Business leaders today said supermarkets should be forced to pay a parking levy to help ailing town centre shops survive.
They say the move is the only way to create a level playing field between edge-of-town retail centres – often owned by local councils – which can offer free parking, and high streets where local authorities charge a fee.
While accepting town hall chiefs need parking revenue to help pay for services so cannot scrap them, traders say the system needs to be fairer.
And Blackpool Council bosses today revealed the suggestion was “worth looking into”.
In Blackpool, shoppers can travel to destinations – including Blackpool Retail Park on Squires Gate Lane and Clifton Retail Park in Marton – which boast supermarkets and stores such as Argos, Next and Matalan.
Steve Pye, chairman of the Blackpool branch of the Federation of Small Business (FSB), said: “Supermarkets have free parking whereas councils have to charge in town centres. But why don’t councils have free parking in town centres, and charge the likes of Asda and Tesco instead?
“The only way to get people into town centres is free parking. People would rather drive all the way to the Trafford Centre and pay £20 for petrol than pay a couple of pounds to park here.
“Councils should be able to impose a levy which somehow goes back into council coffers to pay for free town centre parking and create a level playing field.”
The idea has been backed by John Allen, national vice-chairman of the FSB, whose headquarters are in Blackpool. Mr Allen said: “Out of town supermarkets only pay non-domestic rates on their premises, which is the sale area. The whole of the car parking area does not generate rates at all. The idea is councils raise non-domestic rates on the parking areas as well with the money used to supplement the town centre.”
Coun Fred Jackson, cabinet member with responsibility for parking on Blackpool Council, said: “It’s a good idea. One of the things you can do with planning is to get companies to pay extra money for parking in other areas. I think it’s worth looking at, but whether it could actually be done is another matter.”
Coun Tony Williams, leader of the Conservatives on Blackpool Council, said: “I understand out-of-town sites are valued as a whole site and tax would be paid on that valuation.
“However the building is considered to be the ‘trading’ unit and therefore this is the prime part of the tax requirement and not the car park.
“Any changes that would suggest placing a levy on companies with free large destination car parks would need Government level policy amendments.”
The Forum of Private Business says scrapping town centre parking charges would reduce the number of empty shops.
Head of policy Alex Jackman added: “High streets are under threat from the likes of out-of-town shopping centres where parking is universally free.”
Chris Atherton, manager of Calendar Club on Church Street in Blackpool, said customers mention parking as a barrier to high street shopping. He added: “I think it would help, it would get more people into the town centre. I would support the idea.”
Stephen Lefton, of Nathan and Co Jewellers in Cedar Square, said: “Parking is a big problem in Blackpool, it’s expensive. One has to be realistic, the local authority has to generate as much income as they can. I think it would be better if town centre parking was not charged at certain times of the week.”
Warwick Tunnicliffe, chairman of St John’s and Cedar Square traders association, said: “It would be a big thing for the town centre if they could reduce or abolish the parking charges to help with the recession we’re going through.”