Stop parking charges this Christmas weekend to help save our High Street shops: Andrew Vine

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I SHUDDER to think how much petrol I wasted touring the centre of Leeds looking for a car parking space at the weekend.

The fact that most of the council-owned car parks closest to the shops have either been built on, or are in the process of being developed didn’t help, nor do the exorbitant charges of privately-run multi-storeys.

Could suspending parking charges encourage more people into town and city centres for their Christmas shopping this weekend? (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Could suspending parking charges encourage more people into town and city centres for their Christmas shopping this weekend? (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Black Friday footfall rises for first time in three years

Am I going to pay them £10 for two hours’ parking, when the council charges £4? No, I’m not. And to those who might suggest catching the bus instead, my retort would be that I had no intention of standing in gale-driven sleet at the stop without a shelter closest to my home awaiting a service not noted for its punctuality.

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Of course, it would be much simpler – and possibly cheaper – to do the Christmas shopping online, and have it delivered to the door. But I’m not going to do that either, because I’m a fan of shops and the people who work in them. On a point of principle, none of my shopping has been done online this year, because I want to do something to keep our high streets in business.

So do quite a few of my friends, all of us downhearted at the gaps opening up on shopping parades we’ve known for years. However modest our budgets for Christmas, they’re being spent in the shops. There’s no point anyone wringing their hands and bemoaning the loss of shops and the jobs of those employed by them, only to then log on to Amazon and hammer another nail in the coffin.

And that’s what’s happening. A survey last week found the number of customers visiting shops over the previous month was 4.5 per cent down on the same period last year. Online retailers are choking the life out of our high streets.

Once-familiar names fall one after another – Mothercare and HMV this year – and the ghost of BHS haunts any number of high streets in the large stores that have never been filled since its demise.

The consequences are all too apparent in towns and cities across Yorkshire. In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed what seem to be increasing numbers of empty premises in Bradford, Huddersfield, Wakefield, Halifax and Rotherham, or streets where there is little apart from fast-food takeaways, charity shops and those unlocking mobile phones.

They’re just the places I happened to have visited. Anyone who has been elsewhere will have a similar tale to tell, of streets gradually sinking into dilapidation, with few potential customers around because there is nothing to attract them.

If this trend continues, in a few years’ time parts of our town and city centres – outside newly-developed malls built around flagship stores – are going to be grim and desolate places.

Which is where parking comes in. There is a clear conflict between squeezing the number of spaces, or making it expensive to park, and encouraging people to support shops. It’s being done for all the right reasons, to cut pollution and congestion, but it’s having all the wrong consequences. Like it or not, people’s first instinct is to use their cars, and attempts to discourage them are going to put more shops out of business.

Nobody’s attracted by the idea of waiting around for buses in foul weather and then hauling bags of presents on board, when they could dump everything in the boot and be home much more quickly.

At best, a lack of reasonably-priced parking is driving shoppers towards out-of-town retail parks where it’s free, and at worst it’s pushing even more online. Traders know parking is key to their survival, but they can feel that local authorities aren’t helping. A shop owner I know in Ilkley was furious when Bradford Council introduced charges for previously free on-street spaces earlier this year, and that’s understandable.

Government action to cut business rates to help high streets, or measures to make online giants like Amazon pay a fairer share of tax are sorely needed, but will take time to have an effect.

And time isn’t on the side of high streets. So how about those who run car parks, both in the public and private sectors, making a gesture to show solidarity with shops and those who depend on them for their livelihoods?

This weekend, the last before Christmas, is potentially the busiest of the year for retailers. If, just for Saturday and Sunday, parking charges were suspended it would bring a flood of shoppers into town and city centres. Online has its Black Friday, a concerted drive to make people shop. This could be the high street’s equivalent. Who knows, it might just ensure that more shops are still in business this time next year.