade West councillor Victoria Harvey said: “A bustling high street is a big attractor to employers and business.

“One of the challenges is the out-of-town retail parks, where people can park for free. CBC is preparing to spend thousands of pounds to make the entrance to Grovebury Retail Park safer because so many residents travel there.

“Leighton Buzzard is holding on at the moment, but it’s at a real tipping point. I would beg for a serious look at this.

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“There’s a need to proactively work with our local groups, such as LB First and the Federation of Small Businesses, on something well targeted which helps local retailers.

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“To have something regular and advertised, whether it’s an hour or two hours, might help save the local businesses, which are the heart of our community.”

Conservative Dunstable Central councillor Carole Hegley referred to “an ongoing sensitivity around parking charges”, adding: “Officers were to be instructed to conduct a full review into residential parking zones and parking.

“That conversation around the vitality and viability of town centre businesses was had. We should read the document ‘Beyond Retail’ which outlines much of this, even to the point of me escorting retail guru of our times Mary Portas, who couldn’t come up with any other suggestions.”

Independent Leighton Linslade West councillor Steve Owen suggested the increase required “further thought” and may not receive full council approval.

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“Why don’t we think about transferring these assets to the town councils of Leighton Buzzard, Houghton Regis and Dunstable?” he asked.

Executive member for finance councillor Baker replied: “There’s ten pence on an hour’s parking and for two hours. I don’t believe 10p more will stop shoppers or make them drive to Milton Keynes instead.

“I haven’t heard a single idea about how we find £100,000 elsewhere in the council budget to pay for the increasing cost of enforcement officers, car park maintenance and road safety schemes. Nobody has said how to reduce expenditure by £1.6m to deliver the free parking everyone wants.

“There’s some free parking in Leighton Buzzard, including short time spaces from CBC, and there’s West Street in Dunstable which has 25 spaces for two hours.”

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Independent Potton councillor Adam Zerny said: “None of the measures to reduce parking elsewhere have revitalised high streets which are struggling.

“We’re facing a deeper problem than a 10p increase on parking charges will solve and that’s a movement away from High Street shopping. It’s very much a generational thing.”

The committee recommended that full council approves the pricing schedule to be applied from January.