FORMAL RESPONSE TO CHESHIRE WEST AND CHESTER COUNCIL PARKING STRATEGY CONSULTATION ON BEHALF OF CH1CHESTERBID DIRECTORS/MEMBERS.

I am writing to you on behalf of the Directors and Members of CH1ChesterBID in relation to Cheshire West and Chester Council’s formal Parking Strategy Consultation.

Firstly, we’d like to commend the Council for its efforts to put car parking firmly in the spotlight in Chester and across the wider Cheshire West region. It is an issue of huge significance, not only to the Cheshire public and to city centre visitors, but also to the businesses – both big and small, including our own Members – who ensure our urban centres of commerce continue to thrive and succeed.

We take on good faith the Council’s commitment to consider fully the responses of people across Cheshire, as well as the region’s businesses and we would hope that this consultation follows in the spirit of the Government’s consultation principles. We believe that it is critical that all feedback, both positive and constructive, helps inform and, most importantly, influences and shapes a Parking Strategy that works for Chester and the wider region, that works to the economic benefit of all and that works for the millions of people who visit, shop and enjoy our region.

Background context

For background, CH1ChesterBID is the Business Improvement District (BID) for Chester city centre. It is a business-led, business-funded body created to improve a defined commercial area. In June 2014, hundreds of businesses voted in favour of plans to create a BID in Chester and on September 1st 2014, CH1ChesterBID Company started a five year-term with the intention of delivering a more vibrant and successful trading environment for Chester city centre. Delivering this is central to all our objectives and activities, and we appreciate it is also something of importance to Cheshire West and Chester Council.

There are more than 500 businesses in Chester’s BID area with a rateable value of more than £18,000. Each of these contribute a levy equal to 1% of their business rates every year to fund a wide range of improvements identified by the businesses themselves. We also have a number of voluntary members who contribute to the annual levy. It is expected that approximately £2.5million of private sector funds will be generated over the five-year BID term and this money is being reinvested back into the city centre.

Therefore, we believe, hope and expect that the voices of our Members will be taken into account as part of this critically important Parking Strategy consultation.

City centre high street facing strong competition

Many Chester city centre retailers, bars, cafes, restaurants and businesses are facing tough opposition from external factors in order to survive and thrive.  The impact that the continued growth of internet shopping is having on the high street cannot be underestimated; in addition increased competition from out of town shopping centres (such as nearby Broughton or Cheshire Oaks which we understand is being given a green light for a significant expansion) offering free parking facilities; and the ever-increasing city centre rents and rates which can prove to be a barrier or a burden to independent shop owners, are all challenges being faced by our Members.

Since its inception in 2014, CH1ChesterBID has worked tirelessly to drive footfall into Chester city centre through a whole range of projects and initiatives. It is with great pride that those efforts are paying off with a steady year on year increase in the numbers visiting the city. Today however, consumers are better informed than ever before, they have more choice and convenience and it is important that our overall shopping and visitor experience is both an attractive and appealing option.

More often than not it is the smaller, independent businesses that are hit hardest when local policies change and the pressures faced by many in Chester are ever-growing.  Many smaller businesses tell me they are very concerned for the future and never more have the challenges faced by businesses been more apparent than on Frodsham Street. Nearly eight months of disruption caused by the ongoing road works has driven some businesses to the brink of closure after a lost summer and Christmas. Many are proud, longstanding businesses of Chester and It will take some businesses years to recover; therefore, we must all support pro-business initiatives at every opportunity, this includes adopting a business-friendly parking strategy that encourages consumers to choose Chester.

Footfall, however, is only part of the story as it is sales that sustain our businesses and some of our Members tell us sales do not reflect the increases we are seeing in footfall.  This discrepancy is not just experienced by our smaller, independent traders but also by our larger retailers. While a store losing customers due to a negative local parking strategy may not drive a large multi-national retailer out of businesses it may force them to leave Chester.  This scenario is a real possibility for several our long established high street names who employ hundreds of local staff and generate millions of pounds for the local economy.  How many closures on the scale of BHS could the city take?

