Harrogate's local authorities and the town's bus company have responded with alarm to a new campaign by 30 of leading independent shops for free parking to save the town centre.
Last week some of the town’s best-known and most exclusive shops, the traders’ online petition to scrap parking charges in key streets for the town’s struggling retail sector is already heading for 1,400 signatures in just over a week.
Free parking idea: Petition support is growing
The move followed a recent 'summit' between Harrogate BID (Business Improvement District) and senior representatives from North Yorkshire County Council in response to a survey on parking amongst town centre traders.
The results showed 70 per cent of responders said they felt the “high” charges were a concern to their business.
But, while support for the campaign among Harrogate businesses had been growing, the reaction elsewhere has been negative.
Free parking idea: What North Yorkshire Council says
North Yorkshire County Council, which generates an annual surplus of around £3m in North Yorkshire from on-street parking charges, has reacted badly to the idea, saying it had a statutory duty to reduce traffic congestion, not increase car use.
Coun Don Mackenzie, the county council’s executive member for transport and access, dismissed the idea that Harrogate town centre lacked free parking and argued the facts showed the internet was more of a factor in the state of the retail sector than parking charges.
He said: “There are already thousands of free disc parking spaces for up to three hours on streets within a short walk.
"Costs for parking for up to three hours in premium spaces in the centre of Harrogate are very reasonably priced compared to Leeds or York.”
David Kirkpatrick from North Yorkshire County Council said the authority had a statutory duty to reduce congestion and the number and severity of collisions on its highway network, and a significant part in achieving this was by having a robust parking management strategy and operation.
He added that whereas the county council was responsible for on-street parking only, off-street parking came under the remit of respective district councils such as Harrogate Borough Council.
Free parking idea: What Harrogate Borough Council says
Harrogate Borough Council said it, too, didn’t think free parking was the answer when the real problem was rates, rents and the internet.
Coun Phil Ireland, cabinet member for sustainable transport, said: “Landlords increasing rents, business rates, online shopping, home delivery and, ultimately, changing consumer behaviour have all combined to create a perfect storm.
“In Harrogate, drivers can already park, for free, in streets a short walk from the town centre.
“We also offer very competitively priced parking in Victoria car park, enabling shoppers to reach the main retailers completely under cover.
“There’s no evidence to suggest more people flood into town centres when free parking is offered. It may actually have the opposite effect.
“If the Harrogate BID wishes to dedicate some the funds raised from the supplementary business rates levy to subsidise parking, we would be happy to listen to any proposal it has.”
Free parking idea: What Harrogate Bus Company says
Harrogate Bus Company has also come out against more free parking, complaining it would be a blow for traffic congestion and air pollution.
Alex Hornby, chief executive of The Harrogate Bus Company said: “As a Harrogate town centre business, we’re proud of the contribution we make to improving air quality for everyone. Just one of our low emission double-deck buses on the 36 can take up to 70 cars off the road.
“Offering free car parking in Harrogate town centre risks increasing the town’s already significant traffic congestion, including around the bus station which is used by thousands of people every day. It would also affect the reliability of our services, making the bus less attractive and adding to the number of people choosing to drive into town instead, leading to poorer air quality for everyone.
“If we are to cut greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change, we must break away from the spiral of increasing car use, especially in our towns and cities.
"The success of our ‘Sunday Freeway’ free electric buses in attracting 70 per cent more customers clearly shows it is possible to give people something for free, while benefiting Harrogate’s shops and businesses by boosting footfall in the town centre.
“The encouraging support for our free Sunday buses from The Spirit of Harrogate, owners of the world-famous Slingsby Gin, shows Harrogate doesn’t simply have to put up with rising congestion and air pollution caused by ever more cars coming into our town centre.”