Last night at Kettering Borough Council's budget meeting, in response to the issues with Kettering Town Centre, and on behalf of the Labour Group of councillors, I proposed that KBC allow the first two hours of parking free for the next year leading up to the new unitary council. I also suggested that this be paid for by using some of the £3.8m that they have in earmarked reserves for 'Economic Development and Regeneration'.
This is an amount of money they have put aside for years without spending one single penny! This would have made no material change to their budget whatsoever, but would have sent a clear message to the public that they care about the difficulties the town centre is currently facing. In response the Tories voted the idea down, but only after one senior councillor (who until recently was in charge of finance) said that they didn’t have this money and it would require more borrowing. That is not true! It shows that they not only don’t care about the issue, but actually don’t understand their own finances.
My speech proposing the issue is below:
Thank you Mr. Mayor, I’d like to propose the following amendment to the budget, "That KBC offers two hours free car parking in all of its car parks, six days a week for one year as an a emergency measure to support the retail sector in the town centre, in the same way Northampton Borough council do".
Over the last couple of years we have seen some big national retailers leave Kettering along with many small independents. There is no doubt that the retail sector is struggling and although I have been a past critic of the council’s inaction in supporting businesses, I welcome the recent commitment to put in a bid for government funding along with the decision by scrutiny to set up a Task and Finish group to take a look at the whole issue.
There is no doubt that retail is struggling nationally, and many towns similar to ours have the same problems we do, although how they deal with them may be different and we need to find a plan that will help Kettering, although of course we also need to help the A6 towns as well.
I don’t believe that this proposal in itself will cure the town centre’s problems, far from it, and car parking charges need to be looked at along with a whole package of other message. But it won’t hurt! And it would be a good start!
It will send a clear message to retailers, and the public that council is taking the current situation seriously and is prepared to take emergency measures.
There will be a cost for this proposal, and a big one!
Offering the first two hours of parking free will mean a loss in income to the council of something like £390,000, although actually I would hope it would turn out to be far less and why I would therefore recommend a review of the year-long emergency measure after nine months, so we can assess the results, a loss of income certainly, but hopefully also a large increase in town centre foot fall and a subsequent rise in business for our retailers.
At the time of this review of course we will be in detailed discussions with our neighbours about the new North Northamptonshire Unitary Council, and presumably car parking harmonisation will be a very important part of that, and remember those discussions will be with councillors from Corby, who traditionally charge their shoppers much less than we do, and Wellingborough that has free parking!
I would hope therefore that at the end of this one year emergency measure, the shadow authority will intend to bring in plans to reduce car parking charges from the current rates in Kettering anyway.
If accepted, the funding for this proposal will come from reserves. This council currently has £23m of reserves! And part of that total is a pot of earmarked reserves for ‘Economic Development and Regeneration’ which currently amounts to £3.8m.
That money has sat there doing nothing for years! Not one penny of it has ever been spent on Economic Development and Regeneration in all the time I’ve been a councillor.
What are you waiting to spend in on? Look at the high street! Listen to retailers; listen to the public who see our shopping centre is dying! If there has ever been a time for economic development, that time is now!
Please support this amendment to the budget, it won’t make a material change to it, and won’t alter your revenue position by one penny, but it will send a clear message to the public that actually this council can act when it needs to!