To succeed, Chester needs a healthy balance of large retailer’s that consumers expect to see on every high street mixed with the small independent businesses that make Chester unique. To achieve this vision, we need to create an environment that is welcoming to the modern consumer who expects a space to be clean, safe and convenient and it is this convenience that a pro-business parking strategy can deliver.

The economic benefits of a thriving and attractive city centre – particularly here in Chester – cannot and should not be understated. When you consider the investments, the Council is itself making in the city, with projects such as the Chester Northgate Scheme and Storyhouse for example and with devolution on the local agenda it is important we collectively find ways to support stronger, more attractive day and night time economies for Chester.

Our Parking Strategy consultation approach

We know from the various informal and formal feedback channels we’ve had since CH1ChesterBID’s inception, that parking is one of the biggest issues for city visitors, residents and BID Members.

However, in order for us to formally capture this feedback during the consultation period we embarked on a robust and wide-ranging consultation process.

Over the last few weeks we have:

Phase 1: Surveyed our CH1ChesterBID consumer database for feedback.

Phase 2: Contacted all our 500 plus CH1ChesterBID Members for feedback.

Phase 3: Brokered a well-attended Q&A session to enable our Members to have direct access to the Council’s parking team.

Phase 4: Are submitting a consultation response outlining a collective feedback we’ve garnered as part of the process (contained in this letter).

Consultation feedback – An overview

Car parking has been – and continues to be – a key priority for CH1ChesterBID and its Members. In the CH1ChesterBID business plan we set out the following objectives:

To develop and design marketing materials and communications that educate people about car parking options and improve perceptions, and;
To work with all car park owners to introduce and maintain a consistent approach to city centre parking

Among the activities we are championing in order to support this, we’ve set out to:

  • Improve car park signage.
  • Champion and promote modern technologies that enable multiple payment car park choices including pay on exit, pay by phone, text, smartphone apps etc.
  • Introduce a CH1ChesterBID Parking Guide for all businesses highlighting car parks, park and ride, operating times, tariffs, parking restrictions in relation to waiting times, loading and unloading etc. (in real time if possible, so city visitors know the cheapest/best places to park and when).
  • Maintain free parking after 3pm to encourage late night shopping incentives.
  • Provide access (where possible) to maps and store directories next to all parking pay stations.

We are pleased that some of these priorities are also shared by the Council in the draft proposals that form part of this consultation and the feedback we’ve received positively reinforces the need for a modern, economically-beneficial and fair parking service that works for residents, businesses and visitors to the borough.

As a member organisation representing the interests of some 500 Chester city centre businesses, we believe that an ongoing commitment to improved quality standards and technology can only benefit the city’s parking offer.

We believe more spaces, better facilities and greater choice is essential in order for our city to flourish.

We believe that accurately measuring the spaces available for disabled people, families with children, motorcycle users and cycle users – and tailoring spaces accordingly – is a sensible approach.

We believe that tackling illegal parking, encouraging increased park and ride, and promoting a range of business-friendly special parking offers are, in essence, important practical steps to support our city offer.

New initiatives to support local and city-based businesses (i.e. ‘Early Bird’, ‘Shopper’s Paradise’, ‘Shop and Dine’, ‘Relax into the Weekend’, ‘Spend and save’, Park and Ride promotions and special offers) are included in the consultation, but feedback from Members (see ‘Free after 3’ section below) showed a degree of concern about how these would complement or impact existing initiatives.

The fact new technology will give the Council much greater scope to provide more flexible parking offers in selected car parks is also welcomed. But it is critical that, if introduced or trialled, these are offers of real value and that they are clear, bold and well marketed in order to support our Members.

Strength of feeling for “FREE after 3”

A Q&A session between BID Members and the Council was held on Thursday 26th January and was very well attended. Representatives from some 30 city centre businesses and BID Members were given the chance to discuss the ongoing Cheshire West and Chester Car Parking Consultation. 

It was clear from that event, and many discussions we have had with businesses over the last few months that businesses, our Members, believe that parking influences a visitor’s decision to come to Chester and they broadly welcome cost effective proposals to encourage more people to use the Council’s city car parks, at peak and off peak times.

However, it was also very clear that there remains a strong depth of feeling for retaining the 'FREE after 3' parking initiative. The majority of our Members believe removing this incentive would have a negative impact on their business and their sales as customers would no longer have the option to park for free in Chester after 3pm. 

