Can parking save the High-Street?

‘Can parking save the high street?’ is a question that has been asked by local authority officers and town councillors ever since Mary Portas first entered the fray as the government’s ‘High Street Tsarina’.

Convenience and fairness

Queen Mary’s idea was to make parking free in the town centre, but the example from Aberystwyth, where the locals had unenforced parking thrust upon them, is enough to discount that as a very bad idea. Cars parked haphazardly soon had the residents of the Welsh town pleading for enforcement measures to be imposed.

However, we do agree with the idea that parking can save the high street. Not in some ‘free for all’, publicity grab by local politicians, but through parking policies that mean space is available for visitors, residents and businesses when and how they need it. Convenience, coupled with fairness, are the key to parking’s impact on the vibrancy of our towns.

A capital idea

One city where the parking policy is integral to the future is in Edinburgh. An organisation – Essential Edinburgh – has been appointed by the city council to make the city centre more appealing to visitors, residents and businesses, and chief executive, Andy Neal, says that parking is part of the thinking.

Anyone who has recently paid a visit to Edinburgh will probably have a few lingering memories, both positive and negative. On the one hand, it is a city redolent with fabulous architecture, fascinating history, lovely restaurants and cafes, inspiring galleries and that impressive castle: on the other hand, it is a nightmare to drive around, it can be impossible to find a parking space, and motorists are sometimes left feeling very unwelcome.

Calling time early

A further factor is that many businesses call time early in the city centre. As the second busiest tourist destination in the UK behind London, the fact that many shops, galleries and even the city’s parks and gardens close at the stroke of five o’clock – no matter whether it is the depths of winter or the highest point of the summer – makes promoting Edinburgh as a cosmopolitan capital a hard sell.

Getting buy-in

Andy’s ideas are simple but require buy-in. Alive after Five is the initiative to encourage businesses to stay open later. It began with a ‘soft sell’. ‘We started by suggesting that shops stayed open longer at Christmas time, but now we are encouraging longer opening hours in the summer months as well.’

To entice shoppers to stay in the city centre into the evening, Essential Edinburgh has asked the shops in the area to put money towards making on-street parking cheaper, and in some cases free, in the evenings. The privately-owned multi-storey car parks have also joined in on the act. They offer discounted parking with deals that can be redeemed in the local shops.

Joined up travel

There is a park and ride service that includes the new tram line, so people who want free parking can park on the edge of the city and then take the 20 minute ride into the heart of the city. And in a move to improve the general ambience of the city centre, within five-years an automated underground car park will exist in the Old Town.

All of which shows an attitude towards the motorist that is accepting. Andy’s view is that people often need their cars and, rather than treating motorists as pariahs, they should be catered for in the best way. ‘Someone buying a 40’ television does not want to lug it about on a tram, and we don’t want them shopping in an out-of-town retail park. We need to cater for everyone, including motorists.’

Identifying needs

Research by Andy’s team has identified that visitors and residents want a clean, attractive environment that everyone can access. This doesn’t mean getting rid of the car, and nor does it mean offering motorists free parking all the time. ‘No-one I have spoken to wants or expects free parking. They just want to be able to park at a reasonable price.’

For Edinburgh, this means relatively more expensive parking closer to the shops, to discourage office workers from taking these spaces at 8am and not vacating them until 6pm. Cheaper, or free parking is available to the people who need to be in the city for work, encouraging them to use the trams and buses.

‘Taking an innovative to parking is just part of what we are about. Our mantra always has to be “put the customer at the heart of your thinking”.’