There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Is there such a thing as free parking? Well of course there is. In Silverhill, Ore Village or Central St Leonards where the shops are very much local small businesses. But in every town of our size the main town centre and tourist areas are charged.
If the town centre wasn’t charged and controlled the parking spaces would be filled all day by people who work in the town centre or by commuters – there would be no room for shoppers or visitors. It would be the worst possible result for shops big and small.
The whole theory of parking is to encourage drivers to come to the town centre to combine a number of activities in the same visit, rather than keep coming back, costing them petrol for each task. So you come to town to go to the bank, look round the shops, visit the hair dresser and have a coffee all in one trip and park in an off-street car park for a couple of hours to do it all.
If you really need to nip to town for a single activity, like picking up a prescription or paying in a cheque, and want to park for 20 or 30 minutes then you park on the streets and pay at the meters. These meters are the responsibility of East Sussex County Council.
So what about the idea of Hastings Borough Council making the first 30 minutes free in its car parks. I’m not sure it would help the really short-term parker. The walk from a car park back and forth to the chemist might take half the 30 minutes; if you had to queue when you got there you’d be in trouble.
Car parks are for longer staying visitors and businesses want people to stay longer. Cafes don’t want you in town for half an hour, they want you to relax. The shopping centre doesn’t want you for half an hour they want you to wander around the shops. And 30 minutes would definitely not be enough time for parking in a car park, walking to the hairdressers and then having the appointment. It wouldn’t be long enough to enjoy the ice rink as 11,000 people did at Xmas.
The best thing for business prosperity is that we park and then stay in the town centre for longer.
So is the free 30 minutes merely a way round getting cheaper car park charges? If so how do Hastings charges compare to our neighbours. For one hour’s parking Hastings Borough Council’s town centre car parks are 10p more expensive than Eastbourne’s Arndale Centre; but for two hours 20p cheaper.
Of course the truth is no-one pays for a three litres of petrol to drive to Eastbourne because the car park charges might be cheaper.
The reason we shop locally or go elsewhere is the quality of what is on offer. We are just about to see a £2 million refurbishment of Priory Meadow including the arrival of a large new, nationally popular store trading on two floors. Hastings town centre has less empty shops than the national average and the number of people going into our shopping centre is holding up well against other places.
So what’s the financial impact of the free 30 minutes idea? If it was introduced in Hastings Borough Council’s car parks the loss of income would be equivalent to a 2% rise in the council tax - so I suppose you could take your choice.
For the coming financial year the council is freezing the council tax and freezing its car park charges. In the financial climate when we have lost 50% of our government grant to run the town that is about the best any of us could expect.