We understand one of the original incentives for introducing ‘FREE after 3’ was to give parents, families and city-based workers the opportunity to come into the city after school/work hours to catch up on their shopping or dine. This requirement has not changed.

The Mott Macdonald consultation mentioned that ‘FREE after 3’ showed a peak of usage but this was seen to be negative as this contributed to congestion at 5pm. However, our Members argued that this demonstrated that the scheme was proving to be a success and the peak indicated that people were taking advantage of the scheme and their businesses benefited from an uplift in sales as a result. This is even more significant as many of our Members highlighted how, prior to the introduction of ‘FREE after 3’, footfall from 3pm onwards had been very low.

One of the key findings from the Mott Macdonald review was that many users of ‘FREE after 3’ undertook short visits of less than an hour. We believe that putting our combined efforts into initiatives that increase the dwell time of consumers should be our priority, not taking away an initiative that our Members and the public consider to be a true city centre convenience.

This need to increase dwell times in the city, especially after 5pm is highlighted in the Council’s own 2017-2018 Chester Growth Partnership Business Plan which states the need to: “Identify, broaden and promote the night-time economy of the city-centre” Key Actions were listed as:

Understand and promote the current post 5pm offering.
Support & encourage new post 5pm activities – both regular and one-off events.

Keeping the existing ‘FREE after 3’ would support the Council’s own ambitions by making visiting Chester an affordable option for consumers who can park for free from mid-afternoon and into the evening.

As touched on earlier in this letter, the increase in footfall which is not reflected in sales experienced by many of our businesses indicates a change in the type of visitor to Chester. Day visitors here to experience the local sights and attractions, while always welcome, don’t necessarily contribute significantly to the bottom line for many of our retailers.  We need to attract back the local shopper, the local resident or worker who calls into Chester for convenience and that an initiative such as ‘FREE after 3’ would appeal to.

At the meeting, many of our Members felt that there was insufficient evidence to justify how a range of new promotional ideas and discounted car parking proposals put forward by the Council, focused on other times of the day, would help their businesses in the same way. More information on this would be welcome.

Separately, within our own independent survey of Chester city centre visitors (188 city visitors completed these surveys), a total of 166 people (88% of respondents) confirmed they had used ‘FREE after 3’ at some point to visit Chester for shopping and 116 respondents (62%) for food and drink – so it is a popular option for many. However, potentially of more significance to us and our Members is that 57.8% of respondents said that the removal of ‘FREE after 3’ would ‘greatly influence’ their decision to visit Chester. More than 30% more said it would ‘influence’ their decision in some way.

As the ‘FREE after 3’ scheme and its benefits are so heavily championed by our Members and appreciated by the public, we would encourage the Council to take seriously the concerns about its withdrawal and to understand that their expectation is that this scheme will be retained in the final Parking Strategy. Our Members are clear that they want to see the range of existing city centre car-parking options enhanced and that means building on successful initiatives like ‘FREE after 3’ that are delivering clear bottom line benefits to a wide range of city centre businesses.

In conclusion

We fully appreciate the challenges Cheshire West and Chester Council faces to ensure consistency and fairness – and budget effectiveness – in its car parking strategy across the borough.  We do however believe there must be a realisation that parking is more than an income stream, it is one of the foundations on which a successful city centre is built and a parking strategy that is developed with and supports the businesses of Chester must be adopted.

We have always championed and supported any steps that positively improve car parking in the city centre and will continue to do so, in particular, higher quality standards, cost effective strategies that support city access and growth and better, more customer-focused technologies.

Cheshire West and Chester Council’s drive to provide a modern, well-informed and fair parking service for all residents, businesses and visitors to the borough is welcomed. We hope by creating a strong city parking offer in the public sector, it will encourage the private sector owners of other car parking facilities to follow suit and take steps to find smarter, better and more cost-effective ways to support our city.

Finally, we hope our contribution to the debate and discussion – but more critically the shaping of strategy itself – is fully considered as part of this wide ranging and in depth consultation for the region’s new Parking Strategy.

Yours faithfully,

 

Carl Critchlow

CH1ChesterBID Manager 

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